Relatedness, competence, and autonomy

Feeling relatedness, competence, and autonomy is essential to well-being and self-regulated motivation.

Most of us want to be happy, active, and productive – we want our motivation to be regulated by an internal sense of purpose, not by external threats of punishment or promises of reward. We want happy and active productivity for ourselves, for those we care about, and for those we work with. But that is less common than we would like it to be. How come? What can we do about it?

Self-determination theory argues that humans have a natural tendency to be active, productive, and happy as long as three basic psychological needs Psychological needs are different from personal desires and goals; attaining your desires and goals does not necessarily lead to well-being.

are fulfilled:

  • feeling relatedness,
  • feeling competence, and
  • feeling autonomy.

Our environment plays a critical role in supporting or thwarting these feelings. Nature and nurture also have some influence on how likely we are to feel that our psychological needs are satisfied.

As a parent, a teacher, or a manager you can make your children, students, or coworkers happier, more engaged, and more productive by creating an environment that helps them feel related, competent, and autonomous. Though research on concrete tactics is scarce.

In other words, if 4-year old Emma feels that her parents appreciates it when she puts her plate in the dishwasher after dinner, if she is confident she can do that, and if she doesn’t feel pressured to do, then she is far more likely to do it well and be happy about it.


Relatedness refers to our need to feel we belong and matter to others – that we care for them and that they care for us. To promote a feeling of relatedness in someone:

  • Listen to them and acknowledge their perspective. Show them that you care.
  • Support them and make them feel supported.
  • Explain why what they do matters and who they are helping.


Feeling competent refers to our need to feel effective, to be successful, and to grow. This is not the same as being skilled – someone lacking skill can still feel effective, successful, and that they are growing. Or vice versa. To promote a feeling of competence in someone:

  • Design tasks to be optimally challening for them – not too easy and not too hard.
  • Give meaningful, positive feedback that (truthfully) reinforces their feeling of competence.
  • Avoid negative feedback that reduces their perceived competence.


Autonomy refers to our need to be the author of our life – to feel that our actions and motivations are our own choice. Note that autonomy and independence are different and orthogonal. Independence means not relying on external sources or influences.

If we feel that they are, we are more engaged and less susceptible to alienation. To promote a feeling of autonomy in someone:

  • Let them choose what to do and how to do it whenever possible and otherwise help them understand why the task is necessary and important.
  • Avoid behaviour they perceive as controlling. Be mindful of contingent rewards, arbitrary deadlines, threats, imposed goals, surveillance, competition, and evaluation.
  • Discourage them from associating their sense of self-worth with the outcome of a task, because that can easily lead to self-controlling behaviour. Instead, help them identify with the task itself. Compare this to Stoicism – The Enchiridion by Epictetus opens: Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.

The short-term and the long-term

One reason psychological needs are undervalued is that their benefits take longer to materialise, and when they do they are tricky to attribute. Contingent rewards, threats, and controlling feedback do work in the short-term and are comparatively easy to attribute, but they undermine performance in the long-term.

Thus, in an environment with short-term incentives – such as a business chasing the next quarter’s numbers or a school chasing the next standardised test scores – it can be all too tempting to sacrifice psychological needs and long-term performance in favour of quick wins. But if you can take a longer term perspective, creating an environment that fulfils basic psychological needs can be a great way to increase both productivity and well-being.