March 23, 2015

Self-Determination Theory #2

In the last post I described Self-Determination Theory as a derivative from Maslow and Rogers and others in the first Human Potential Movement.  It is a current theory with lots and lots and lots of research behind it.  It also, in my opinion, over-simplifies much of Maslow’s work which means that what you and I have in Meta-Coaching is actually much richer.  The reason for presenting this is to keep you informed about what’s out there, what’s being developed from the first HPM, and what is also being researched.


A recent book on this theory is Susan Fowler’s 2014 book, Why Motivation People Does Not Work and What Does.  She has sought to make popular what Deci and Ryan created and so it is even more simplistic as even the title of the book over-states things(!).  Yet she has a number of very valuable pieces in her book.  Here is how she begins — with something that is inherent in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:

“People are always motivated.  The question is not if, but why they are motivated.  The motivation a person brings to any action can be qualitatively different.  A naive assumption that motivation is something a person has or doesn’t have.  If it is a possession, then it has an amount.  The assumption is that the more motivation a person has, the more likely he is to achieve his goals.” (p. 4)


Because “motivation” (a nominalization) is not a thing, it is not a possession, but an experience.  That’s why we have to inquire about the type of motivation and its quality to understand it.  Fowler, following Deci, says that peole are already inclined to learn, to grow, and to excel and it is …

“… bribing people [that] kills intrinsic motivation. …  Rewards and punishments can work at the moment, but they only buy one thing: temporary compliance.   Carrot-and-stick tactics have hurt learning, comprehension, and commitment.” (pp. 4-5)


To explain where so many of our ideas about motivation come from, she writes the following, which strikes me as humorous:

“A funny thing happened on the way to understanding human motivation.  Psychologists studied animals!  External rewards produce a disturbing undermining effect on the energy, vitality, and sense of positive well-being people need to achieve goals, attain excellence, and sustain effort.” (p. 7)

[Yet] “It’s unwise to confuse productivity with thriving and flourishing.  People are not pigeons.”


So in Self-Determination Theory, as in NLP, motivation is a skill—a strategy.  It is something we do and something that we learn to do— to motivate ourselves.  It is not something outside that lands on us and makes us “motivated.”  This theory, coming as it does from the Self-Actualization Psychology of Maslow recognizes that …

“… human being have an innate tendency and desire to thrive.  We want to grow, develop and be fully functioning.” (p. 31).  “Just because we gravitate toward psychological health and integration doesn’t guarantee it will happen.  Human thriving in the workplace is a dynamic potential that requires nurturing.” (p. 32)


What Fowler does say about “an optimal motivational outlook” comes straight from the same source that I use— Maslow.  She writes,

“When a person experiences high quality psychological needs, she will have an optimal motivational outlook.  It is a mistake to think that people are not motivated.  They are simply longing for needs they cannot name.” (p. 49)


What are these high quality psychological needs except the Being-needs at the top of the hierarchy— the self-actualization needs.  When a person gratifies these needs, that person then has an optimal motivation.  Of course.  That’s what we mean when we speak about people having an innate self-actualization drive.


But, and this is a big but … she shows her lack of understanding of the Hierarchy of Needs.  How do I know?  Because of what she wrote about this:

“Your psychological needs are not drives. …  Drives dissipate when they are satiated. …  Being driven is another way of saying, I am not in control.  ” (p. 52)


Our psychological needs are not choices!?  Really?  And her reasoning is that a drive dissipates when it is satisfied.  Of course, she doesn’t explain where she got that idea or why she defines a “drive” in that way.  She simply asserts it as a fact.  Now it is certainly true of the deficiency-needs, that once fulfilled and gratified, they no longer drive a person to satisfy them— until the need re-asserts itself.  But this is not true of the B-needs.  When you gratify them, your experience of positive energy, vitality, and a sense of well being increases so that you want more. 


If you hear about self-determination theory and read in this area, it mostly supports what we do in Neuro-Semantics and in Self-Actualization.  The extensive research that is arising in this field is research that supports the Self-Actualization themes in Neuro-Semantics.  So you can certainly use it and refer people to it.  Yet in doing so, the theory itself is less than, and smaller than, the theories we have in Neuro-Semantics and especially those that arise in Self-Actualization Psychology.



Susan Fowler (2014).  Why Motivating People Does Not Work and What Does.  New Science of Leading, Energizing, and Engaging.  San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publ
Edward L. Deci, Richard M. Ryan (2002).  Handbook of Self-Determinational Research, UK: University of Rochester Press.


L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.