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Self-Determination Theory & Support In the Workplace

18th March 2022

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Have you ever experienced that flash of irritation when you’re trying to vent to a friend, colleague or partner about a problem, and they give you practical advice on how to move forward?

Or perhaps you’re more familiar with the unsettling experience of feeling dependent on someone else, as they help you navigate through a tough time, and you struggle to repay them for their well-intentioned help.

Not all support is equal. Sometimes support from others is just what we need - but other times, support falls flat. 

What’s the difference? 

Learning about how to give the best support - especially in the workplace - helps us to develop a stronger emotional intelligence, helping us to better put ourselves in another’s shoes and empathise adequately with their situation. Learning how to better help people helps us forge stronger relationships which improve how we work as a team in the workplace. 

Often, how support is received, depends on how it’s perceived, or its visibility to the recipient. If the recipient is aware that they’re receiving support, then (unsurprisingly) we call that visible support. If not, then it’s invisible. 

Whether that visible or invisible support actually works depends on a myriad of factors, including how the recipient’s motivation to figure things out for themselves and take charge. That’s where self-determination theory comes in.


Self-determination theory

Becoming self-determined is when an individual is able to think for themselves, make confident choices, and manage themselves in life. When we become self-determined, we are effectively in the driver’s seat of our lives and therefore become intrinsically motivated to continue to grow. 

This macro-psychological theory of personality and motivation centres around two underlying assumptions: one, that our internal need for growth drives behaviour, and two, that intrinsic motivation is important. 

Self-determination suggests that we become self-determined when three of our primary needs are fulfilled - our need for competence, connection, and autonomy. These needs are universal, but vary in intensity depending on the context; some will be more important than others at particular times during our lives. 

  1.    1. Competence - the need to be able to control an outcome and experience full mastery.
  2.    2. Relatedness - the need to experience connection and interact with others, the need to care for and be cared for to and by others.
  3.    3. Autonomy - the need to experience overall agency and liberty over our own lives and choices. 

How does this tie into support?

Support between a partner or colleague and the recipient is a delicate thing and often a source of miscommunication or conflict. 

Our relationships become strengthened by giving and receiving support as we rely on our relationships to provide stability and companionship. Supportive relationships are one of the cornerstones of mental health, helping meet our needs for belonging and connection as well as helping facilitate personal growth.

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Whether visible or invisible support is what we need, depends on how our needs are being met for self-determination. Visible support looks like active, direct help - classic supportive behaviour, where we sit and listen, offer advice or problem solve. Invisible support is not recognised as support by the recipient - which may look like doing the dishes, or keeping the house tidy. Invisible support might also be given in conversation, through offering indirect advice by referencing another person who overcame a similar problem. 

Too much visible support can infringe on our need for autonomy and competence. If we spoon-feed people working through a problem, they’ll never learn to solve issues by themselves, and in time, this can impede on their self-esteem. Often, too much visible support creates reliance on the provider, and can even create situations where the recipient feels indebted to the provider. We sometimes need to face the tough times in life to learn to cope and weather the storm alone.

Too much invisible support might infringe on our need for relatedness, and we risk feeling isolated or alone. However, researchers have found that overall, invisible support tends to be the most effective in helping people solve their problems and feel good about themselves. It's useful to remember this, as offering visible support usually feels more natural - sometimes it's better be less direct and give our close friends space.


How can we effectively support each other in the workplace?

First and foremost - being aware of self-determination theory and how it values intrinsic motivation that occurs when our three core needs are met. Figuring out how to ensure that each individual you work with has a means of meeting those needs. 

If you’re a manager or team leader, consider how you can foster skill development and job enrichment for your team members to help meet their needs for competence - feeling like they’re accomplished and good at something. Celebrate their strengths and competence by using their expertise for advice or to teach other colleagues. Provide invisible support and facilitate competence by sharing stories of success and how others have overcome failure and challenges. 

To encourage meeting people’s need for relatedness, schedule regular social catch-ups with the wider team, and focus on developing a strong, friendly culture that cultivates connection and interaction. Make sure that the people you’re working with do receive some visible support when it's clear that they need it. 

Avoid micromanagement by allowing your people to make their own decisions in areas that they’re responsible for, and give them the space to show problem-solving initiative and step up. Allowing your team enough control over their work helps to meet their need for autonomy and communicates that you trust them enough to do the job well. This is a form of indirect support in the workplace.


Final words:

Support is not always obvious. While we might think that being supportive is one of the easier elements of a workplace relationship, that’s not always the case - and your display of support might not always be acknowledged or appreciated. 

Understanding why different forms of support can either be effective or fall flat is incredibly useful to developing emotional intelligence and strengthening empathy. The self-determination theory of motivation helps to shed light on why we sometimes need to be left to our own devices when it comes to problem-solving, to grow as people. 

So next time your coworker’s feeling stuck, maybe all they need is a shot of tequila and a laugh, instead of well-intentioned, yet condescending advice. 


  1. Want to know more about how to create a better health and safety culture? View ecoPortal smarter safety videos.  ecoPortal health and safety software can also help your business. Try a demo or get in touch with the team at ecoPortal.

Jessica Strick

Marketing Copywriter

Jess loves being part of the brainstorming, researching and creating scene at ecoPortal. In her spare time, she’s either spending quality time with her Kindle, discussing the ethics of social media, or training for pole vault.

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