• Log In To Your Member Portal

How to Boost Productivity with Autonomous Motivation

autonomous motivation

The success of your dental practice depends on the team of people who work in your office. Their productivity is directly related to the efficiency of your practice. In short, highly productive employees contribute to your increased success. How can you strengthen the likelihood of having highly productive employees? One way to boost employee productivity is to understand autonomous motivation.

Let’s start with the premise that your employees want to be successful in their work as much as you want to be successful in your practice. Creating a work environment where employees are easily motivated to succeed, which then contributes to your success, is building a win-win situation for both you and your employees.

Examining autonomous motivation is a way to delve into what motivates employees to do their best work and can help contribute to creating this win-win environment in your dental office.

What is autonomous motivation?

Autonomous motivation is embedded in self-determination theory (SDT), developed in the 1970s by psychologists Richard Ryan and Edward Deci. In a nutshell, SDT is based on the idea that humans are best motivated to do tasks by intrinsic factors instead of extrinsic rewards. 

How does this work?

Three Essential Needs

Self-determination theory analyzes motivation through three essential psychological human needs: Autonomy, Relatedness, and Competence.

Autonomy is the need people have to experience a feeling of free choice. Relatedness is the need people have to experience a sense of connection with those around them. Competence is the need people have to experience a sense of accomplishment. 

According to Ryan and Deci, autonomy is the most critical in driving intrinsic motivation. This feeling of independence drives people to do their best work and is at the heart of autonomous motivation. The more autonomy a person feels, the more motivated they become.

As leaders, it’s essential to examine the importance of autonomy. To hone in on it, you need to first understand the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

What does intrinsic mean? What does extrinsic mean?

Extrinsic Definition

Extrinsic is an external factor that affects human behavior. These factors are outside of a person yet can influence how the person acts. 

A common extrinsic motivation in the workplace is money. It’s commonly thought, if employees are paid well, then they will be motivated to do their work. Monetary rewards can also be accompanied by extrinsic factors such as recognition by managers or supervisors and can motivate employees to complete assigned tasks.

Examples of extrinsic value in the workplace include:

  • Monetary bonuses
  • Commissions
  • Benefits
  • Raises
  • Profit-sharing
  • Public recognition

Intrinsic Definition

Intrinsic is an internal factor that affects human behavior. These factors are psychological in nature and come from within a person. 

Common intrinsic motivations in the workplace include: 

  • Pride in work
  • Feeling respected and trusted
  • Personal growth and learning
  • Feeling work is enjoyable
  • A sense of accomplishment
  • Expanding competence and contribution
  • Feeling a part of a productive team
  • Choice in work projects 

Intrinsic Vs. Extrinsic

Comparing the above two lists shows that intrinsic value touches on how a person feels about their work and not just how much compensation they receive. Being paid fairly is important, but being paid more does not always correlate with being more productive. Money is not the only factor that motivates people to complete tasks. Other factors are at play that encourage workers to be successfully productive and will create a better culture within the organization. 

Extrinsic is an outside factor that plays on a human being. Intrinsic is an internal factor that plays within a human being. Culture is built within. Autonomous motivation activates these intrinsic factors. Employees have an inner drive to do their work and do it well.

How do you activate this internal drive?

As human beings, our desire to be independent begins from a very young age. If you have ever watched a baby working hard to pull up on furniture, take those first few steps, or even say those first few words, you are witnessing intrinsic motivation. This type of motivation doesn’t stop once we know how to walk and talk. Our desire to be independent continues throughout our lives. As a leader, you want to activate this drive within the work environment you set up.

There is a difference between a work environment that nurtures intrinsic motivation and one that neglects it. Neglecting it fosters a workplace that squashes autonomous motivation and all the productivity that goes with it. The goal is to develop a work environment that supports the growth of autonomous motivation.

How to enhance autonomy in the work environment 

There are three fundamental ways to develop autonomy in your dental office: fostering relevance, providing choice, and allowing for criticism and independent thinking. 


Cultivating a work environment to have relevance goes a long way to giving employees a feeling of autonomy.

When something is relevant to us as human beings, it means that it is important to us. We care about it. We want to achieve it. We have a reason to do it. Fostering relevance allows each employee to contribute to the success of your dental practice in a way that is important to each of them.

For example, it can be difficult for an employee to get excited about implementing a new process when its importance does not feel relevant to what the employee contributes. Not all employees do the same job, so each will see the importance of the new process in a different way. 

As a leader, it’s valuable to create an environment where relevance is fostered for each employee. A place where an employee sees the new process as important to what they do as an individual and is tied to their personal achievement.


Promoting a feeling of choice in your work environment can encourage autonomy within your employees, especially if their choices are tied to their personal growth and success. None of us likes to feel that we have no choice, especially in something as important as the work we do. We all want to perform tasks at work we find interesting. Tying employee choice to an employee’s personal goals can instill a sense of autonomy.

This is not to say that every employee in your practice gets to choose only the tasks they enjoy. There will always be the “not-so-enjoyable” tasks that need to be completed no matter the workplace or the job, but providing even small choices for each employee within the parameters of their job gives them a feeling of control. This feeling of control supports a feeling of autonomy. 


This last way of developing autonomy in your dental office is two-fold. The core is for you as a leader to listen and accept criticism from your employees. It is not always the easiest of tasks, but it is important. An employee that feels safe expressing feedback on a colleague or problems they are encountering with you as a leader is an employee that also feels safe to think independently. 

Fear of repercussions not only shuts an employee down to express criticism but also shuts them down when expressing solutions to problems that hold your practice back from success. Allowing space for criticism also allows for creative and innovative thinking. Feelings of autonomy grow in an employee who feels they can think independently on the job.


Establishing autonomous motivation in your dental practice is not a one and done proposition. Nor is it a list of tasks to check off and then forget. Creating a work environment where autonomous motivation thrives takes understanding before implementing and ongoing commitment to continue enhancing as your practice changes and grows.

Before instituting a work environment in your dental practice that promotes autonomous motivation, it is necessary to research your workers. Find out who your teammates are outside of work, what’s important to them, ask them questions. You might be surprised by what you find and without knowing more information about them individually, you will have a harder time creating a successful workplace. But more importantly, you won’t know where to invest to empower a situation where everyone can benefit.

Your office and employees are unique. Learning about your employees and what stirs them intrinsically can go a long way in creating a win-win environment. A place where your employees succeed in their work and you succeed in growing your practice. Autonomous motivation can boost your employees’ productivity and, in turn, boost the success of your dental practice.