Self-determination is when a person makes their own decisions regarding their life and how it is managed. Decisions are guided by internal factors such as internal motivation, internal locus of control, and personal drive. External factors and pressures do not affect those choices.
There is also a theory of human motivation called self-determination theory postulated by Ryan and Deci (2000; 2020).
The theory starts with the assumptions that:
- Human beings strive for growth, and
- Internal sources of motivation are essential.
In order to achieve growth, people need to feel autonomous, competent, and connected with others.
If people do not feel autonomous and in control of their own behavior, then they will fail to take action.
Additionally, people need to feel that they have the skills and competencies to succeed, otherwise there is no reason to try. And third, people need to feel a sense of belonging with others.
- Autonomy – Ryan and Deci argue that autonomy is a key feature of self-determination. It means that you can make decisions without the permission of others.
- Connectedness – Self-determined people may be able to make their own decisions, but they also have communities and support networks that can enable them to succeed and support them as they make their decisions.
- Competency – To feel as if you can do something yourself and make your own decisions, you need to have the belief that you are competent enough to do it.
- Initiative – People with initiative won’t wait for others to tell them what to do. Instead, they identify the things that need to be done and they go out and do them.
- Drive – Drive refers to a person’s ability to get moving on a task. It means there is some sort of motivating factor inside of you that makes you feel like you want to get up and get started on things.
- Entrepreneurialism – Instead of just relying on someone else to give them a job, entrepreneurs go out and make work for themselves by offering up their services as a business. This is a key way to achieve self-determination in your life (and potentially even wealth and financial freedom!).
- Independent thinking – People who have achieved self-determination don’t rely on the opinions of their parents, teachers, or friends to guide the choices they make. Instead, they will make choices and come to conclusions by themselves.
- Persistence – People who do not make genuine decisions for personal interest often lack persistence. This is because the decisions aren’t guided by their true desires. By contrast, a person who is self-determined makes decisions based on their own wants and desires, so they’re more likely to follow through on their choices even when times get tough.
- Self-belief – Sometimes, it requires self-belief to be self-determined. This is because you need to believe that you’re capable of making your own decisions in order to be confident about making them.
- Resilience – Resilience may also be a trait of a self-determined person because they know who they are and what they want. As a result, they are okay if people don’t agree with them or criticize them; and they’re okay if it takes setbacks to get where you want to go.
- Joining communities of practice – If you seek self-determination, you’ll often join a group or community that helps you get there. This also shows initiative. For example, if you want to become a great athlete, you might join your local athletics club as your first step toward your self-chosen goal.
- Taking further education – If youtake steps to educate yourself in your career path or personal interests, you’re demonstrating the believe that it’s within your control to achieve the life you desire. That, in itself, is self-determination.
- Autodidacticism – You don’t need to take formal education to demonstrate that you have self-determination. You can also teach yourself, such as when someone teaches themselves to play guitar. This is called autodidacticism.
- Doing extracurriculars – Many high school students take extracurricular activities to demonstrate their self-determination to prospective universities. By doing their extracurricular activities, they’re showing that they are making intentional choices to get what they want out of life.
- Changing paths – A person with self-determination believes their choices influence their life path. If the path they’re on isn’t serving their needs, they will change paths, knowing that this is the right thing to do in order to reach their goals in life.
How to Demonstrate Self-Determination on a Resume
Demonstrating that you are a self-determined person begins with the ways you interact with your potential employer.
Start by taking initiative in your job application. Email the members of the hiring committee and tell them about yourself, while also asking what they’re really looking for in the job applicant.
This act of reaching out can help you to show that you truly are someone who desires this job. You’re doing it out of a sense of self-determination. You want it, and you’re going to take initiative to try to get it.
On your cover letter, you can also demonstrate self-determination by talking about the choices you made that led you down this career path choice. By showing that you’ve made a series of intentional decisions that led you to the job, you can show that you have the intrinsic motivation and drive required to succeed.
Self-Determination Case Studies
1. Team Building in the Workplace
Team-building activities are designed to help members of an organization work more effectively together. Working as a cohesive group improves performance and helps both individuals and the organization achieve their goals.
Strengthening the bonds between members of the organization helps people feel connected to each other. It improves company loyalty and commitment, as well as overall job satisfaction.
When a member of the staff feels isolated and uninvolved, it lowers their productivity and morale. That feeling can spread to other employees and create an uneasy atmosphere.
Happy and fulfilled employees are more productive and enthusiastic. Therefore, most organizations conduct regular team-building activities to help everyone feel included and working towards shared goals.
