The fulfillment of basic human needs in self-managed organizations

#sociocracy #self-management #motivation #futureofwork #systemchange

When I started to learn and use sociocracy in 2010, I looked things up in the academic literature; being a college teacher and having done research before, it’s a place I go regularly to find things out. Just to say, I found next to nothing. So, there is a lot of work to do to bridge the gap between self-management models and organizational science. But, there was an obvious link that stood out of my teachings of human motivation and this is what I want to share with you.

My objective is to outline a mindset that we should nurture to make our organizations and people thrive. It is a mindset about why self-management is the future of work and of social organization. Self-management is not another fad for improving efficiency, it is about a human-centered future.

I want to build a bridge between self-management and Self-Determination Theory in psychology. After a brief overview of the theory, my goal is to show how specific self-management practices are key in nurturing people’s fundamental psychological needs. I hope this understanding will help us focus on the important organizational factors to engage people and foster their performance, creativity, and well-being.

Self-determination theory

Self-determination theory is a major theory of human motivation. It has been developed by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, and refined by numerous scholars over the last 40 years. Last year, Deci and Ryan published a book summarizing the theory and its numerous applications in education, parenting, healthcare, sport, work, etc. You also find lots of information on the self-determination website.

SDT has its roots in humanistic psychology and many of its ideas are similar to previous theories. What distinguishes SDT is its strong empirical base so that its principles are well documented by numerous scientific studies. We are way ahead from Maslow’s hierarchy or pyramid of needs.

This humanistic foundation means that SDT is “centrally concerned with the social conditions that facilitate or hinder human flourishing” which is based on “inherent human capacities for psychological growth, engagement and wellness”. And those capacities are based on the satisfaction of feelings of competence, autonomy and relatedness.

As humans and other organisms have certain biological needs, we also have psychological needs. We need to feel we’re good at something, we need to feel in control of our lives, and we need to feel we belong. SDT’s approach differs from other theories about psychological needs, because it posits a core set of basic universal needs: autonomy, competence and relatedness.

Similarly to biological needs, humans share a core set of universal psychological needs.

Like biological needs will be fulfilled by environmental resources such as water and food, basic psychological needs are fulfilled by a nurturing social environment that allows people to grow and actualize their potentials. SDT is as much a theory of human intrinsic needs than a theory of the social context nurturing those needs.

The relationship between the person and the environment is reciprocal and dynamic.

Both are constantly transforming each other, either toward synthesis or toward greater person-environment conflict. This dynamic between a person’s needs and its environment applies to many life’s domains including work; work can be a place of of great satisfaction when it is nurturing our needs but it can also be a misery when we are controlled, watched and isolated.

Before looking into how specific work patterns interact with the basic psychological needs, let’s identify the general social conditions nurturing the needs.

  1. Feelings of autonomy are produced by opportunities for self-direction, listening to one’s perspective, and psychological safety. Rather than control, ignorance, and power over.
  2. Feelings of competence are generated by tackling optimal challenges, neither too easy, nor too hard, by receiving constructive feedback, and by the acceptance of errors.
  3. Third, feelings of relatedness are produced by social interactions and a culture that put people at least at the same level as tasks or organizational needs.

Therefore, various features of the social environment will fulfill psychological needs resulting in many personal outcomes such engagement, growth, health and wellbeing. It is important to remember that  engagement is an outcome and it is a mistake trying to improve engagement in itself. What engages people are sustainable nurturing environments.

Self-management models have multiple ingredients to build an organizational culture that will fulfill the three core psychological needs.

Nurturing practices

What are those ingredients in the form of patterns, practices and behaviors? For this exercise, I created a table including the three basic needs and three levels of practices: individual, team and organizational. The goal here is not to create a precise and exhaustive classification of all practices but to give us some clarity on which patterns are the most important for nurturing the basic psychological needs. I could have used different self-management models for this exercise: Laloux’s synthesis, Holacracy®, Slade’s Going Horizontal or Dignan’s OS canvas. I used the Sociocracy 3.0 (S3) guide because I feel that James, Bernhard and Lily have done a great job in creating a clear set of well circumscribed and accessible patterns.


Individual Level
(S3 patterns)
Team Level
(S3 patterns)

Organization Level
(S3 principles)





Proposal forming





Peer feedback

Development plan




Continuous improvement


Relatedness Agree on values

Those Affected Decide

Double linking



Role selection




Let’s take a look now at some specific patterns.

Individual level

At the individual level, roles give autonomy to people. Not to mention that they have consented to hold roles. Objection is also a pattern in which individual perspectives are taken into account and brought into collective intelligence.

The structure offered by peer feedback and a development plan is completely aligned with SDT theory about the need for competence. Colleagues can provide clear goals, communicate constructive feedback and a space for errors.

At the individual level, many patterns could be placed for the relatedness need. Agreeing on values makes you align your individual values with those of the organization. Although sociocracy allows circles to make decisions for the whole organization in their respective domain, various means should be taken to include those affected by the decision or evaluation. Lastly, double-linking allows deep cooperation with another team that yours.

Team level

Let’s turn to the team level. Of course, consent decision-making being rational, invitational, and accepting, it is a central force in nurturing autonomy. Proposal forming is about inviting into the diversity of perspectives brought by each one in a team. And domains make it clear what you are responsible for.

On the competence side, I believe that agreements (or proposals) and evaluations are a major force in growing a sense of collective efficacy, a belief in your team’s capacity to deliver.

What are the team patterns nurturing the relatedness need? Let’s put the circle with its capacity to create cohesion and safety among the members. Rounds are powerful in establishing equivalence and belonging to the team. And being unanimously selected by your peers for a role is a strong social validation.

Organizational level

We can look through the organizational level with the seven principles put forward by Sociocracy 3.0. Accountability and consent are about the individual’s responsibility to take ownership of the course of the organization, an autonomy-supportive environment. Empiricism, continuous improvement and effectiveness are about getting better at what we do individually and collectively, a competence-supportive environment. And equivalence and transparency are about being fully involved in the organization. You are not being left out in any way by power and secrecy, a relatedness-supportive environment.

Finally, tensions and drivers are crucial patterns to attend to needs at all levels. These are patterns to become aware of our need thwarting.

Self-determination theory as an organizational mindset

My take-home message is to use SDT theory as a mindset that people should develop to make their organizations and its people thrive whatever model you are applying. This mindset is simple: autonomy, competence and relatedness. This mindset should help you remember or create practices that fulfill the needs of people and yours.

Let’s finished by quoting Deci and Ryan.

“The concept of basic psychological needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness provides the framework for understanding the implications of SDT for the workplace. Every policy and practice implemented within a work organization is likely to either support or thwart the basic psychological needs. Anyone interested in improving the work context within an organization and thus the performance and wellness of its employees could evaluate any policy or practice being considered in terms of whether it is likely to (a) allow the employees to gain competencies and/or feel confident, (b) experience the freedom to experiment and initiate their own behaviors and not feel pressured and coerced to behave as directed, and (c) feel respect and belonging in relation to both supervisors and peers.”

This article was the content of a presentation given at the International Sociocracy Online Conference, 1st May 2018.


Self-determination theory in work organizations: The state of a science
Edward L. Deci, Anja H. Olafsen, Richard M. Ryan
Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior 2017 4:1, 19-43

Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness
Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci
Guilford Publishing. 2017.

Understanding motivation and emotion (7th ed.)
Johnmarshall Reeve
Wiley 2018

Methodologies and tools: self-management | |