lars van tuin artwork
lars van tuin artwork
lars van tuin artwork

Navigating Motivation at Work

About Leadership, Purpose, Values, and Basic Psychological Needs
– door Lars van Tuin

Motivation lies at the core of human behavior. It explains why we do what we do. With this thesis, we seek an explanation for the beneficial influence of leadership, corporate purpose, and values ​​on employee engagement through motivation.

Utrecht University Repository

Summary / samenvatting

Motivation lies at the core of human behavior. It explains why we do what we do. With this dissertation, we seek an explanation for the positive influence of leadership, a corporate purpose, and values ​​on employee engagement. Engaged employees derive energy from their work, are dedicated, and display higher psychological well-being and performance. Our research identifies motivation – a theory of why we do what we do – as an underlying mechanism linking leadership with positive outcomes. Leadership at the service of motivation boosts engagement and serves the need for self-determination and meaning. A corporate purpose embracing all stakeholders instead of just the shareholders positively affects motivation and engagement; Employees identify with an inspiring mission and vision. Corporate values ​​aimed at contributing to a better world reinforce this even further. Likewise, a work environment with room for personal and professional growth helps people to develop and feel a sense of purpose.

This research into motivation as the underlying mechanism of leadership, corporate goals, and values ​​is important for three reasons. First, motivation as an underlying and explanatory mechanism receives little or no attention in academic leadership studies. Neither do sustainable corporate goals and intrinsic values. Leadership in organizations is often equated with economic performance and assumes a direct relationship between leadership, performance, and employee engagement. Leadership concepts such as transformational, authentic, ethical, and spiritual leadership are assessed against that background of effectiveness. Far less attention is paid to the underlying psychological mechanism that could explain the link between leadership and positive outcomes such as performance and engagement.

Second, self-realization, or realizing one’s potential, through work has come to play an increasingly important role in people’s lives. The need for self-realization is an expression of the Western ideal of authenticity and self-determination. It has become an essential aspect of our culture of individualism, recognition of identity, and the search for meaning. This sociocultural development makes it essential to better understand the psychological process underlying the relationship between leadership and engagement. More than the direct relationship between leadership and outcomes, studying the underlying psychological process may provide insights in how to deal with changing value patterns and aspirations. It is essential that those insights translate into leadership and that leaders recognize and acknowledge changing needs. Especially for younger generations, self-realization, purpose, significance, and sustainability are matters of great importance.

Third, there exists an intrinsic tension between people’s need for self-determination on the one hand and the prevailing corporate governance model on the other. Most organizations are traditionally and mechanically founded on prediction and control values, which ​​contrast with the increasing need for self-direction, autonomy, and meaningfulness. This tension is exacerbated by the dominance of shareholder value and the so-called financialization of the economy. Neoliberalism has left deep marks over the past 40 years in terms of growing economic inequality, inequality of opportunity, and the depletion of human and natural resources. By way of illustration, top managers’ incomes rose sharply over the period 1973–2014, while ordinary employees’ incomes increased only marginally over the same period, against a higher average number of hours worked and higher labor productivity (72%)1. Additionally, work-related psychosocial stress and burnout have shown an upward trend for years.

Several studies point to a social psychological theory of motivation, the self-determination theory, to explain the link between leadership and engagement. Application of this theory in empirical research helps explain a larger part of the variance in employee engagement than the direct relationship of leadership and engagement. And that makes sense. Leadership behaviors have a psychological effect on employees and influence performance and engagement through those psychological effects. So, if we are looking to explain the effectiveness of a leadership concept, it makes sense to look at the psychological effects of leadership on employees rather than just employee performance. Studying this underlying psychological process can yield knowledge and insight into why a particular approach leads to good outcomes. This could support the development of work environments in which people can grow and develop, find meaning through contributing to a broader purpose, and experience high psychological well-being and low psychosocial stress.

