I’ve found that the best leaders create inspiring environments where the group of people being led authentically care more for each other, care more for the people they are serving and continue to autonomously develop better and better capabilities in their work. One of the patterns I have found in these environments is the use of “we” language vs. “I” language amongst the team. I believe this to be a leadership imperative.

A contextual model showing the flip between “I” thinking and “We” thinking in the context of the Self Determination Theory
The Leadership Flip Contextual Model (Self Determination Theory)

To effectively maximize the creativity in an organization, the group of people you are leading has to shift their thinking from how they are each serving themselves, by showing up for a paycheck, to thinking about how to continuously improve the products and services the organization provides for the people it calls customers.

It is an exercise in causing more caring to occur in the world (the creation of affective empathy) while causing more influence through the capabilities of our products and services. Leaders inspire this to occur for their employees, their customers, and even their vendors. They inspire more empathy in both depth and breadth for those whom they lead. They inspire employees to care more for each other and more for their customers. The best leaders bring about an environment in which the customers also care for the people who work for the company. In essence, serving to simultaneously expand the spheres of influence and the spheres of caring in the context of the organization. Inspiring a large group of people is hard and logic would infer that the larger the group, the harder it is.

I call this “The Leadership Flip” from “I” thinking to “We” thinking and it can’t be done in a single short cycle. It is the marathon of human performance art that we call leadership.

The marathon of human performance art called leadership involves getting more smart people to think in terms of “We.”

The Self Determination Theory is a broad set of theories, which include great detail, about how human motivation works. The theory, through years of research and troves of scientific experiments, proposes that there are three core needs that must be met in order to maximize intrinsic motivation. These are the needs of Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness.

From the “Handbook of Self Determination Theory”:

Self Determination Theory in a Triangle with Autonomy, Competence and Relatedness at each vertex
Self Determination Theory: Autonomy, Competence and Relatedness

Competence is the need for mastery, progression, achievement, learning, and growth. When we can see how we can contribute to a meaningful goal with our skills and knowledge, we develop more self-esteem. This contributes to high-quality, intrinsic motivation toward our work.

Autonomy — is the need for volition, freedom of control over our choices, and the way in which we go about accomplishing tasks. When have agency and thus feel a sense of safety around our near-term future, we act more purposefully and with more energy in our work.

Relatedness — is the need to feel as though we matter to others and that others matter to us. When we have a sense of connectedness, purpose, and meaning in our work, we fully show up to devour the tasks at hand. We tend to care more about those “missions” when we can see how our work results in a better outcome for others.

There is a complicated relationship between these needs, similar to the relationship Abraham Maslow first proposed with his “Hierarchy of Needs”. While the relationship is not definitive, and each of us will balance these needs differently for ourselves, the relationship is important to consider in different contexts. We need to feel safe and in control of our own futures before we will work to maximize our competence or work with full motivation toward any sort of goal. If we were to use the Hoshin star methodology, popularized by Dr. W Edwards Deming, to describe the relationship between these needs, it would graphically look like this:

Self Determination Theory for Individuals as a Hoshin Star with Autonomy, Competence and Relatedness 2 arrows out of autonomy
Self Determination Theory for Individuals

Again, while not a definitive hierarchical relationship, autonomy and its requisite sense of both safety and control will drive more effective competence building in the context of the skills required to achieve the leader’s goals. It will also drive more powerful relatedness in the context of those goals. Without safety, competence building might be achieved through manipulation or extrinsic motivators, but the research shows that using extrinsic motivators often reduces motivation (See References Below.)

Again, while not purely hierarchical, individuals must have either adequate competence or at least see a path toward the required competence in order to drive powerful relatedness in the context of the group’s goals. If the individual does not appreciate or believe the “competence” required for the role is within their capabilities, it will be difficult to achieve relatedness. You might experience resistance or apathy from them. Competence and the pursuit of mastery clearly drive relatedness when thought about in this context.

Self Determination Theory for Individuals as a Hoshin Star with Autonomy, Competence and Relatedness with arrows between each
Self Determination Theory for Individuals as a Complete Hoshin Star

This complete Hoshin Star allows us to create a cascade of needs that looks like this:

Cascade of Concerns for an individual: Autonomy >> Competence >> Relatedness
Autonomy >> Competence >> Relatedness

Stated more simply, for an individual:

Having a sense of autonomy, feeling safe, and feeling in control will lead to a more self-determined achievement of competence and mastery which will, in turn, lead to a more passionate drive toward relatedness in the context of connectedness with their team and with the goals of the group. It is, of course, necessary to have goals, which are motivating and relatable, to connect how competence building and action will solve problems for other people in the context of the work.

Self Determination Theory for a group of people is more complicated. Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness manifest as a group of people who, together are motivated toward a common goal. They must believe that they:

Are competent: They are on a shared path to mastery, are progressing, growing, and achieving. This manifests as their shared confidence in their shared abilities.

Are autonomously driven: They act powerfully of their own volition and have freedom of control over their shared choices. This manifests as a group of people who are committed to each other and to their shared goals.

Share a sense of relatedness: They feel as though they matter to each other and they are working together to make the world a better for people who matter to them. When they are connected and share goals, this manifests as alignment.

The contextual model below shows how a group of individuals might stack up in terms of self-determination theory. The A’s represent individual Autonomy, the C’s represent individual Competence and the R’s represent individual Relatedness.

