Dr. Richard Ryan: Professor, Clinical Psychologist, Motivational Consultant, and Author

                                         Dr. Richard Ryan

                                         Dr. Richard Ryan

Today, it is my honor to introduce you to Dr. Richard Ryan. He is a leading researcher in the field of psychology and is known for his pioneering of Self-Determination Theory (SDT) with Dr. Edward Deci. SDT is one of the most influential theories in human motivation that focuses on autonomy, competence, and relatedness and has been utilized in a variety of fields: Organizations, education, sports, and much more. He obtained his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Rochester. Since then, he has authored more than 350 papers and books, and has earned three lifetime achievement awards: 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award from International Network on Personal Meaning, 2014 Distinguished Career Award, Society for Self and Identity, and 2015 Shavelson Distinguished Researcher and Lifetime Achievement Award from International SELF Research Centre. Throughout this Talent Talk, Dr. Richard Ryan discusses the application of SDT into organizations and provides advice for future researchers and current graduate students.


Your host,

Sevelyn VanRonk



TSL (Talent Science Lab): Will you discuss ways in which you have integrated your research into applied settings?

 RR (Dr. Richard Ryan):  Scott Rigby, a former student of mine, and I started a company in 2003 that’s called Immersyve Inc. One of our product lines is called Motivation Works and focuses on assessments for employee engagement. It is an online assessment on the climate of the workplace, managerial styles, needs satisfaction. Our centerpiece is the motivational quality assessment, which focuses on the internalization sphere of an employee. We have been launching these assessments in several different companies over the past six months; it is pretty well developed, validated, predictive, and employees have expressed support for these assessments because they are not taxing to complete. We also do workshops with employees, and management; specifically, how to be supportive in the workplace. When you try to be autonomy-supportive is it important for this to become an organization-wide initiative. This is an area that is pretty dear to my heart because most adults today are employees, and unfortunately aren’t given the opportunities to flourish. Work should not only be a place to get paid, but it should also be a place where you feel as if you’re actualizing your talents and possibilities. 

TSL: In organizations, how can autonomy be balanced with accountability?

RR: Accountability is a buzz word that has several different definitions, I assume you mean responsibility. Accountability has actually been very destructive in organizations, if employees have some sort of measurable outcome and that is where the reward and incentive programs are built off of, then employees will take any route to that end. This can lead to harmful organizational citizenship and short-cuts. So accountability in an organizational setting should be broadly conceived; it should focus on helping employees perform their jobs with some levels of company-wide initiatives. When employees are autonomously engaged in their work, they typically understand the goals of the organization and where they are headed; employees own those goals and feel as if their contributions are helping to accomplish them. Therefore, they tend to be energetically and vitally engaged in reaching those goals; autonomy support and responsibility often become compatible when the employee understands the company’s goals and rationale. This happens because the employee has internalized the importance of the organization’s initiatives and strives to help accomplish those goals. It is challenging to have autonomy without a goal, and accountability should really focus on creating a set of goals the employee can embrace. As consultants we try to help organizational leaders see the benefits of being autonomy supportive.

TSL: How can organizations include components of competence into their practices?

RR: Competence in organizations is really an issue of job design and scaffolding. Typically, employees want to perform their jobs competently, but in order for that to happen there must be an open atmosphere where they can get feedback, and search for guidance without the fear of punishment or evaluation. Training employees to be more competent is an on-going pursuit, this leads to better performance and higher job satisfaction. The issue is supplying the training and finding challenges for employees that they have the skills to accomplish. When employees are not able to accomplish tasks it is important for organizational leaders to find resources to aid their workers, rather than respond in an evaluative manner. This knowledge has really stemmed from past work on intrinsic motivation and optimally challenging employees in pursuits they are already engaged in. There is also a parallel between competence and Csikszentmihalyi’s work on flow and finding that optimal zone between challenge and skill. However, competence really focuses human’s motivation to master those challenges. 

TSL: How can organizations include components of relatedness into their practices?

RR: SDT predicts that there is a strong relationship between support and autonomy--relatedness is positively correlated with autonomy. Your best relationships are those in which you feel your autonomy is being supported. So when we look at organizations, if you are really being autonomy-supportive then you are listening to your employees and are connected to them. Relatedness means you are engaged with your full heart and volition. The ingredients of this include: Warmth, kindness, and autonomy-supportiveness.  As an employee, you not only want to be treated well, but you want your voice to be heard and you want to have opportunities to help others. So to build relatedness in an organization you need to create communities that both receive and give support; this is what binds people together and creates teamwork—there is a “we” rather than a set of “I’s”.

TSL: What tips or pieces of advice do you have for current graduate students hoping to pursue a career in research?

RR: My approach has always been to follow your passions and pursue the things that interest you. Somehow this is a better path than attempting to mold yourself into what everyone else tells you to become. I am glad I listened to my heart, even though most people told me I was making a mistake. I believe that if someone is interested in a specific topic, there is typically a reason. If you have your whole heart invested, you will likely produce your highest quality of work—which is something we have found through Self-Determination Theory. Eventually that hard work will pay-off and be recognized.

TSL: What classes or experiences do you believe have been foundational to your success?

RR: When I look around the field of psychology, a lot of people have skills in statistics and research methods, but what I see missing in our field is good theory. For me personally, having a background in philosophy has had the biggest pay-off. It has helped me to think clearly, write clearly, and have a logic to my research interests, which I believe has had a large impact in our field. A current weakness in our field is being too focused on creating models and names for our models; it is not generative to the rest of our field. Of course I am biased, because I am theory-oriented and believe in producing big theories. Knowledge needs to come together as a unit to make differences for humanity.