The core of self-determination theory

Central to self-determination theory is the idea that people are active organisms who are naturally focused on growth and development in relation to their environment and who actively integrate all kinds of life experiences into their sense of self. This perspective on human development stresses the dynamics of the social context: how we interact and relate, what our social rules are, and how we experience and integrate these with the self. The social context of work is formed by the organization, colleagues, supervisors, customers, and suppliers: anyone you interact with because of your work. If the work context is positive and supportive of the individual, then the work environment stimulates personal growth and development, well-being, and performance.

Types of motivation

What is motivation, and how does it work? What drives our behavior? These are questions that self-determination theory tries to answer. Part of our behavior stems from within. We willingly and wholeheartedly engage in activities that we experience as fun, interesting, or exciting. No one has to encourage us. We do it because doing the activity is inherently fulfilling. If sports, painting, or research is your passion, you don’t need anyone to encourage you to engage in it. This phenomenon is called intrinsic motivation. Sometimes it is even so pleasurable that we become absorbed in the activity and forget about time; people get into “flow.” Nothing new so far.

What distinguishes self-determination theory is that it does not emphasize the strength of the motivation but rather its quality through a typology of motivation. Intrinsic motivation is part of this typology. But not all motivation comes from within. A considerable part of our (working) life is regulated by extrinsic stimuli. This regulation is from without. For example, working in exchange for a reward, meeting task requirements, following rules and procedures, and working within set frameworks. Also, company objectives and values ​​are usually externally incited.

Employees can identify with some parts of extrinsic regulations. For example, employees can identify with an organizational objective to contribute to a greater good for the benefit of others, or to sustainability. An example of the first is Philips’ corporate objective. This company has set itself the goal of improving people’s lives through meaningful innovation, and it consistently propagates this. An example of the second is the American clothing brand Patagonia, which strives to implement environment-friendly and sustainable solutions. The company emphatically wants to play a pioneering role and puts its money where its mouth is. This attracts employees who identify with that objective and the associated values. Leadership plays a vital role in this. If you ask employees why they work for such a company, they say, for example: “because I think it is important to contribute to this goal,” or “because it is in line with my personal values.” Even though the organizational goal comes “from the outside,” it leads to a higher quality motivation through identification with that goal: internalization. In self-determination theory, this type of positive motivation is summarized, together with intrinsic motivation, as autonomous motivation. Autonomous motivation supports feelings of meaningfulness and leads to greater well-being and engagement, as well as to more creativity, perseverance, initiative, and self-direction. The power of autonomous motivation is that employees focus on the work itself; it enhances the motivational energy for work. After all, the work is important and valuable, but also fun, interesting, and exciting.

Other forms of extrinsic regulation are internalized less well, poorly, or not at all. Examples are various forms of reward and punishment. The consequence of such extrinsic regulation is that the employee’s behavior shifts toward the extrinsic stimulus and away from the work itself. It becomes more critical to avoid a negative consequence or obtain a positive reward, such as a good assessment, a promotion, or a salary increase. This type of motivation can be experienced as compelling and controlling, and is therefore called controlled motivation. In a work environment with controlled motivation, it is to be expected that employees are less enterprising and creative and show a more cautious attitude. This form of motivation relates negatively to well-being and engagement. If the work environment is too controlling, feelings of powerlessness and meaninglessness arise, which give rise to amotivation.

Three basic psychological needs

Self-determination theory is best known for the formulation of three basic psychological needs. These are autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Fulfilling these basic needs leads to optimal well-being, creativity, involvement, motivation, self-direction, and (therefore) engagement. They are called basic needs because, just like the biological need for air, water, and food, they are necessities without which people do not function or function less well.

Autonomy is the need to be able to influence what you are doing or involved in. Being able to direct relevant aspects of the work yourself contributes to the satisfaction of this need. Competence is about the feeling of being good at something and being effective within the environment in which you function. This need is nourished by a work environment where personal and professional development are stimulated, frequent (positive) feedback is given, and growth, exploration, and pleasure are important aspects. Relatedness is about the need to be a part of something and feel connected to others who care about you in a meaningful personal relationship. This need is met by making people feel at home in an atmosphere of care, togetherness, and psychological safety.

