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Using Self-Determination Theory to Increase Your Job Satisfaction… and your Wellbeing

I would say that the majority of clients I work with are looking for ways they can improve their satisfaction and happiness at work. One theory that supports this very effectively is Self-Determination Theory (SDT). For example, research indicates that individuals who have a good level of autonomy are more likely to persist with their actions and subsequently, enhacne performance and feel better overall.


SDT is a psychological framework that emphasises the importance of three core needs:


Autonomy: The need to feel in control of one's own actions and decisions.

Competence: The need to feel effective and capable in one's activities.

Relatedness: The need to feel connected to others and experience a sense of belonging.

Infographic of self-determination theory, showing how the  3 needs of competence, autonomy and relatedness lead to increased motivation, satisfaction, engagement, enhanced performance and improved wellbeing
Self-Determination Theory, adapted from Ryan & Deci, 2017

By addressing these needs, it’s absolutely possible to enhance your job satisfaction and subsequently, your overall wellbeing.


Here’s an overview of the 3 SDT requirements and some practical tips that you may like to try out to make improvements to your work life.


Enhancing Autonomy


1. Seek Out Opportunities for Choice

 - Select Interesting and Meaningful Projects: By seeking out projects or tasks that interest you and align with your strengths, you can increase your engagement and sense of ownership. These projects may even be outside your area of work… I’ve had some clients get involved with employee resource groups, such as mental health, to support this and found that it really did help with taking control and choosing work that’s meaningful to them, and with the added benefit of learning something new.


- Negotiate Flexibility: Even though the requirement to be back in the office is starting to increase, there is plenty of evidence to show that when we integrate flexibility into our work schedule, our productivity and engagement increase; and for your employers, turnover levels are reduced. This evidence can support conversations with your manager about negotiating flexibility, and help you feel more in control of your work-life balance.


2. Take Initiative

   - Set Personal Goals: By clarifying what YOU want from your job – the impact you want to have, the skills you want to develop, and accomplishments you would like to achieve – you can take control of your own direction, with purpose and meaning. I’ve worked with many clients to refine this, even when they have a clear job description and objectives, and it greatly improved their job satisfaction and wellbeing

Considering the 5 elements of Goal Setting Theory (clarity, challenge, commitment, feedback, complexity) has been demonstrated to have the additional effect of increasing positive emotions, performance, productivity, motivation, focus and energy – definitely worth considering when you formulate your goals.


   - Propose New Ideas: Many clients report feeling ‘stuck’ and having lost their passion and motivation at work. One relatively easy way to pull out of this ‘stuckness’, is to think about new ideas or improvements and propose them to your manager. By taking initiative, particularly on a topic that is meaningful to you, you can make your work more fulfilling and demonstrate your value to the team.


3. Organise Your Workflow:

   - Optimise your Schedule:  Who doesn’t have back-to-back meetings these days?! By making a few small changes, it’s possible to take back control of your schedule and improve your productivity. What do you really need to have your week to function effectively and maintain your welbeing? Is it, 1 hour lunch breaks, or a 15 minute walk each afternoon, or time for the gym each morning, or when possible scheduling 50 minute meetings instead of 60 to allow for a short break in between… What’s one thing you can change today?


Building Competence


1. Pursue Continuous Learning:

   - Enrol in Online Courses, Attend Workshops: There are countless ways you can undertake affordable learning to keep your skills updated and enhance your competence. Once you’ve defined your personal goals, seek ways in which you can take upskill or learn something new that’s aligned with your objectives. Take advantage of training sessions and workshops offered by your employer; or enrol in online courses relevant to your field. Platforms like Coursera, Udemy, and LinkedIn Learning offer a wide range of subjects, and are very reasonably priced. Also, most employers offer an education budget – when was the last time you checked how much you have available?


2. Seek Feedback:

   - Regular Check-ins: Schedule regular meetings with your supervisor to discuss your performance and areas for improvement. Also, through self-reflection, check in to see where you may not be meeting your own expectations and make a plan to address this.

   - Ask for Input: Actively seek feedback from colleagues and mentors – perhaps your employer has this as part of the performance review process and has tools such as 360 feedback that you can utilise. If not, you could quite easily create a targeted and short survey that you can send to key stakeholders, or even simply ask them in dedicated meetings. Constructive criticism can help you grow and improve.


3. Track Your Progress:

   - Set Measurable Goals: Using a framework such as SMART to set your goals can be very effective in tracking your progress and generating a sense of accomplishment, which has been shown to contribute to wellbeing.

   - Celebrate Achievements: Take the time to recognise, celebrate and savour your accomplishments, no matter how small. This releases dopamine - boosting your confidence and reinforcing a sense of competence. I often share the SAR method of tracking accomplishments with my clients and ask them to commit to a frequency at which they do this, and they ALL report feeling a boost of positive emotions afterwards.


Fostering Relatedness


1. Build Strong Relationships:

   - Connect with Colleagues: Take time to build relationships with your coworkers. This can be as simple as having lunch together, participating in team-building activities or simply asking how they are doing. Obviously this is a little more tricky when working remotely, but arranging online coffee appointments and considering social elements for online meetings can definitely also contribute to strengthening connections

   - Join Networks: many clients share that their employers have resource groups available for different themes such as mental health, D&I topics, etc. By joining and engaging in such networks, you expand your sense of community – any may even lead to supporting with your career progression.


2. Communicate Openly:

   - Share Your Thoughts: When possible, be open, authentic and honest in your communications. Share your ideas, concerns, and successes - and your vulnerability - with your team. This increases the sense of trust and psychological safety, enhancing the work environment for everyone.

   - Listen Actively: Active listening fosters mutual respect and understanding.

Show interest and curiosity in your colleagues’ perspectives and experiences.


3. Support Others:

   - Be Collaborative: Offer help and support to your colleagues – even the smallest offer of support and teamwork can go a very long way in building a supportive work environment and enhance your (and everyone else’s) sense of belonging.

   - Recognise Contributions: Acknowledge and appreciate the contributions of others. A warm acknowledgement can foster a positive and inclusive workplace culture, and could even simply make someone’s day.



In conclusion, by actively applying the principles of Self-Determination Theory, you can take proactive steps to enhance your job satisfaction. Focus on increasing your autonomy, building your competence, and fostering meaningful relationships at work. These efforts can lead to a more fulfilling and satisfying work experience, ultimately contributing to your overall happiness and well-being.


If you’d like my help with clarifying what autonomy, competence and relatedness mean to you, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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