Exploring the Links between Coaching and Psychology 4: Self-Determination Theory


The next link we are going to explore between coaching and psychology looks at a theory of motivation and self-regulation.

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) attempts to explain the tricky areas of motivation and self-regulation and how they are associated with our sense of wellbeing.

Have you ever started a job or a project that you were really looking forward to, only to find that you didn’t enjoy it?

The quality and source of that motivation, and the effects it can have on our self-regulation, usually shows itself in our behaviour, eg performance at work.

Within Self Determination Theory, motivation is broken down into 2 basic types; intrinsic (internal, or maybe from the heart) and extrinsic (external, such as following a process). When we are intrinsically motivated it means that we do something just for the love of doing it. Extrinsic motivation requires a little more ‘processing.’

Before I continue about motivation there is one other sub-theory within SDT that I think I need to cover. I said it was complex, didn’t I? (If you want to know more then check out selfdeterminationtheory.org) This sub-theory is called Basic Psychological Needs Theory and it states that we won’t feel complete and/or satisfied unless our needs for competence, autonomy and relatedness are met. According to this theory our sense of wellbeing is dependent on these needs . . . I’ll come back to this later.

I needed to mention that because there is interplay between those needs and the motivation we experience. If we don’t feel competent then we might not be motivated and that will show in our behaviour. If our autonomy is supported and we can make our own decisions then we might be very motivated and similarly good relationships with the people around us can be highly motivating too. More later.

When we are intrinsically motivated we do things because we are attracted to them, we do them for fun and those things energise us. Intrinsic motivation can lead to experiences of ‘flow’ where we are fully engaged in the moment and lose track of time. In terms of basic needs intrinsic motivation fosters autonomy and competence.

Is it enough to be successful at something by simply wanting to do it from the heart?

The answer is: very rarely. There is almost always some external influence, factor, norm or culture that we have to either accept, conform to or cope with. Those influences are usually generated by other significant people, ie the social group (eg, the team or organisation) and the individuals within it (eg, your colleagues and bosses).

So, how do we become motivated by external forces?

The answer to this one is ‘internalisation’ and it relates to our inherent capability to engage in uninteresting though important activities and our desire to relate effectively with the people around us. And, you’ve guessed, there is more than one way of internalising an external influence.

The first is termed ‘identification’ and this is where we accept the values, behaviours or activities as our own.

The second, ‘introjection,’ on the other hand, is where we take in a value, or process, or way of doing things that we do not accept as our own.

Both identification and introjection can lead to high levels of motivation, so why worry about the difference?

If we identify with a situation, including its norms and processes, it is highly likely that we will integrate the associated values with our own. This can lead to a sense of completeness and satisfaction. When we identify we maintain a sense of autonomy and relatedness and the two go hand-in-hand.

When we internalise contexts through introjection we don’t integrate the values and it can lead to a feeling of being controlled and pressured. This dis-integration can lead to internal conflict and psychological distress (or just plain old stress) and is likely to be a precursor to burnout.

The likely source of introjection will be significant others and this is likely to negatively affect our sense of relatedness to those people and to the social group.

This adds weight to the saying “People don’t leave jobs, they leave people”

In this case there can be a conflict between autonomy and relatedness. For example, if you want to maintain a good relationship with the boss, or even your co-workers, you might have to do things the way that they want them done. You might know a more efficient way of doing things or you might just have a preference for another way. Do you choose autonomy or relatedness? There is a conflict and the likelihood is that the conflict will distress and stress you.

Next week I shall take a look at how we can apply the principles and concepts in Self Determination Theory to our coaching practice. In the meantime, please continue to look out for where psychology impacts you.

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