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Self-Determination Theory and Its Limitations Case Study

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Self-determination theory (SDT) is concerned with human motivation and personality. The main focus is how an individual’s behaviour is self-motivated and also how well it is determined. In other words, motivation is the driving force toward human behaviour. Individual behaviour is motivated by the dominant role of intrinsic motives. The research of intrinsic motivation has made a definition of the theory as the initiation of an action for its own reason and concern or purely because the people who are involved in the activity enjoy it. Extrinsic motivation is defined as performing or doing an activity to obtain an external goal by getting a reward or benefit from it. Some different types of motivation have been explained based on how they have been internalized. They could be referred to as the active ability to change an extrinsic idea into an individual’s beliefs and values that utilize behavioural regulations that are initially external. Some of the benefits of intrinsic motivations are obtained from within. People who get motivated to feel confident and are interested in what they do (Deci & Ryan 1985, p. 2002).

Elements of Self Determination Theory

Psychologist Ryan and Edward Deci of the University of Rochester classified types of motivation in a continuum. For cognitive evaluation theory, ‘intrinsic’ is defined as regulatory. People identify it with activities that are important as their personal goals. Integrated regulation has specific identifiable rules that are accepted by the individual and concluded together with other values and needs (Deci & Ryan 2002, p.113). Intrinsic motivation as an activity is done for the purpose of increasing the morale of employees. On the extrinsic category, motivation is classified into three categories. First is the motivation that is lack of an intention to act on something, and a person may refuse to act because there is no specific reason or purpose. Some work or activities may be done to satisfy a certain external demand whereby a person is controlled or forced to work due to external regulation. Interjected regulation involves activities performed to get a reward, get recognized, or even avoid punishment. To develop intrinsic motivation, there is a need to meet psychological needs, maintain them by competence, autonomy, and relatedness, which is regarded as a stimulus for the growth of human motivators (Deci & Ryan 2002, p.113).


The study has compared how control and autonomy affect performance and wellbeing of firms and their employees. Autonomy is the urge to have control over what you do and come up with your own decisions and choices. Autonomy involves accepting values from others, and these new values must be understood with the prevailing goals that are self-centred (White 1959, p. 232). External pressure may interfere with the process, and in this case, Madeline wanted all nurses under her supervision, irrespective of their knowledge, experience and profession to adhere to her final rule without criticizing her management style just like those of Molly and Margret. To support autonomy, Madeline should increase her control by finding ways to direct her actions and see if she could be able to control it. The intervention methods must be effective in bridging the gaps between behaviour and attitude. The behaviour of Madeline on her staffs should be persuasive and motivational. This should be achieved within a short period of time, but when intervention is removed, her behaviour will change without motivation. Some of the intervention strategies are difficult to maintain and expensive (Lepper & Nisbett, 1973, p. 230).

By applying the skills of interrogation, Madeline should find ways to accept the ideas of Margret without ignoring some of her requests and, in return, she could have motivated Margret by her ideas incorporated in the management of the ward. On the other hand, the relationship between Margret and her supervisor should help her establish her goal and should help her improve the entire hospital. Margret should also act as a motivator to other nurses like Molly, who, though experienced, did not know some modern methods of maintaining a positive approach to work. Madeline should think of ways how to accept or act on the actions she has chosen. Therefore, she should put in mind the values of her behaviour to help her in work. As a supervisor, Madeline should do some alterations at work as she should change the shift of Margret and Molly in a different manner to make sure they are not in the same shift together. This is because they affect the motivation of other nurses while performing their duties. Supportive social connection to patients from their families and friends may encourage choices made by nurses like those of Molly and Margret made to give them a positive feedback and encouragement. Self determination theory further explains that environmental behaviour that is not motivated intrinsically is not persistent (Chirkov & Kaplan 2003, p. 312).

Problems of the Theory

Madeline should do without some of the deadlines that tend to reduce intrinsic motivation like those of being intrusive and following up the staffs especially while checking their performance and allocation of some duties. However, she should make sure that the patients are taken to her ward after the doctor has completed their examination, given that she has enough experience in patient care. Such duties will enhance her relationship with other nurses, patients and the surrounding community. Molly is more experienced in handling patients as observed by Madeline. Madeline should have assigned Molly to handle patient too as she has a commendable relationship in handling the patients’ family who were proud and happy of her good job. She was also good in general patient care. This attribute could help Madeline to do away with high pressure evaluation, which could increase her motivation to work even harder. The relationship between Madeline and Molly could be strengthened if only Madeline would agree to swap her responsibility of checking on the patients before being taken to the ward with Molly, who never criticized her as compared to Margaret (Harter 1978, p.78).

According to Vallerand and Reid (1984, p.150), competency is an inner drive that engages in new challenges and experiences to get good things in the right way. It is a positive feedback on a person’s performance and competency. Madeline applied the motivational value of competency on commending on Margret’s abilities when performing her duties as a professional and as a registered nurse who was experienced. On the contrary, Madeline should not have been annoyed on Margret’s critics who tried suggesting how the ward should be managed. However, Madeline should have given Margret a positive feedback and her motivation could have created a positive impact on her performance. Positive impacts should be informational rather than controlling as this will kill the morale of employees. As a supervisor, Madeline should avoid these negative impacts, they may block intrinsic motivation. For instance, it happened to Molly and Margret who were dissatisfied by Madeline’s performance of supervisory duties especially when she passed over their duties to other nurses. This decreased their motivation to work including the morale of other employees in the organization (Vallerand & Reid 1984, p.413).

