3 Psychological Nutrients Workers Need

Keys to improving worker engagement, commitment, performance, and mental health.

When faced with a nutrient deficiency, people seek to replenish those nutrients. When we are physically malnourished, we find sustenance. The same holds true mentally.

Psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan have identified the three human psychological needs necessary for optimal human functioning. The universal and innate psychological nutrients are competency, autonomy, and relatedness. Satisfaction of these basic needs promotes mental health and intrinsic motivation, which drives engagement and higher performance at work.

A deficiency in any of these three psychological nutrients can cause workers to look elsewhere to get nourishment. When all three psychological nutrients are satisfied, workers experience the highest-quality motivation that fuels passion, engagement, and commitment. Might these psychological nutrients hold the key for reversing the Great Resignation?

Psychological Nutrient #1: Autonomy

Autonomy is the agency to do things on your terms. It’s the freedom from external constraints on behavior. Autonomy does not mean to be independent of others but, rather, constitutes a feeling of overall psychological liberty and freedom of internal will. When a person is autonomously motivated, their performance, wellness, and engagement are heightened rather than if a person is told what to do.

Autonomy is the opposite of micromanagement. Workers feel empowered when they have choices and when they are trusted to make the right decisions. Increasing someone’s options and choices has been proven to increase their intrinsic motivation.

Workers who have clear direction and the freedom to act on their own accord with the ability to take direct action satisfy their need for the psychological nutrient of autonomy.

What will workers say if they quit due to an autonomy deficiency?

  • Their manager was too hands-on or micromanaged them.
  • They want more independence.
  • They want a better work–life balance.
  • They want more career paths.
  • They are conflicted about workplace policy.

How much autonomy does your team have to think and act on their own terms?

Psychological Nutrient #2: Competence

Competence is the need to feel capable. Competence occurs when someone is able to effectively meet the demands of their environment. Competency evokes feelings that someone is good at something.

When workers feel competent, they feel what they do is effective and masterful and can contribute to accomplishing worthwhile goals. Relevant feedback and expressing strong beliefs in the capabilities of others is key for satisfying the need for the psychological nutrient of competence.

What will workers say if they quit due to a competence deficiency?

  • They need more of a challenge.
  • They feel uninspired.
  • They want to feel valued.
  • They feel that they have a lack of job growth or career advancement.
  • They need more feedback.
  • They want more recognition.
  • They have vague goals or no direction.
  • They want a clearer company vision.

Does your team feel competent in that they have the right skills and tools to contribute?

Psychological Nutrient #3: Relatedness

Relatedness is the need to feel involved with others. Relatedness is shorthand for being connected to colleagues, friends, family, and community. Humans have an innate need to belong. It is important to both make a contribution to the group and to feel cared for by the group.

Workers who are personally and emotionally connected to their colleagues and manager satisfy their need for the psychological nutrient of relatedness.

Relatedness is perhaps the most crucial psychological nutrient because high-quality relationships are able to provide individuals with a bond to another person while simultaneously reinforcing their needs for autonomy and competence.

What will workers say if they quit due to a relatedness deficiency?

  • They are seeking a better management relationship.
  • They have poor relationships with coworkers.
  • They are looking to live somewhere else.
  • Their company culture isn’t a good fit.

How connected does your team feel to one another?

Looking for a way to measure how disconnected your team is and gain custom solutions for improving your team’s connections? Check out the Team Connection Assessment here. It’s empirically validated to measure the strength and quality of connections teams have with their teammates, manager, and the work itself.