We live in a busy time with high stimulation where stress and burnout can lead to dissatisfaction and underperformance. This shows up in many aspects of life, especially at work, leading to a sense of floundering versus flourishing. Autonomy, competence, and relatedness are considered the nutrients of living a fulfilling life, and when we instill these nutrients in our work and relationships, we can see real growth and gratification in all that we do. Psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan identified these 3 social and contextual factors that motivate human thriving and call it Self-Determination Theory (SDT). The three nutrients of SDT enhance our capacity for growth, engagement, and wellness which serve to internally drive us toward vitality, motivation, and effective performance. 

Human Needs

Just as we have physiological needs such as adequate nutrition, clean water, and freedom from harm, we also have psychological needs that are essential for optimal functioning. When one is deprived of certain psychological needs, we see decrements in growth and performance. Interestingly, at the individual level, the person doesn’t have to identify or value these needs, just as we don’t have to value or identify the need for Vitamin C as necessary for bodily growth, development, and repair. 

Needs motivate our behavior. There are two types of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic motivators are driven by external rewards such as money, power, and praise. While extrinsic motivators can be powerful in initiating new behavior, we find that lasting behavior that is deemed as meaningful is driven by intrinsic motivators. Intrinsic motivation is an inner drive that comes from within where we do something for the sake of doing it because it is inspiring, enjoyable, purposeful, and challenging in a good way. When we cultivate the three key nutrients of autonomy, competence, and relatedness we set the stage for behavior based on intrinsic motivation, which drives engagement and high performance. 


Autonomy means self-governing; it is the ability and power to self-regulate our actions. It is the opposite of micromanagement. We feel empowered when we have choice and when we are trusted to make the right decisions. This is different than independence where we work alone. Autonomy is where we have a sense of acting on our own accord with the ability to take direct action as needed. 

  • Ways to Build Autonomy
    • Set expectations but allow each person to decide for themselves how to go about meeting those goals. 
    • Realize that perfection doesn’t exist. Mistakes will be made. Use errors as opportunities for learning and create a culture of trying again. 
    • Grant ownership of work and align each person with their strengths and work for which they have high interest.  


When we feel competent, we feel that what we do is effective and masterful. It is the feeling of being capable at what we do and the ability to accomplish and achieve goals. 

  • Ways to Foster Competence
    • Engage in opportunities for continued learning and skill building to encourage mastery.
    • Use goal setting in increments to provide continuous feedback along the way.
    • Offer positive and meaningful encouragement and feedback on performance and express strong belief in others’ capabilities. 


As humans we are social creatures with a high need to belong. Relatedness is exhibited when we have positive connections with others. It is important to feel both cared for and that we make a unique and important contribution to the group.  

  • Ways to Strengthen Relatedness
    • Encourage community integration with social events, outings, and group activities that are not work-centered.
    • Connect with colleagues on a personal level and allow for and validate emotional connection. 
    • Identify layers of support within the context and form teams that allow members to grow while working collaboratively. 

When autonomy, competence, and relatedness are satisfied people experience high quality motivation that fuels passion and commitment to the work they engage in. The most profoundly motivated people are those who pursue a cause larger than themselves because they feel self-governed, masterful, and connected. When these needs are optimally supported, we see our work as deeply satisfying and meaningful, creating a positive emotional charge at both the individual and organizational level.