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Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 1 (2008), 6062.

Copyright 2008 Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology. 1754-9426/08

Employee Engagement From a

Self-Determination Theory

The University of Western Ontario
Concordia University

Macey and Schneider (2008) draw on numer- vation refers to doing an activity for its own
ous theories to explain what engagement is sake out of enjoyment and interest. Extrinsic
and how it is similar to and different from motivation refers to doing an activity for
related constructs in the organizational instrumental reasons. Although extrinsic
behavior literature. As a result, we now have motivation is arguably predominant in a
a better understanding of some of the key work context, it too can take different forms.
components of engagement. What appears According to SDT, extrinsic motivation can
to be missing, however, is a strong unifying reflect a desire to gain rewards or avoid pun-
theory to guide research and practice. We ishment (external regulation), boost ones
believe that such a theory exists in the form ego or avoid feelings of guilt (introjection),
of self-determination theory (SDT; Deci & attain a valued personal goal (identification),
Ryan, 1985; Ryan & Deci, 2000) and its var- or express ones sense of self (integration).
ious corollaries, self-concordance theory Identification and integration involve a high
(SCT; Sheldon & Elliot, 1999), hierarchical level of volition and, along with intrinsic
theory (Vallerand, 1997), and passion theory motivation, are considered forms of autono-
(Vallerand et al., 2003). Although Macey and mous regulation. External regulation and
Schneider acknowledged the relevance of introjection involve more external influence
SDT and SCT, we believe that much greater and less authenticity and are considered
use of these theories could be made to justify forms of controlled regulation. Autonomous
and extend their conceptual model. regulation, which is also at the heart of
Sheldons concept of self-concordance and
Self-Determination Theory Vallerands characterization of harmonious
SDT (Deci & Ryan, 1985) proposes two over- passion, has been demonstrated to lead to
arching forms of motivation. Intrinsic moti- higher levels of performance, persistence,
initiative, and creativity (Ryan & Deci, 2000).
The concept of autonomous regulation
Correspondence concerning this article should be overlaps considerably with Macey and
addressed to John P. Meyer. E-mail:
Address: Department of Psychology, The University Schneiders conceptualization of state en-
of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, Canada N6A 5C2 gagement. Moreover, the behavioral outcomes
John P. Meyer, Department of Psychology, The found to be associated with autonomous reg-
University of Western Ontario; Marylene Gagne,
Department of Management, John Molson School of ulation correspond with what they described
Business, Concordia University. as behavioral engagement. In contrast to

SDT and engagement 61

recent conceptualizations of engagement, SDT that can also be contrasted with engage-
however, SDT has been in place for over mentreactive autonomy. Koestner and Los-
30 years, has been well tested in both labo- ier (1996) have shown that people sometimes
ratory and field research, and has served as react to loss of autonomy by rebelling against
a guide for training and interventions in the source of control. Thus, SDT helps to
a variety of contexts. Although much of the explain not only engagement but also the psy-
research has taken place outside of the work- chological states and behavioral reactions
place, there has been sufficient application that can result in the absence of engagement.
in a work context to attest to its relevance
(Gagne & Deci, 2005). Thus, SDT is a theory
Expanding the Outcomes
that we believe can bring together existing
of Engagement
conceptualizations and serve as a guide for
future research. The following are a few Macey and Schneider focus primarily on task
examples of its potential contributions. performance and organizational effective-
ness as outcomes of engagement. These are
Underlying psychological mechanisms. If indeed important outcomes. However, SDT
we are to truly understand how engagement research has consistently demonstrated that
develops, we need more than a list of poten- individuals who are engaged in what they
tial antecedentswe must be able to iden- are doing also experience greater physical
tify and explain the underlying mechanisms. and psychological well-being than those
According to SDT, the key to autonomous who are amotivated or lack of personal con-
regulation is satisfaction of basic psycholog- trol (Ryan & Deci, 2000). The well-being of
ical needs for competence, autonomy, and employees is important in its own right and
relatedness. There is good evidence for the also has benefits for organizations in terms of
universality of these needs, and research lower absence rates and health insurance
shows that lack of satisfaction leads to costs.
poorer performance and reduced physical
and psychological well-being (Ryan & Deci,
Guiding Measurement
2000). Moreover, need satisfaction is an
important mediator in the relation between There is currently a lack of consensus regard-
environmental influences (e.g., job charac- ing the measurement of engagement. For
teristics, leadership) and autonomous regu- many years, SDT has been used to guide
lation (Gagne & Deci, 2005). Therefore, by the measurement of engagement-relevant
identifying key mechanisms, SDT can serve variables (e.g., need satisfaction, motiva-
as a useful guide for the development of tar- tional states, psychological and behavioral
geted intervention strategies. outcomes) in a variety of contexts (e.g., Ryan
& Connell, 1989). Vallerand (1997) has shown
that motivational states can be operational-
What Is the Opposite
ized at varying levels of abstraction: global
of Engagement?
(i.e., dispositional), contextual (e.g., work,
Macey and Schneider note that there is some education), and situational (i.e., specific
confusion about whether the opposite of activities). Consequently, SDT can readily
engagement is lack of engagement or disen- be applied in the development of measures
gagement. SDT distinguishes autonomous of the various facets of engagement identi-
regulation (engagement) from controlled fied by Macey and Schneider (i.e., trait, state,
motivation and amotivation (i.e., with- behavior) as well as various foci of engage-
drawal). Each can be measured individually, ment (e.g., job, organization; Saks, 2006). It
and these measures have been shown to can also be applied across domains (e.g.,
relate differently to task-relevant behavior work, education, sport) to promote con-
(Gagne & Deci, 2005). In addition, there is sistency in conceptualization and measure-
a third motivational state identified within ment and facilitate cross-fertilization.
62 J.P. Meyer and M. Gagne

