3 Psychological Needs Leaders Must Address to Create an Engaging Work Environment

Funny image of businessman chased with carrotA workplace can facilitate, foster, and enable flourishing, or it can disrupt, thwart, and impede it, says motivation expert Susan Fowler in a cover story for Personal Excellence magazine.

In Fowler’s experience, the motivation practices used in many organizations have undermined engagement more often than they have engaged employees. Fortunately the new science of motivation has identified three psychological needs—Autonomy, Relatedness, and Competence—that can help managers create the type of environment where employees thrive.

Autonomy.  Diverse studies over the past 20 years indicate that adults have a psychological need for autonomy. For example, productivity increases significantly among blue-collar workers in manufacturing plants when they are given the ability to stop the production line. Similarly, the productivity of white-collar workers in banking firms has been shown to increase in workers who report a high sense of autonomy.

Autonomy doesn’t mean that managers are permissive or hands-off, but rather that employees feel they have influence in the workplace. Empowerment may be often considered a cliché, but if people don’t have a sense of empowerment, their sense of autonomy suffers, and so does their productivity and performance.

Relatedness. Relatedness is the very human need to care about—and be cared about, by others. As Fowler explains, “It is our need to feel connected to others without concerns about ulterior motives. It is our need to feel that we are contributing to something greater than ourselves.”

Fowler encourages leaders to help their people find meaning, social purpose, and experience healthy interpersonal relationships at work.

“Beliefs such as, ‘It’s not personal; it’s just business’ diminish an aspect of work that is essential to our healthy functioning as human beings—the quality of our relationships” says Fowler.  She reminds managers that applying pressure to perform without regard for how that makes people feel actually limits performance.

Competence. People are naturally motivated to learn, but managers often undermine employees’ desire to grow and learn new skills by assuming that people need to be incentivized to learn—either through rewards or punishment.

As a leader Fowler suggests seeing learning and growth in a new light by asking about, and providing opportunities, for people to grow and develop. “What did you achieve today?” What did you learn today?” How did you grow?” are great questions to ask when combined with opportunities to use strengths and develop new skills.

Create an Engaging Environment

In closing her article, Fowler stresses that it is a mistake to think that people are not motivated. In her experience, they are simply longing for needs they cannot name. The greatest thing a leader can do is create an environment that allows people to satisfy these needs, grow, enjoy their work, and build lasting relationships.

You can read Fowler’s complete article in the September issue of Personal ExcellenceWhy Motivating People Doesn't Work.. and What Does Book Cover.

Also be sure to check out the website of her new book, Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work…and What Does, which is available for presale now and will be available in bookstores on October 4. You’ll find great resources for leaders–and you can download a free chapter to learn more!

11 thoughts on “3 Psychological Needs Leaders Must Address to Create an Engaging Work Environment

  1. This is a must-read for leaders. I am amazed that so many leaders don’t understand this and wonder why they have such a high turnover rate or low morale amongst their employees – 2 signs of poor leadership.

    • Hi David–thanks for your comment. It will probably take time for leaders to begin adopting new habits when it comes to creating motivating work environments. “Carrot and stick” thinking has been in place for quite awhile. I’m hoping that the focus on Intrinsic motivators will move from the awareness stage we are in currently to a more action-oriented stage in the future. There is no reason we have to settle for less. Work can be motivating with a little bit of effort in the right direction.

  2. Hi David, I will be interested to read the book to see what Susan has to say above what Daniel Pink says in Drive where he talks about Autonomy, Mastery & Purpose. It’s certainly an area that I see as being critical for all Leaders these days to focus on! Unfortunately I see too many believing that pay rises = motivation and are unable to differentiate between Intrinsic & extrinsic motivation (even when they can see their current method of ‘motivation’ is not working (as highlighted by David Good above)!

    • Hi Nigel–be sure to check out the 30-page excerpt from Susan’s book that is available from the link at the end of the post. You’ll see where Susan discusses the work of Daniel Pink, Alfie Kohn, and researchers Edward Deci and Richard Ryan. While extrinsic motivators still seem to rule the day when it comes to motivation at work right now, it does feel like there is a change in the air. With all of the focus on happiness, well-being, and intrinsic motivators, we might finally be seeing a shift toward the deeper, sustainable motivators that lead to long-term, self-directed motivation. We’ll see!

  3. Hello David,
    John Buckley here. Good post and information. Relatedness is kin to Maslow’s sense of belonging. People desire to be needed, loved and connected with those they share commonality with in their world. I wrote a post on these concepts that you might want to take a look at later. I talk about the 3 innate human needs that every person has: The Need to Believe, The Need to Belong, & The Need to Become. Pretty powerful and useful to know these when we area in the people business. Reblogging this post for others to see. -John

    • Hi John–just read your post–thanks for sharing this with your audience. I’m glad to see all of the synergy around this topic. I’m hopeful that our combined voices will start to “move the needle” on the way managers seek to create motivating work environments for their people. Taking a look at psychological needs is a great next step to help us refine (or better understand) the carrot-and-stick thinking of the past.

  4. Wow: these three qualities even apply to today’s take on health care: Autonomy to own our own health, make wiser self-care and preventive decisions from the start; Competence in learning more about our health thru credible online sources and other 21st century media; and Relatedness as we connect through our innate spirituality—a growing trend for better health.

    Thanks, David, for winnowing down the list of To Do’s to this simple but profound approach.

    • Hi Cynthia–thanks for adding your voice to our conversation and broadening the applications for Autonomy, Relatedness, and Competence to managing our own individual health. That is a great example we can all relate to. We all strive to be healthy and we all have a wide variety of ways that we motivate ourselves to achieve our goals. Some of us work on our health so we can be independent and live full, rich self-determined lives for as long as possible. Some of us use exercise as a way to spend time with friends engaging in a healthy activity. Some of us like to develop ourselves more fully by improving our own personal strength, flexibility, or endurance. These are all great self-motivators. On the other hand, sometimes we turn to extrinsic self-motivators like rewards, treats, etc. These generally do not work as well long-term. What’s everyone’s experience with managing their health–have you tried intrinsic motivators and extrinsic motivators? Which have worked best? There is a lot to be learned here!


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