Self Determination Theory: A framework for coaching

Self Determination Theory (SDT) has come to the fore over the last thirty years as a seminal theory exploring and explaining the core principles of sustainable human motivation (Deci & Ryan, 1985; Ryan & Deci, 2000). In essence SDT argues that all human beings possess positive tendencies towards growth and development that are enhanced by an environment that supports three innate and universal psychological needs:

  • autonomy – having a sense of choice
  • competence - using capabilities to make an impact
  • relatedness – being in community with others

When these basic needs are met, people operate in an environment that not only passively supports, but also actively nourishes human thriving.

Since it is argued that autonomy, competence and relatedness are ‘innate psychological needs’ (Ryan & Deci, 2000, p.70) the theory has relevance across all human performance contexts and therefore provides a broad platform for optimal human functioning – in sport, business, workplace and elsewhere. Indeed a recent paper argues that these ‘innate psychological needs’ as articulated in SDT are important ‘nutriments’ for workplace thriving (Spreitzer & Porath, in press).

If we accept that coaching is “….fundamentally concerned with the enhancement of human functioning achieved through the improvement of cognitive, emotional and/or behavioural self-regulation”

(Spence & Oades, 2011, p.37) then it is clear that SDT, concerned as it is with what enables human beings to thrive, brings a very helpful perspective that can inform good coaching practice.

SDT has relevance to coaching at both a broader theoretical level as well as at a micro ‘session by session’ level. (Spence & Oades, 2011). At the broader theoretical level it can help provide an evidence-based foundational platform from which various other theories and interventions can leverage. For example, using ‘strengths based approaches’ (Biswas-Deiner, 2011; Linley, 2008), a commonly used coaching strategy, can be seen as being anchored within the basic need for competence. Understanding the nuances of SDT can mean that these approaches can be used with greater impact.

At the micro level SDT can potentially influence a wide range of coaching practice strategies and techniques including – introduction to coaching letters, case conceptualisation, goal identification, goal tracking processes, the coaches developing coaching ‘presence’, coach-coachee contact between sessions, coach questioning strategies, coaching session debrief checklists etc. etc. All of these aspects of micro coaching practice can be considered – and refined – in the light of the extent to which they facilitate autonomy, competence and relatedness.

In a recent paper Stone, Deci and Ryan (2008) propose a series of specific managerial practices designed to help build more autonomous motivation in employees. These proposed practices which include such specific actions as, asking open ended questions, active listening, offering choices, providing feedback, would likely appear on any list of effective coaching competencies.

Some further exploration of the ‘relatedness’ dimension of SDT provides a further example of the SDT/coaching ‘connection’.

Extensive research conducted by sociologist Robert Putnam and published in Bowling Alone (2000) outlined the breakdown of ‘social capital’ - the loss of community in the US in the post war period. It could be argued that the recent rise in the popularity of coaching as a learning and development methodology has been influenced by the strong need for people to connect with others in the context of this loss of social capital. A coach provides a socially acceptable way of meeting this relatedness need.

Other commentators (de Haan, 2008) have argued that the relationship between helper and helpee across a range of contexts is the most significant influence on whether that helping relationship is viewed as effective. Deci and Ryan themselves argue that “… intrinsic motivation is more likely to flourish in contexts characterised by a sense of security and relatedness” (Deci &Ryan, 2000, p71).

Along with the identification of innate psychological needs, SDT provides insights into the nature of motivation and in particular suggests that extrinsic motivation (doing things for externally controlled reasons – ‘I have to’) can be influenced towards autonomous motivation (doing things for more freely chosen reasons – 'I like to’) through a process of ‘internalisation’ and ’integration’. When previously unappealing goals and actions have been integrated into a person’s sense of self greater levels of ownership, autonomy and sustainable commitment result. A skilled coach, familiar with these concepts could therefore help build motivation and commitment towards goals helping to ensure higher levels of achievement.

  • Biswas-Diener, R. (2010). Practicing Positive Psychology Coaching: Assessment, activities and strategies for success. Hoboken, John Wiley & Sons.
  • Deci, E.L. & Ryan, R.M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York, Plenum Press.
  • de Haan, E. (2008).Relational coaching: Journeys towards mastering one-to-one learning. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.
  • Gardner, F. & Moore, Z. (2007). Understanding functional and dysfunctional human performance: The integrative model of human performance. In The Psychology of Enhancing Human Performance: The Mindfulness-Acceptance-Commitment (MAC) Approach (pp.3-20). New York: Springer.
  • Linley, A. (2008). Average to A+: Realising strengths in yourself and others. Coventry: CAPP Press.
  • Loehr, J. & Schwartz, T. (2003) The power of full engagement: Managing energy not time is the key to performance health and happiness. NY: NY. Free Press.
  • Putnam. (2000). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. NY: NY. Simon & Schuster.
  • Ryan, R.M. & Deci, E.L. (2000).Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development and well-being. American Psychologist. 55(1), 68-78.
  • Spence, G.B. & Oades, L.G. (2011). Coaching with self-determination in mind: Using theory to advance evidence based coaching practice. International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring. 9 (2), 37-55.
  • Spreitzer, G. & Porath, C. (In press).  Self-determination as nutriment for thriving: Building an integrative model of human growth at work. In, Oxford Handbook of Work Engagement, Motivation, and Self-Determination Theory. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Stone, D.N., Deci, E.L. & Ryan, R.M. (2009). Beyond talk: Creating autonomous motivation through self-determination theory. Journal of General Management. 34, 75-91.

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