For some years, the flipside of fulfilling basic needs has been researched; needs can also be frustrated, for example, by a highly controlling work environment, by micro-management, or even by supervisors who actively thwart employees’ needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. This leads to adverse outcomes such as psychosocial stress, job dissatisfaction, and staff turnover.

The central question and the studies’ findings

This thesis’s central question is how and to what extent the relationship between engagement and leadership, corporate goals, and values is explained by motivation. We conducted four empirical studies. In Chapter 2, the role of the satisfaction and frustration of basic psychological needs is studied in relation to engaging leadership and work engagement. The role of the frustration of basic psychological needs in engaging leadership had not been studied before. The concept of engaging leadership was introduced in 2015, and since then has been explored and tested in a growing number of studies. It is the first leadership concept to focus specifically on leadership behaviors that satisfy employees’ basic psychological needs. Thus, the emphasis is not so much on organizational outcomes and performance but rather on the importance of the underlying process of need satisfaction.

In the first study in Chapter 2 (N = 304), engaging leadership was expected to relate positively with need satisfaction and engagement and negatively with need frustration. This was confirmed. It also emerged that stimulating autonomy through engaging leadership seemed to be most effective because it promotes motivation and engagement and reduces negative forms of motivation, such as controlled motivation and amotivation. The frustration of basic needs, while relating to negative outcomes as expected, was not significantly associated with autonomous motivation.

Engaging leadership turned out to be indirectly related to engagement by fulfilling the basic need for autonomy. Subsequently, we found that the basic psychological needs are best examined separately because of the different predictive relevance of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. The satisfaction of the need for autonomy emerged as a better predictor of engagement than the satisfaction of competence and relatedness. This seems in agreement with the underlying theory that autonomy often precedes the fulfillment of competence and relatedness. In summary, we concluded from this first study that engaging leadership is more effective when it focuses on fulfilling basic psychological needs, because the knife of need satisfaction cuts both ways. It can lead both to higher autonomous motivation and engagement and to lower negative aspects of motivation. Simultaneously, lower frustration of basic needs is mainly associated with a reduction in negative aspects, and not so much with positive motivation and engagement.

In Chapter 3, the role of a corporate purpose is investigated in a second study. We took the existing mission and vision of a multinational company as a starting point and examined the impact on engagement and autonomous motivation. The present mission and vision met the definition of a higher purpose, as described in the stakeholder theory. This means that the mission and vision serve a broader social purpose and specify how to contribute to that goal. Stakeholders were customers, society, employees, sustainability, and shareholders. We investigated to what extent this mission and vision were experienced as inspiring by employees and to what extent employees felt they were actively contributing to it through their work.

The second study (N = 270) shows that a broader business objective has a positive effect on engagement over time. Employees who identify with this higher goal and feel that they contribute to it are more engaged. For autonomous motivation, the results were less precise. In contrast with the study’s cross-sectional part, the analysis over several time points identified no explanatory role for autonomous motivation. The cross-sectional part of the study showed that autonomous motivation explained 56% of the variance in engagement, while controlled motivation and amotivation played no role.

The second study concluded that a higher corporate goal predicts engagement. The more complex role of autonomous motivation may indicate that a higher corporate purpose is primarily attractive to employees who already possess higher autonomous motivation and identify with the corporate purpose. This interpretation supports the common belief that a higher corporate purpose may attract talent and new generations who bring different value aspirations.

