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Have you ever worked in an environment that seemed to be designed to crush the human spirit? To eliminate any sort of initiative or creativity?

On the other hand, maybe you have also seen working environments that seemed to liberate the human spirit, workplaces where people seemed to be more alive, more purposeful, more engaged — and also happier.

This raises the question: how might we encourage more of the latter? How might we create environments that liberate the human spirit rather than suppress it?

Self Determination Theory

There is an area of psychology known as Self Determination Theory that can provide useful insights.

Self Determination Theory was originally developed by psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan in the 1980’s and has been the subject of a substantial amount of research since then. It grew out of several decades of research into the differences between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, in other words between motivation that comes from within the individual and that which comes from without.

Self Determination Theory starts with the proposition that each individual has a natural drive to grow and develop psychologically, and that each individual naturally gravitates towards those activities or situations that facilitate this growth and development. A theologian might say that we have a drive to become the unique individual person that we are meant to be.

Some social environments can discourage and suppress this growth, while other social environments can encourage and facilitate it. The difference seems to relate to three basic inner needs identified by Deci and Ryan and whether the work environment supports or suppresses these needs.

Three Basic Needs

First, we have a need for relatedness or community, in other words to be known and appreciated by other people. Second, we have a need for a sense of competence, in this case meaning we are confident in our ability to do our work effectively and to enhance our skills as we proceed. And third, we have a need for autonomy, in other words to act on our own intrinsic values and goals (I think of this as personal agency).

An example of an environment that fulfills these needs might be a workplace where we are working with people we like and who like us; where we feel confident in our ability to do our work; and where we have considerable decision making freedom as we pursue objectives that have high value to us.

On the other hand, we can also think of toxic workplaces where these needs are not met and our human spirit seems to be suppressed. We might have coworkers with whom we cannot get along, bosses who are too controlling, or work demands the sheer volume of which suppresses our creativity and initiative. In each of these cases, our need for relatedness, competence, or autonomy goes unmet and our personal growth and development is suppressed.

But the social environment in which we work does not have to be so obviously toxic for it to nevertheless suppress our spirit. We can find ourselves in jobs where we have very little authentic interpersonal engagement and no sense of teamwork. Or we might not feel confident we can perform the work we have been given. Or maybe we are in a warm, friendly environment that nevertheless requires an unhealthy degree of conformity and gives us very little control over the way we do our work.

An environment that suppresses any one of these three basic needs can be a problem, but in this article we will focus on the third of these basic needs, the one Deci and Ryan call the need for autonomy. This is the one that I think is most likely to be overlooked in today’s workplace.

Autonomy and Freedom

Autonomy is not the same thing as isolation. We might think of autonomy as the freedom to act based on our own intrinsic values and goals. Our action seems to carry a sense of intrinsic authenticity. When have sufficient autonomy, we are more likely to move towards activities and goals that are life-giving for us and that lead to our personal growth and development. We are more likely to be fully engaged, maybe even in a state of flow, and more likely to hear and follow our calling.

For some of us, the purest examples of this might be encountered in leisure or volunteer activities that we choose for ourselves and pursue at a time and in a manner of our own choosing.

When we have this type of freedom, we do not feel like we are under the control of other people or outside forces. Nor are we controlled by mindless, involuntary obsessions.

This does not mean that all of our direction needs to be initiated from within ourselves in order for us to maintain a sense of autonomy. For example, our boss might ask us to manage a particular project. We did not choose the project, but if on our own volition we accept its importance, over time it can become our project – we can develop a personal desire to complete it well, regardless of the extrinsic rewards or penalties, and we can thereby develop a sense of volitional autonomy. We can get to the point where we pursue the goal because we want to do so.

Realistically, most of us do not and cannot have complete freedom in our day to day work. There are some jobs that have to be done whether we like them or not.

We also face constraints. When we face constraints, our attitude towards them is all important. We can see ourselves as passive victims of the constraints, in which case our autonomy suffers. Or we can see the constraints as information about the environment that helps us to better navigate as we pursue our personal goals. In this latter case, the constraints do not necessarily have to harm our sense of agency and autonomy but rather can be seen as challenges to be overcome. Our response to the constraints is critical; do we resign ourselves to being passive victims of an oppressive environment? Or do we continue in a way that gives us life and energy as we overcome challenges.

Lessons for Leaders

There are important lessons here for leaders and those who want to encourage their fellow workers. To the extent that people can connect their work to their intrinsic drives and values, and do so with some degree of personal autonomy, they are likely to be more engaged and effective. This is particularly true if their work and their working environment also meet their need for relatedness and competence.

Leaders typically need to set the goals and direction of the organization themselves. But if they can communicate the importance and human value of these goals, and engage people in planning their implementation, people are more likely to internalize them.

Individual perceptions are important. If we believe the organization wants to control us and does not respect our need for at  least some autonomy and freedom, then our sense of engagement will suffer. On the other hand, if we believe our organization respects and encourages our autonomy and freedom, then we are more likely to experience a greater sense of engagement and growth. We are also more likely to flourish, psychologically and spiritually, and this is true of all levels of the workforce. The organization itself is also more likely to flourish.

A Spiritual Aspect

I believe that there is an important spiritual aspect to all of this. When we have more psychological autonomy, we are likely to have more freedom to follow that inner voice that leads us towards personal growth, both psychological and spiritual, in the direction of our calling. And as we become more alive, engaged, and connected, I believe this brings us closer to the life we are meant to live, and closer to who we are meant to be.

Related Podcast Episode (Time 11:42):

About the Faith and Enterprise Podcast

Each podcast episode deals with an aspect of Spiritual Renewal in Our Work Lives. Topics include finding purpose/work as a calling, spiritual practices that can help us in our work, dealing with workplace stress and other forms of workplace toxicity, spiritual aspects of leadership, and building a flourishing work life. We invite you to subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, or Google Play, or listen on our website. You can also subscribe to email updates when we release new material.

The time has come for spiritual renewal.  We hope you will join with us on this quest.