Exploring the Links between Coaching and Psychology 5: Using Self-Determination Theory


Last week, the link we explored between coaching and psychology was Self-Determination Theory

. . . a theory of motivation and self-regulation. This week we shall explore using Self-Determination Theory in our coaching practice.

Before we start using Self-Determination Theory we need to be familiar with the basics so here’s a recap . . .

The theory suggests that, in order to experience a sense of wellbeing, we need to have 3 basic needs met; and they are Autonomy, Competence and Relatedness. The theory also suggests that motivation can be intrinsic, ie it comes from within, or extrinsic, ie we are motivated by others. When we are intrinsically motivated we do things for the love of doing them. When we are extrinsically motivated we can either identify with the values of the people around us (identification) or we conform without accepting those values (introjection).

When we are using Self-Determination Theory as a framework, and another tool in our coaching rucksack, it can highlight when our client is experiencing introjected, extrinsic motivation. This is the situation that causes psychological conflict and stress.

Let’s use an imaginary scenario

Natalie has always enjoyed her job. She works in the Human Resources function of a large corporate engineering company and has recently been promoted to Director of HR in one of the divisions of the company. She always anticipated that taking on the role would be tough but she didn’t anticipate the way that she feels about it. She isexpected to be energetic and enthusiastic but now finds herself exhausted by the stress of her new role. That’s why she asked for coaching.

So, let’s take a look at how this might go if we were using Self-Determination Theory

We’ll start at the basic needs and investigate if they are being met.

We could check competence by asking; “What do you have to do now that you didn’t do in your previous role?” and “What extra skills and abilities would be useful in this role?”

In this instance Natalie says that it would help if she could be a bit more assertive with her new boss. With a forced smile she says that “he’s one of the; ‘my-way or the highway’ gang.”

Using Self-Determination Theory to break it down this short snippet of information can tell us lots. It seems like Natalie doesn’t have the autonomy that she has enjoyed in the past and this can be checked, maybe with a direct question; “How would you rate your autonomy in this role?”

To complete the basic needs picture, a check on the relatedness need could be explored with “Tell me a little more about your relationship with your new boss.”

A little more exploration reveals that Natalie doesn’t know what she has in common with her new boss and that she grudgingly does things his way.

So, using Self-Determination Theory, what do you conclude from what you know now about Natalie?

There are lots of conclusions we could come to and here’s mine. Natalie is competent; people don’t get to senior management positions without being so. Natalie isn’t enjoying the autonomy that she had in previous roles and her relatedness need is threatened by the poor quality of her relationship with her boss. It’s also highly likely that her motivation has an introjected flavour to it, hence the stress that she is experiencing.

How do we progress from here?

Here’s where I feel I’m sticking my neck out! If I was Natalie’s coach I would share the Self-Determination Theory framework with her and explore where she thought her basic needs weren’t being met. We could also explore her relationship with her boss and to see where they might share similar values. Remember that introjected motivation can happen when values aren’t shared. It might be useful at this point to do a values exercise with Natalie to make her values explicit and to raise her personal awareness of her own values.

There’s one very important point here.
As a coach, you are helping Natalie simply by being there.
Why is that?

Autonomy support – when we form an effective coaching relationship with our clients we are supporting their autonomy. Even before we set goals and develop action plans a high-quality coaching relationship bolsters their autonomy and improves their sense of relatedness. It is probably one of the reasons why the quality of the coaching relationship (interestingly only from the client’s perspective) is reported as the most important factor in coaching outcomes.

This has been a bit of a sprint and I know that we have only just scratched the surface of a very deep and complex theory. However we can still use it to guide our clients in an exploration of their needs; and what about you? Are your needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness being met? Try it on for size and see how it fits!

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