Chapter 4 discusses how employees experience a company’s values and the influence of engaging leadership on these values. Subsequently, the impact on employee engagement and the explanatory value of satisfaction of needs was examined. We distinguished different types of values: on the one hand, more universal, intrinsic values ​​such as caring for each other, contributing to a better world, and personal growth and development; on the other hand, more extrinsic values, such as gaining social status, having power and influence over others, and financial success. We expected engaging leadership to be positively related to intrinsic values ​​and negatively related to extrinsic values. We also expected that intrinsic values ​​would positively correlate with need satisfaction, in contrast to extrinsic values. Taken together, we expected that intrinsic values ​​and needs satisfaction would explain the relationship between leadership and engagement.

The third study (N = 436) shows a positive association between leadership and employee engagement through intrinsic value perceptions and need satisfaction. In contrast, we found a negative relationship with extrinsic value perceptions. The analysis over several time points confirmed the direction from engaging leadership to intrinsic value perceptions. Engaging leadership influences how employees experience the organization. When intrinsic values ​​prevail, this has a positive effect on engagement. Together with the fulfillment of basic needs, it explained more than 55% of the variance in work engagement.

Finally, we tested the effects of a leadership development program in an intervention study (Chapter 5), and compared the outcomes to a control group that received no intervention. The program was co-created by the program participants (middle management team leaders) and their executives. Co-creation means that different stakeholders jointly determine a common course or collaborate to solve a problem. In this co-creation phase, the program’s objectives were defined: improved company results (business performance) according to a predetermined metric or key performance indicator (KPI), lower absenteeism, and higher autonomy satisfaction and intrinsic motivation. The program taught the team leaders (N = 14) the principles of engaging leadership and needs satisfaction in several one-day training sessions spread over eight months. In between, the participants were offered peer-consultation (a specific discussion method for groups) and one-on-one coaching. The leadership program was also expected to promote the team members’ (N = 148) autonomy and motivation by allowing the team leaders’ positive effects to trickle down to the team members. The control group (52 team leaders and 218 team members) only attended a presentation explaining engaging leadership and needs satisfaction. To be able to assess the effects of the program, a questionnaire was administered to the team leaders and the employees of the intervention and control groups before and after the program. The business goals and absenteeism were tracked over a longer period so that six months after the program we could examine whether the results were lasting.

The post-program measurement showed a significant increase in the productivity and financial performance of the intervention group. This increase continued in the subsequent period. Absence due to sickness within the intervention group decreased significantly and also continued after the program ended. The team leaders who participated in the program showed a substantial increase in autonomy satisfaction and intrinsic motivation. However, the projected trickle-down effect of autonomy and motivation from team leaders to employees did not materialize, despite the teams’ lower absenteeism and higher productivity. One of the intervention study’s learning points is that actively involving team members in co-creation and implementation may further support the program’s positive effects.

In summary, this intervention study shows that it is possible to achieve positive business results, lower absenteeism, and higher motivation and autonomy satisfaction through a leadership program. Linking the program to a concrete business goal made the program relevant to the participants. The joint drafting of that specific goal generated support and involvement. In addition, embedding these goals in the leadership program provided a clear context within which the goals had to be achieved, and provided the participants with the knowledge and tools needed to achieve the goals set.

Overall, the four studies show that fulfilling basic psychological needs plays an essential role in the relationship between leadership, corporate goals, values, ​​and engagement. The results also underline the importance of the underlying leadership process. Moreover, both the study of engaging leadership (Chapter 2) and the study of value perceptions (Chapter 4) showed that autonomy satisfaction plays a central role in engagement. Leadership, business objectives, and values ​​complement each other and should be seen as a whole (Chapter 1). Therefore, leadership studies should pay more attention to corporate objectives and values. Studies by business schools have already shown how broader and sustainable business objectives that incorporate all stakeholders contribute to financial results. Studies of corporate governance emphasize that broadening the corporate objective benefits sustainability, social responsibility, innovation, and profitability in the long term. Additionally, the studies in this thesis show that corporate purpose and values ​​are essential for employee motivation and engagement.