The are literally thousands of team-building activities to choose from, and most of them are actually a lot of fun.
2. Professional Development
Professional development (PD) is all about enhancing the competencies of workers. Since knowledge is always changing, it is important that all members of an organization keep up-to-date with recent advancements.
When most people hear the term “professional development” (PD) they immediately think of a workshop or seminar. But that’s only part of the picture. While it certainly is true that PD often includes workshops and seminars, that is actually just one component of a much larger process.
For example, before an organization even gets to the point of having staff participate in a PD activity, there are several steps that should take place first.
First, the organization needs to do an assessment of what the staff need. Then they must design and market (i.e., persuade) staff of its value.
Once the PD has been delivered, things don’t stop there. If the PD is highly technical, then staff may need additional resources, equipment, or even more training.
3. Tim Cook, CEO of Apple
After becoming CEO of Apple in 2011, Tim Cook surrounded himself with executives that share his vision and endorse his management style. He strives to create an atmosphere that empowers all employees and his executive team is encouraged to take risks and not be afraid of failure.
This is a concept similar to autonomy in self-determination theory. When people feel in control of their decisions and can set their own goals, they usually excel.
In addition, their commitment and loyalty to the company increases substantially because they feel respected and valued.
As he stated during an interview with Strategy Watch:
“You look for people who appreciate different points of view. People who care enough that they have an idea at 11 at night and they want to call and talk to you about it.”
Apple continues to be a leading performer in the tech sector since Cook took the helm. That is not easy feat, and is in part due his efforts to instill a sense of autonomy in his team.
4. Democratic Leadership Style
The fundamental premise of the democratic leadership style is based on the concept of inclusion. Every member of the team or department is valued and respected. Their opinions matter and will always be listened to by management and colleagues.
Creating this kind of organizational culture produces many positive outcomes. First, you never know where a great idea will come from. Anyone is capable of generating an idea that can save the company millions or maybe even open an entirely new market.
Secondly, an atmosphere of inclusiveness also creates a strong sense of loyalty from employees. When staff feel respected, their commitment to the company increases. They will work harder and become more devoted to company goals.
Connectedness may seem like an abstract concept, but is has very tangible benefits.
5. Aboriginal Self-Determination
Not only can individuals have self-determination, but this concept also applies to groups of people and their culture. For example, the Aboriginal people of Australia have been fighting for their right to self-determination for over 200 years.
The British Empire began colonizing Australia in 1788. In modern times, Australia Day is celebrated as the official national holiday on January 26th, which marks the landing of a British fleet.
That day also represents the end of the Aboriginal people’s right to self-determination. In recent years however, the Aboriginal people have gained progress in exerting their rights as the original inhabitants of the land.
These efforts have been recognized and supported by many in the government today. For example, the Victorian government stated:
“Without self-determination, it is not possible for Indigenous Australians to fully overcome the legacy of colonisation and dispossession” (VPSC, 2022).
In addition, the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 (section 19) is a firm policy statement recognizing the rights of Aboriginal people to:
- enjoy their identity and culture
- maintain and use their language
- maintain their kinship ties
- maintain their spiritual, material and economic relationship with the land, waters, and other resources
Self-determination is about controlling your own destiny; taking control of your path and being the person responsible for your decisions. When people feel a sense of autonomy, their motivation and efforts increase dramatically.
Once a person feels this sense of control, they will identify their strengths and weaknesses. This can result in seeking out training opportunities or taking extra classes online to improve their skills.
However, according to self-determination theory, none of that will happen if a person feels disconnected. When a person feels isolated, motivation goes out the door.
Feeling a sense of belonging and connection to a group or shared vision is highly motivating. It helps people see a purpose for their hard work and feel appreciated by the organization.
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2020). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation from a self-determination theory perspective: Definitions, theory, practices, and future directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 61. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cedpsych.2020.101860
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. The American Psychologist, 55(1), 68–78. https://doi.org/10.1037//0003-066x.55.1.68
Satter, S.B. (n.d.). Leadership qualities, skills and style of Tim Cook. The Strategy Watch. Retrieved from https://www.thestrategywatch.com/leadership-qualities-skills-style-tim-cook/
Vallerand, R. (2000). Deci and Ryan’s self-determination theory: A view from the hierarchical model of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Psychological Inquiry, 11(4), 312-318.
Victorian Public Sector Commission. (2022, June 28). Aboriginal self-determination. Retrieved from https://vpsc.vic.gov.au/workforce-programs/aboriginal-cultural-capability-toolkit/aboriginal-self-determination/