According to Deci and Ryan (2002, p.115), relatedness is a natural obsession a person feels toward the other that merge into social groups. This feeling can be achieved individually. Madeline should improve interpersonal relationship of her staff by finding and organizing social groups that embrace the psychological behaviours that she wanted in the hospital. Supportive social connection to patients from their families and friends may encourage choices made by nurses like those of Molly and Margret made to give them a positive feedback and encouragement (Zuckerman & Deci 1978, p. 601).

Relatedness is not enough to avoid external motivation and control, and requires the existence of a relationship between the supervisor and the nurses. Therefore, the hospital should build a caring atmosphere for both the supervisor and employees that will help to support the staffs’ autonomy. Madeline controlled and intruded in the nurses’ activities, meaning that relatedness was not applied and instead the nurses were emotionally affected Deci (1971, p.109). The support for competence and relatedness in this case is seen as interactive in strengthening the relationship of Madeline and her staffs within the hospital. This has led to specific techniques being developed to improve the performance of the health facility including ways of communication and socialization. The methods have proven effective in promoting self motivation. By focusing on intrinsic motivation and integration, self determination theory plays a unique role in psychology in understanding people’s behaviours that benefit socialization and promoting the morals of the society (Deci & Ryan 1985, p.129).

Critical Assessment

According to self determination theory, the relationship between the patients and nurses might initiate the efforts of change, which implies that it is advisable to move ahead in considering the patients’ level and quality of motivation. Autonomous type of motivation is seen to yield more positive outcome compared to other types specifically controlled motivation in this study. Researchers suggest that patients can endorse this change such that they are willing to pursue it rather than control it to make these changes. The relationship between the supervisor and her staff can be improved by the psychological use of competency, relatedness and autonomy. Through competence, some of the roles should be shared among competent nurses to reduce the roles of the supervisor that are already too many. Intrinsic motivations related with more difficult behaviours. Molly with her high internal motivation performed her duties well compared to other nurses with low intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation supports ecological wellbeing and supports high level of happiness (Vallerand & Reid 1984, p. 321).

Limitation of the Theory

In a hospital setting, not all employees are competent in their work. Unlike Margret who is experienced for more than seven years in different health care environments, Madeline is not very experienced in dealing with different people because not all nurses’ work is supervised. That puts pressure on her and making her report early and leave late to check on the performance of other nurses. Madeline works under pressure from patient families’ impatience as they want to make sure the patient is taken to the ward after the doctors check the patient. This could be reduced if she changes the duty roster to suite an autonomous nurse like Molly, who knows how to handle the patients well and is commended for the work. This could bring a difference and wellbeing of patients in paedriatic wards. The other limitation of the theory is the cost of organizing social forums for employees in order to train them on creating good relationships with their patients, workmates, and the management. It was also expensive to install some systems like computer software, as advised by Margret. However, she received criticism from her staff thereby lowering her motivation. In this case, autonomy was not applied effectively because Margret’s ideas on the suggestion of some changes on the supervision management were not taken into considerations (Deci & Ryan 1985, p.132).


According to White (1959, p.76) the quality of life and wellbeing in the pediatric hospital based on self determination theory was to examine the need of satisfaction in caring relationship and wellbeing in general, and high quality relationship results to good quality performance. It has been observed that relationship between the patients’ family and the nurses makes the quality of caring relationship of importance to the patients’ individual needs. The communication between staff and patients results to social emotional communication concerning personal talk and other effective behaviour, as observed from Molly the old nurse in the ward. Molly used secondary baby talk in handling children in the ward that is characterized by little eye contact, a high pitch like childish talk. In this study case psychological needs are identified, competence, autonomy, and relatedness that are important for psychology growth and wellbeing. Fulfillment of this psychological needs results to high level of wellbeing to the patients. In this pediatric hospital, need of fulfillment is seen to be difficult to achieve because the patients are confronted with physical limitations on dependence on others that may influence competence and relatedness (Chirkov & Kaplan 2003, p.503).

List of References

Chirkov, V & Kaplan, U 2003, Differentiating autonomy from individualism and independence: A self-determination perspective on internalization of cultural orientations, gender and well being, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 84, pp. 97-110.

Deci, E & Ryan, 2002, Handbook of self-determination research, University of Rochester Press, Rochester.

Deci, E & Ryan, R 1985, Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior, Plenum, New York.

Deci, E 1971, Effects of externally mediated rewards on intrinsic motivation, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 18, pp. 105-115.

Harter, S 1978, Effectance motivation reconsidered: Toward a developmental model, Human Development, vol. 1, pp. 661-669.

Lepper, M & Nisbett, R 1973, Undermining children’s intrinsic interest with extrinsic reward: a test of the overjustification hypothesis, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 28, pp. 129-137.

Vallerand, R & Reid, G 1984, On the causal effects of perceived competence on intrinsic motivation: a test of cognitive evaluation theory, Journal of Sport Psychology, vol. 6, pp. 94-102.

White, R 1959, Motivation reconsidered: the concept of competence, Psychological Review, vol. 66, pp. 297-333.

Zuckerman, M & Deci, R 1978, On the importance of self-determination for intrinsically motivated behavior, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol. 4, pp. 443-446.

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