The three things you and your staff need for occupational fulfillment.

One of the (make that THE) major theories in psychology of recent decades is Self Determination Theory (SDT) and one of the major contributions from SDT is the notion of three specific elements to help us find a gratifying/meaningful life. I’d like here to apply this specifically to occupation. The first of these three factors is autonomy, i.e., some degree of ability to make choices for ourselves, is arguably crucial to humans who thrive. Think of the worst job you ever had, and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear it involved standing on a production line or clocking in and clocking out of a job which was monotonous and where there was no autonomous choice making involved. Another great example is the dreaded process of being micro-managed. It doesn’t mean you have to be the boss, or in a position of power over everyone else you work with, but simply that you get to make decisions as part of what you do. I am choosing carefully not to say in your job here, as this is not just about employment, it is about what occupies you even when you no longer work in paid employment.

The SDT Triangle


My therapy clients, when they lack the first componenet of the SDT triangle, autonomy, in their jobs for example, are often miserable about the work, someone standing over their shoulder micromanaging, it’s a tough gig and often something people will only do for a short period. When I compare my early experiences stacking shelves or cleaning tables in a restaurant, the monotony coupled with crap pay is a double whammy, if you can do these jobs with a smile while you are waiting for the next chapter of your life, good for you, but you of course will probably want to see that chapter coming up in the relatively nearby distance!


Secondly in the triangle of SDT is competency, and this is essential as we all want and need to be competent at something, at our job, or our sport or in whatever it is we do. That competency may be internally monitored by you (I know I’ve done a good job) or else externally recognised by praise, feedback, good pay, etc. However that competency is recognised, we do need to know, and indeed crave knowing, we’ve done a good job. If we again use jobs as an example, what was it like for you in that job where no feedback or support for what you did was forthcoming? Not good is my suspicion. It doesn’t matter so much whether my time/occupation is spent making cathedral models out of match sticks or being the CEO of a company, the principle of being competent and feeling it/knowing it is essential.


Finally, the triangle is completed by relatedness, and this is where our relationships with others come in and, hopefully, whether you’ve been occupied for a long or relatively short time, some of your relatedness to others has made a positive difference. Working in toxic environments with people who are difficult can make even a dream job a living nightmare, whereas the hum drum stuff we want to get out of can be far more bearable when we have good relationships with others.

Scoring SDT and occupation

So, a great question for clients struggling with their occupation, their job, their retirement, or studies is where do these three aspects fit for them? We of course can start by outlining our own feeling in relation to occupation and SDT. It is possible to score using a simple scale:

From 1-10 with 1 being ‘not at all’ and 10 being ‘perfect as it is’, where are you in relating to these three domains?

  • Relatedness (the connection and quality of relationship with others involved in or connected to your occupation)
  • Competency (the feeling you have in relation to positive feedback, feelings of doing a good job, being good at what you occupy your time with)
  • Autonomy (the degree to which you feel you are involved in making decisions and choices around your occupation, this could be artistic freedom, ability to employ different skills within your occupation versus mindless control)

Individual needs and SDT

Of course, the most famous model for finding out what is missing in a client’s life and the feature of many a classroom and lecture hall is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The hierarchy encourages us to look at what might be missing in terms of our needs, including the lower-level tier of shelter, water etc. This concept dovetails with SDT of course, as it is applicable to occupation and when looking at the higher tier the ‘self-actualisation’. This relates to what ‘meaning’ there is for them in either an existing occupation or else one that they are considering; and we are all looking for meaning…

Dr Trevor Simper, is a trainer, writer and therapist from Perth, Western Australia. Want to learn how to apply SDT in your feedback? Link to Short workshop on fostering motivation.

Dr Trevor Simper
Motivational Interviewing

Dr Trevor Simper, is a trainer, writer, Motivational Interviewing coach, and therapist from Perth, Western Australia.  If you would like to read more about Trevor and his workshops on Essemy click this link.