Three Keys to Satisfaction at Work

There is a lot of research that goes into the psychology of satisfaction at work and work productivity.  One such discussion by Richard Ryan and Edward Deci discusses three important determinants in helping us become self-motivated.  [This was first pointed out to me while reading Jonathan Clement’s book on “How to Think About Money“].

Ryan and Deci make an implicit assumption, a strong link exists between self-motivation (or the ability to be “intrinsically” motivated without extrinsic reward from your boss or institution) and work satisfaction.

Essentially, workers who are motivated to do things themselves at work are typically more satisfied with themselves at work.  This then begs the question, “How can I become motivated at work?”

Through the ideas outlined by Ryan and Deci, we will discuss the three main factors to becoming self-motivated.

These are Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness.  We will then discuss how they are related to the work of a medical professional.


Health care providers often use the word “autonomy” to describe how we allow patients to make their own decisions once they’ve been armed with the information they need.  “Preserving autonomy” is one of the key tenants of any patient-physician relationship course.

In the sense of motivation at work, autonomy has a similar meaning.  Essentially, we gain satisfaction at when we are able to self-determine how we spend our time and how we accomplish a task at hand.

An example in my life would involve allowing my residents to come up with the anesthetic plan for their patients for that day.  This allows them to take a greater interest in their work and produces both motivation and satisfaction.

This is an ideal I strive for when working with trainees.  I will only adjust the plan when I feel that plan determined by the resident will lead to potential harm.

Here are some ways to apply this concept in your life:

1) If you are a person in leadership/administration: Don’t micromanage the people you employ or lead.  Allowing autonomy will produce a surprising amount of self-motivation and productivity.

work satisfaction
Want to know something else that provides motivation and satisfaction? Choosing where to vacation!

2) If you are a medical student looking for a residency, pursue the residency that allows autonomy.  You should not be figuring out how to do all the tasks required for your profession on the first day as an attending.

Residency is the best time to learn the skills required to make decisions, see their benefits/consequences, and to learn how to act quickly. You can then perfect them in practice.

3) If you are an employee, consider working a side hustle. You can then become an employer and choose your own path.

Do some locums work; start a web site; do some expert witness medical malpractice work; buy some real estate; etc.

The biggest reason that being a business owner is better than being an employee is because you have much more autonomy when you are running the show than when the show is running you.


This is a little more straight-forward.  When we feel we’ve done well at the tasks we are performing, we are more likely to be motivated and, therefore, satisfied in our work.  Everyone feels universally frustrated when trying to perform tasks that do not come natural to us.

I see this all the time in my line of work when I supervise residents performing ultrasound guided nerve blocks.  This skill comes more naturally for some than it does for others.

For those that do not naturally possess this skill, it is extremely frustrating to them in the beginning to visualize what they are doing.  Their hands simply do not want to listen to their brain.

However, as their skills grow and they become competent, it is easy to see how much more motivated they are to perform the same tasks (and how much more joy they derive from doing it well).

Another piece to this is that competence and autonomy are probably related.  If given autonomy, people are more likely to attack a given problem via a method that best utilizes their skill set.

This provides a double-source for motivation and satisfaction as the person feels they are both self-directed and skilled at what they are doing.

I encourage all the young trainees not to shy away from things that do not come naturally to them!  The way to become competent is to try the difficult tasks, cases, and procedural skills!  Practice makes perfect, right?

In fact, I encourage my residents to do the following:
If you ever feel like a specific case, patient population, or procedure makes you nervous in training then pursue it!  Slay the beast; create competence.  Confidence will then follow!


Relatedness is the principle that people are more motivated when they feel supported in their work.  You can see why this would lead to satisfaction at work.

Relatedness can involve relationships with colleagues, bosses, family, or really anyone.  The person does not necessarily have to be a direct presence while you work, but at least a related person of support available to you.

This might be surprising based on what was mentioned earlier about autonomy.  Autonomy means self-direction, it does not mean that you are doing it alone or in isolation.

Autonomy and relatedness can both be present.

This is best seen when tasks are being worked on simultaneously to accomplish the same goal, but are being accomplished by a non-micromanaged person who accomplishes their individual task how they best see fit.

Take Home

Therefore, in order to be satisfied and self-motivated at work you need to feel like you have a say in your job and how it functions (autonomy), you need to feel comfortable and confident (competent), and you need to feel like your experience relates to those around you (Relatedness).

If you are unhappy and these things are missing from your work, then maybe you should consider a change to help facilitate having these three key aspects to satisfaction to be more prevalent in your job!

Or become an employer yourself!

Leave a comment.  Do you agree that these three ideas have a substantial impact on your satisfaction at work?  How do you think someone can obtain them?  Leave a comment below.


3 thoughts on “Three Keys to Satisfaction at Work

    • That’s exactly right. And I think that fits right into autonomy, honestly. Figuring out what works best for you and then being allowed to do it is a huge part of satisfaction. If, on the other hand, you figured out what you wanted to do but your boss said “no” that’s a recipe for unhappiness at work. Thanks for the comment!

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