Disecting Employee Engagement – Self Determination and Self Efficacy Theories

Self Determination theory (SDT) states that autonomous regulation and therefore employee engagement is based on satisfying basic psychological needs for competence, autonomy and relatedness. Human are inherently motivated to grow and achieve and will fully commit to and engage in uninteresting tasks when their meaning and value is understood[i]. Research shows that lack of satisfaction leads to poorer performance and reduced physical and psychological well-being. (Ryan & Deci, 2000)[ii]  The theory expands beyond the notion of work motivation and embraces a model of multidimensional concepts where the behavioural implications are measured within the framework of in-role performance but also within discretionary and atypical performance.

Competence is the belief that the employee within the organization has the ability to influence important outcomes. Relatedness is the experience of having satisfying and supportive social relationships. Autonomy reflects on the ability of the individual to have a sense of choice and self-determination when completing the task.

Satisfying employee needs for competence, relatedness and autonomy will create enduring sustainable motivation. This model refers to autonomous motivation as it emerges from one’s sense of self and is accompanied by feelings of willingness and engagement. As managers satisfy the core needs of the employees they will realize productivity gains. A six step framework can be followed for creating enduring autonomous motivation:[iii]

  • Ask open questions and invite participation in problem solving
  • Actively listen and acknowledge employee perspectives
  • Offer choices within structure including the clarification of responsibilities
  • Provide sincere, positive feedback that acknowledges initiative and factual non-judgemental feedback about problems
  • Minimize coercive controls such as rewards and comparisons with others
  • Develop talent and share knowledge to ensure competence and autonomy

Since this model is rooted in the actions of another individual, such as a manager or an executive within the company, it is necessary to look at the impact manager self-efficacy and manager effectiveness has on employee engagement within the self-determination theory. A recent meta-analysis conducted by the Gallup Organization showed that the most profitable work units have people doing what they do best, with people they like, and with a strong sense of psychological ownership for the outcomes of their work. (Harter, 1999)[iv] One can interpret that this empirical evidence as a significant predictor of employee engagement and desirable organizational outcomes such as customer satisfaction, retention, productivity and profitability.  The manager is an advocate of the company who would ensure enduring autonomous motivation of his / her work team however he/she must also be empowered and have self-efficacy in order to increase this performance.

Self-efficacy is the manager’s ability to mobilize cognitive resources and courses of action needed to successfully execute a specific task. There is a strong positive relationship that shows the higher a person’s self-efficacy is the more likely he/she is to initiative tasks, sustain effort toward task accomplishment and more likely to persist when problems arise.[v]

Another meta-analysis study by Stajkovic and Luthans(1998a) found an average weighted correlation of 0.38 between self-efficacy and work-related performance which transforms into an impressive 28 percent increase in performance.[vi] The efficacy level of the manager therefore becomes a mediator within relationship of employee engagement. Given that self-efficacy plays such a large role in determining the success of both individual and employee engagement Bandura (1997) suggests how self-efficacy can be increased in four ways:[vii]

  • Enactive mastery – successful experiences
  • Vicarious learning – modeling or training (on the job mentoring program)
  • Social Persuasion – simple verbal persuasions and social support for lower level jobs
  • Physiological / Psychological Arousal – Strategy development for higher level jobs.

By combining the concepts of self-determination and self-efficacy theory one can see a direct connection between both models; each depict cognitive, emotional, physical and ability components to an increase employee engagement.  In the workforce this would translate to differentiating styles of management, different communication styles and cultural organizational values that the company decides to pursue. The notion of “what goes around gets passed down” is echoed through this model as it is a reflection of the impediments that exist in the system. Employee engagement can decrease due to lower self-efficacy when a manager pressured by an organization, and therefore pressures the employees, driving down employee engagement. The opposite is also true, the increased self-efficacy of a manager leads to greater enhancement of their employees engagement and effectiveness. The difference lies in how the individuals overcome the implications of the impediments that are found in both models. Take for example a training opportunity: when managers use educational opportunities as external rewards, employees feel controlled; as a result one should not expect enhanced engagement and performance as it leads to lower self-efficacy. The engagement component will depend on how and why the educational opportunity is offered. Offering opportunities in a manner that promotes personal and professional development will create positive motivational effects, meeting the psychological needs and allowing for vicarious learning. Using opportunities to manipulate employees will backfire. It is important that employee engagement is viewed in terms of an on-going process that requires continued interaction over time in order to generate reciprocal interdependence from the employees (Cropanzano and Mitchell, 2005).[viii] The transformational manager enhances their followers’ daily work engagement, increases self-efficacy, optimism and is an important prerequisite driver of enhancing work environments.[ix]


[i] Stone, D. & Ryan R. M (2009) Beyond talk: Creating Autonomous motivation through self-determination theory. Journal of General Management Vol. 34 No.3 Spring 2009

[ii] Ryan R.M & Deci, E. L (2000) Self-Determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development and well-being. American Psychologists, 55, 68-78

[iii] Stone, D. & Ryan R. M (2009) Beyond talk: Creating Autonomous motivation through self-determination theory. Journal of General Management Vol. 34 No.3 Spring 2009

[iv] Harter, J.K(1999) “Appendix E: The meta-analysis, in Buckingham M. and Coffman C.(Eds).  First, Break All the Rules, Simon and Shuster, New York, NY

[v] Luthans F. & Peterson S. (2001) Employee engagement and manager self-efficacy. Implications for managerial effectiveness and development. Journal of Management Development 21,5.

[vi] Stajkovic, A.D and Luthans F (1998b) “Self-efficacy and work-related performance: a meta-analysis”. Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 24, pp.240-61.

[vii] Bandura A (1997). Self-efficacy: The Exercise and Control. Freeman, New York, N.Y

[viii] Cropanzano R. and Mitchell M.S (2005) Social exchange theory: an interdisciplinary Review, Journal of Management Vol.31 pp.874-900

[ix] Tims, M. Bakker A, Xanthopoulou (2011). Do Transformational Leaders enhance their followers’ daily work engagement? Leadership Quarterly 22(2011) 121-131

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