Suggestions for further research

Several suggestions for further research are made. As assumed in the self-determination theory, the dynamics in the relationship between managers and employees should receive more attention. For example, the concrete exchanges between leaders and employees in the conversations they have with each other could be studied. By studying these exchanges, the core of self-determination theory can be tested in a practical sense. After all, motivation results from the exchange between individuals and their environment, and the psychological effects of that exchange. Certain conversations will have a positive effect on motivation and engagement. Knowledge about the specific characteristics of that interaction could offer concrete tools for promoting autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Specifically, researchers could investigate discussions about the company’s corporate purpose and associated values ​​and how this dialogue best contributes to motivation and engagement.

Another suggestion is to take a broader look at the effects of business objectives by drawing up a typology of different objectives and examining the extent to which certain purposes contribute to motivation and engagement; For example, by comparing the impact of companies with a shareholder perspective with the impact of companies with a more sustainable corporate objective. The effects of these different objectives on feelings of personal significance could be examined, given that meaningfulness and self-realization through work play an increasingly central role in people’s lives.

Practical implications

This thesis’s studies show that motivation explains a lot about the relationship between leadership, corporate objectives, values, ​​and engagement. The studies say less about the practical application of motivation in daily leadership situations. The organization, managers, and employees are closely intertwined. The quality and dynamics of their connection explain an important part of the outcomes. It is not just managers’ behavior that determines motivation and engagement, but also how managers and employees interact.

Basic needs can be fulfilled by actively involving employees in meaningful dialogue. For example, autonomy can be promoted by explaining why a certain task or action is relevant, listening carefully to what employees think, and creating the space they need to form their own opinions. More than talking, telling, and instructing, leaders should aim to put the subject in a clear context, listen, and ask open questions, and not steer too much toward a particular outcome. One of the most effective ways to promote competence is to give frequent (positive) feedback. The need for relatedness can be fulfilled by, among other things, showing genuine interest and creating a sense of openness and security. Conversations about the company’s corporate purpose and values ​​can also help employees feel more connected to the company and to each other, and can reinforce their sense of meaningfulness and significance.


This dissertation investigated the influence of leadership, corporate goals, and values ​​on engagement, and the role of motivation in this relationship. As expected, we found that engaging leadership, embracing a higher purpose, and heeding employees’ value perceptions promote motivation and engagement by fulfilling basic psychological needs. Need satisfaction – especially the fulfillment of autonomy – explained more than half of the variance in engagement. Motivation, as described in self-determination theory, is essential in obtaining favorable outcomes. Structural attention to meeting the need for autonomy, competence, and relatedness contributes to employee well-being and performance.

The essence of motivation as a linking and explanatory factor in the relationship between leadership and engagement shows that leadership is not primarily about a leader’s character traits and behavior. Leadership is much more about creating the social, psychological, and material context in which people can perform optimally. In the right context, people do not need to be motivated, but motivate themselves and each other. Instead of blaming low motivation on employees, one should look carefully at the leadership context and the dynamics within which people have to find their motivation. Often one will find a tension between the management model and its effects on motivation through the fulfillment or frustration of basic psychological needs. The ability to recreate that dynamic through validation and acknowledgment are essential aspects of effective leadership. They lead to healthy organizations with higher employee well-being, more creativity, better performance, and higher levels of autonomous motivation and engagement.

Work can meet people’s need for self-realization. Maslow already concluded this in 1962. Now, almost 60 years later, self-realization and finding meaning through work have only become more central. Therewith,  importance for organizations to support employees in self-realization and finding meaning through work has increased. And despite many experiments with other ways of governance, operational control, and the creation of inspiring work environments, the traditional hierarchical model of prediction and control is still dominant. Managing shareholder value is also still central. With the studies in this thesis, we hope to have contributed to the development of insights and knowledge about work environments in which people’s basic psychological needs are met and people can find a basis for meaning and dignity.

1 Stiglitz, J. E. (2016). Inequality and economic growth. In M. Jacobs & M. Mazzucato (eds.), Rethinking Capitalism (pp. 134–155). Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

lars van tuin artwork