Links to Broader of engagement interventions should help to

Theoretical Domains avoid such problems.
We agree with Macey and Schneider that
engagement is distinguishable from general Conclusions
work motivation, commitment, job involve-
As Macey and Schneider pointed out,
ment, job satisfaction, and other key concepts
engagement is a concept with a sparse and
in the organizational behavior literature.
diverse theoretical and empirically demon-
However, we believe that the similarities
strated nomological net (p. 3). We believe
and differences might be more clearly articu-
that SDT (and related theories) can serve as
lated by grounding the concept of engage-
a much needed unifying framework. By
ment in SDT. For example, one of the
adapting SDT as a guiding framework, rather
reasons that Macey and Schneider viewed
than slowly joining the fray, as Macey
engagement as distinct from work motivation
and Schneider (p. 3) suggested, academic re-
is that most theories of work motivation focus
searchers have an opportunity to leapfrog
primarily on intensity without much concern
practice to lead new developments in
for form. SDT, in contrast, offers a multidimen-
engagement theory, research, and practice.
sional conceptualization of work motivation
that allows one to differentiate forms of moti-
vation (e.g., controlled vs. autonomous) and References
their implications for behavior (e.g., effective
Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation
in-role performance vs. the discretionary and and self-determination in human behavior. New
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ory and work motivation. Journal of Organizational
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theory where it intuitively belongs. As an versus reflective autonomy. Journal of Personality,
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research can be informed by recent work link- employee engagement. Industrial and Organiza-
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Practice, 1, 330.
ship, identification, and job design (e.g., Meyer, J. P., Becker, T. E., & Vandenberghe, C. (2004).
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tual analysis and integrative model. Journal of
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acting in two domains. Journal of Personality and
We share Macey and Schneiders concern Social Psychology, 57, 749761.
that there is a potential for mismanagement Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination
theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation,
of the engagement process (e.g., encourag- social development, and well-being. American Psy-
ing involvement at levels that encroach on chologist, 55, 6878.
family time or might be psychologically or Saks, A. M. (2006). Antecedents and consequences of
employee engagement. Journal of Managerial Psy-
physically unhealthy). Another advantage of chology, 21, 600619.
SDT, therefore, is that it provides a theoreti- Sheldon, K. M., & Elliot, A. J. (1999). Goal striving, need-
cal explanation for the consequences of mis- satisfaction, and longitudinal well-being: The self-
concordance model. Journal of Personality and
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engagement that threaten rather than satisfy Vallerand, R. J. (1997). Toward a hierarchical model of
psychological needs (e.g., by challenging intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.),
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