Know your SDT

Henrik Øllgaard
5 min readApr 7, 2021

How psychology helps power up your team for agile work

source: unsplash.com

If you ever worked as a team member, team lead, supervisor or Scrum Master you know that thriving employees and motivation are essential for success. And, if you want dip your toes in the waters of agile ways of working, perhaps psychology can inspire you.

From pschycology the idea of Self Determination Theory (or SDT) describes how individuals and teams thrive and are motivated. First introduced by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, SDT is a theory that explains three key motivators that help people thrive and stay motivated. In this article I’ll briefly introduce you to SDT and give an example of how you can use it in practice.

Self Determination Theory is based on three distinct but interconnected concepts: Autonomy, Competence and Relatedness.

A team or individual person needs these three aspects to be deeply motivated and thriving. It applies to professional as well as personal contexts. Let’s look at them in turn and then dive deeper into autonomy.

Autonomy is the notion that an individual needs to be and feel in control of her own life. Ask youself the question: Do I make decisions in my life or are they made for me? If you are the one in charge, then you feel autonomous.

It applies to everyday situations as well as life changers. Do you have a say in the family weekly meal plan? Does your team decide for itself when to have lunch? Is it ok to work in the evening in order to be with your kids in the afternoon? Can I quit my job if I need to without ruining my life?

Competence is the feeling that you have influence and that you master tasks. The feeling of competence dramatically increases motivation. It is also worth noting that your actual skills improve along with productivity if you experience control and mastery in a situation.

Relatedness is an inherent basic need to feel connected to others through empathy, giving and receiving help from others and a general feeling of appreciation.

If you are familiar with agile ways of working, it is easy to see how SDT and agile thinking fit together. Most agile frameworks like Scrum or Kanban embrace exactly the three concepts of Autonomy, Competence and Relatedness even if they’re not explicitly mentioned as such. But even if you are not ready to take the big plunge into an agile framework or methodology, bearing the three interconnected concepts from SDT in mind can be the different between an ok team and a great team. Let’s see this with a practical example:

A customer asks for a new SoMe campaign.

What’s the best way make it a success. Well, we could have a classic Project Manager discuss with the customer what needs to be done. The Project Manager would then estimate time and budget and delegate tasks to his team.

Would that produce the best results?

Or could we try something else, like putting the team in charge and make them feel mastery, competency and relatedness.

Agile thinking treasures the idea of self managing teams as essential. This has a lot in common with SDT. Of course the the customer (usually) knows the obejctives and desired outcomes. In other words, they know what they want. But probably they don’t know how to achieve this. That’s why they need your serivces in the first place. And who is more likely to help the customer achive their goals? The manager or the people actually doing the work better? Probably the team with assistance and leadership.

So you might think “I’m a team manager and I leave it all up to the team? Might as well just go home and wait to be fired”.

No, letting go and trusting the autonomy of the team is just one part Self Determination Theory.

Remember competency and relatedness. This is where you have a key role as manager and leader. You need to make sure that the team has what it needs in terms of skills and ressources to master their tasks. You are also crucial in creating a culture of mutual trust and common effort on the team that supports the individual’s experience of relatedness.

Letting people who are knowledgeable and experienced in their field and make their own decisions tend to make better decision than…well, the boss. People with less experience need more coaching and direction to feel competent and make decisions they master. It takes good leaders to make that happen. It also takes good leaders to create a team culture that fosters relatedness.

Start Small

Managers and employees alike have heard about delegation to the point of it become meaningless. So, what I’m proposing is more radical. You’re not delegating, you’re letting go in order to empower. And that takes courage. If you are not ready for a big bang implementation of an agile framework like Kanban or Scrum, start small:

Have a daily 15 minute coffee, give it a name, I prefer Morning Coffee but it’s up to you. Maybe you already have a daily meeting, great! You have something to start out with. Now, try experimenting with Team Autonomy:

Don’t set the agenda. This is not your meeting. You’re not here to inform about company decision, sales target etc. Set up a seperate meeting for that.

Instead, ask the Team for pressing or simply interesting issues. In order to provide structure, you can also start out with everyone answering three classic questions (starting with yourself):

  1. What did I do yesterday?
  2. What am I doing today?
  3. Are there any impediments?

Only rule is: everybody shows up on time for Morning Coffee. Let the team decide when to meet. Is 10.00 better for the team than 8.30 because of traffic? Ok, try it out for a few weeks.Then make adjustments. For instance you can decide to move Morning Coffee to a better time . Or do it online if there’s a pandemic or someone is away on a conference. Review this Morning Coffees on a regular basis but not too often. Once every two weeks, perhaps.

Of course, there are pitfalls. One of them is going on autopilot, answer the questions to get it over with and get back to work. It’s not the meeting becoming obsolete, it’s the form and outcome of it. Tell the team what you see and ask the rest of the team if they need to change the meetings. For instance you can change focus to more specific issues. For one week you can focus the meeting on one issue like customer satisfaction. Don’t be afraid to experiment.

Another pitfall is easy to remember but hard to do: As a leader you can offer advice but it’s not for you to decide what goes on in Morning Coffee. It’s up to you to remind people of attending, facilitating, taking notes, remove impediments afterwards etc.

Morning coffee is one thing you can do fairly easy if you want to start an agile journey with thriving and performing teams. The experience gained can also help your team and organization towards more agile practices if that’s what you want.

And it’s even based on solid research. Have fun.

Note: Deci & Ryan focus a lot on the central concepts of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. If you’re curious, check out What Is Self-Determination Theory (SDT) & Why Does It Matter? by Rebecca Schulte.

Sources:

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (n.d.). Home. Retrieved March, 2021, from http://selfdeterminationtheory.org/

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Henrik Øllgaard

Insigthts Discovery Practioner. My work range from a professional interests as an Senoir Lecturer of Computer Science and agile coach to my passionate History