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How to Combine Self-Determination Theory & Emotional Intelligence for Transformational Leadership.

In the ever-evolving landscape of leadership, the ability to motivate & empower your team toward success is absolutely essential. Leaders who understand the principles of Self-Determination Theory (SDT), together with leveraging emotional & social intelligence, can spark motivation, transformation & high performance in their teams.

In this article we're going to look at the principles of self-determination theory (SDT) before offering 5 key strategies on how it can be combined with emotional and social intelligence (ESI) to achieve transformational leadership.

Transformational leadership is defined as a conscious approach to leadership that inspires and motivates employees to innovate and create the change necessary to shape future organisational success and meaningful social impact.

Principles of SDT

With its roots in comparative studies between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, SDT was formally introduced and accepted as an empirical behavioural theory when psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan wrote the book on Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behaviour.

Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are both powerful forces in shaping who we are and how we behave (Deci & Ryan, 2008). Intrinsic motivation is when we engage in an activity or task because it brings us a sense of personal gratification and fulfillment. Extrinsic motivation on the other hand is when we engage in an activity for the purpose of obtaining an external goal or reward.

SDT identifies three particular innate psychological needs that when met motivate self-initiated behaviour that encourages personal and professional growth. These include:-

  • Autonomy - the intrinsic drive to make choices and decisions independently.

  • Competence - the need for accomplishment deriving from effort and application.

  • Relatedness - the need for belongingness, connection and positive relationships.


Emotional Intelligence in Leadership: Emotional intelligence (EQ) is another essential element for leaders to master, with a high EQ a leader can regulate their own emotions and understand those of their team members, fostering empathy, support trust and collaboration.

Social Intelligence: Social intelligence complements EQ by focusing on interpersonal interactions and relationships. Leaders with strong social intelligence can navigate complex group dynamics and create a cohesive team environment.

ESI Quadrant Fundamentals -

Leaders who embrace SDT and ESI recognise the importance of autonomy and the power that emotions play in our conditioning. They provide their team members the freedom to make decisions and take ownership of their work promoting a sense of self-direction, leading to increased motivation and job satisfaction.

Transformational leaders offer opportunities for skill development, provide constructive feedback, and set realistic expectations, supporting their team members in building competence and boosting their confidence and motivation along the way.

They also encourage social connection, team building, and open communication in the workplace, recognising their team is made up of individuals with unique needs and intrinsic/ extrinsic motivators.

The Synergy of SDT and Emotional and Social Intelligence

Here are five key strategies that can be used to promote SDT and ESI to enhance your transformational leadership:-

1. A Vision of Empowerment: To be a transformational leader you have to create a culture that balances autonomy with clarity of purpose. Welcome your team's insights and opinions while keeping everyone aligned with the overarching goals.

2. Communication and Connection: Transformational leadership hinges on open, transparent communication. Cultivate your emotional intelligence by making an effort to understand your team's motivations, and concerns. Combine this with social intelligence to navigate group dynamics and foster a harmonious, high-performing team.

3. Learning and Growth: Recognise that your team members are driven by their desire to feel competent and valued. As leaders, our role is to provide them with opportunities for skill development and professional growth. Show them that you believe in their potential to achieve more and encourage them in their pursuit of upskilling.

4. Celebrate Successes: Acknowledging achievements plays a pivotal role in maintaining a motivated team. It fosters a sense of competence, and when coupled with emotional intelligence, can convey your genuine appreciation and support.

5. Autonomy within Structure: Create an environment where your team has the freedom to make choices within a framework of clear boundaries. This autonomy, when channeled through your emotional and social intelligence, will empower your team to excel.

In conclusion, transformational leadership is a delicate dance that combines Self-Determination Theory, emotional intelligence, and social intelligence. Leaders who understand the importance of autonomy, competence, and relatedness can create a motivated, engaged and high-performing team. Additionally, emotional and social intelligence provide the essential tools for navigating the complexities of human interactions in the workplace.

By following the above five key strategies, you can weave SDT into your leadership style, which, in turn, will foster a culture of motivation, collaboration and high performance. Remember that effective leadership isn't solely about managing tasks; it's about inspiring and empowering your team to reach their utmost potential.

Paul Pitsaras LL.B B.Int.Bus.

Managing Director & Executive Coach

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