A Pyramid of People with Autonomy, Competence and Relatedness stacked up: Adding up to Commitment, Confidence and Alignment
Self Determination Theory for a Group of People: Alignment, Confidence & Commitment

Something interesting happens when we use the Hoshin Star methodology to describe the relationship between these needs of self-determination in the context of a group of people. Common sense would tell us, the larger the group, the more complicated it is for the leader to inspire the people in the group. The relationship between the needs is imperfect, as it is with individuals, and each person in the group will balance these needs differently.

This is what I observe:

Together, we need to achieve relatedness and be aligned to each other through a shared “purpose” before we will work together to maximize our shared competence to produce collaborative self-determined, autonomous action. When we do those things, the leader will know we are motivated. If we were to use the Hoshin star methodology to describe this relationship, it would graphically look like this:

Self Determination Theory for Groups as a Hoshin Star with Autonomy, Competence and Relatedness 2 arrows out of relatedness
Self Determination Theory for Groups

While not an absolute relationship, maximizing the relatedness to each other and your team’s shared purpose, in the context of solving problems for others, will drive more effective shared competence building toward the skills required to achieve the shared goals. It will also drive more powerful autonomous action in the context of those goals. Without relatedness, competence building and some autonomous action might be achieved through manipulation or extrinsic motivators, but it will not be done with maximum motivation.

Again, while the relationship, either having adequate competence or at least seeing a path toward the required competence will drive more powerful and autonomous action in the context of the shared goals. If the group does not appreciate or believe the team or group has the competence required to achieve the goals, autonomous action from the team will not be maximized. Without competence, the group’s confidence will flounder and the leader will experience resistance, apathy of burnout on the team. Shared competence and the collaborative pursuit of mastery will obviously drive more powerful autonomous action from the group.

Self Determination Theory for a group “We” as Hoshin Star with Autonomy, Competence and Relatedness with arrows between each
Self Determination Theory for Groups as a Complete Hoshin Star

This complete Hoshin Star allows us to create a cascade of needs for the group looks like this:

Cascade of Concerns for an group: Relatedness >> Competence >> Autonomy
Relatedness >> Competence >> Autonomy

Stated more simply, for a group:

Feeling relatedness to each other and to a shared and powerful human based goal will lead to a more self determined achievement of competence and mastery amongst the team which will lead to a more passionate expression of autonomous action toward the shared goals.

If we swap out the group language that we used above, to be clear when we are communicating to the “We” vs. the “I,” we get this contextual model:

Cascade of Concerns for an group: Alignment >> Confidence >> Commitment
Alignment >> Confidence >> Commitment

Again, this is, of course, provided the goals are motivating and relatable goals that will help people to connect to how competence building and action will solve problems for other people in the context of the organization.

Notice these two cascades run in opposite directions. The same needs, but with a completely opposite approach because of the different context. This is a powerful concept. It demonstrates the importance of causing “The Leadership Flip” to occur for as many individuals as possible from the “I” to the “We” in the context of the groups goals. It is the leader’s job is to recognize when people or factions on the team are not operating in the “We” context and inspire the movement of the group’s capacity for caring for one-another and for the benefactors of the work. It is also a formula that demonstrates how stewarding the systematic improvement of the groups competence and their capacity for influence through confidence will lead to this shift.

The best leaders use language to create clarity for both their employees and their customers about how their products and services improve empathy. They do this by purposefully developing a positive culture through the language, mantras, lore and actions {Another Article to come} that result through the creation of alignment, confidence and commitment from a group of people.

Always keep in mind the importance of understanding how intrinsic motivation works for each individual on our team, as their individual needs for self determination never go away. But in the context of our work together, we have to understand how to prioritize the needs to maximize the motivation of the team by stewarding alignment, confidence and commitment — in that order.

Note: Daniel Pink wrote the book “Drive” based on the Self Determination Theory. I often use the words “Drive,” “Purpose” and “Mastery” similar to Pink in the context of Self Determination Theory:

Drive: To represent the maximization of autonomous action that results from high-quality, intrinsic motivation.

Purpose: To represent relatedness in the context of connection to goals, how we are solving problems for other people, and thus demonstrating our care for them.

Mastery: To represent learning, growing, and the building of competence in pursuit of goals.

If you found this article useful, please clap, highlight and leave me some feedback. If you use it in your work, I would be honored to learn how you are using it and what you are learning so we might grow and learn together.

Reading List:

The literature on compensation and motivation has demonstrated that rewards can decrease motivation and attitudes (Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959), alter self-perception (Bem, 1965), increase overjustification (Lepper, 1973), and turn feelings of competence into feelings of being controlled (Deci & Ryan, 1985)

“What makes an effective executive? “They thought and said “we” rather than “I.” — Peter Drucker {Adapted from the Introduction to The Effective Executive}

The Handbook of Self Determination Theory by Ed Deci and Richard Ryan

Why We Do What We Do by Ed Deci

A Theory of Human Motivation by Abraham Maslow

The Hoshin North Star Process by Matthew K Cross

Drive by Daniel Pink

KPI’s That Inspire by Sean Flaherty

How to Identify Natural Leaders by Sean Flaherty

The other authors and books that have influenced my thinking on this are numerous. To name a few:

Maslow on Management by Abraham Maslow

Modern Man in Search of A Soul by Carl Jung

Science and Human Behaviour by B. F. Skinner

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck

Technologist. Philosopher. Inspirer.

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