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How to motivate your team during these unprecedented times

Applied Psychologies has recently celebrated its 8th birthday. We have certainly come a long way, from excitedly scribbling some initial business plans on the back of a coffee shop napkin, to a 30 strong team of multi-agency professionals providing support to over 150 schools in the UK. I wished we’d kept that napkin! Given these unprecedented times we currently find ourselves in (from my experience, spending 24/7 with two small children and trying to run the service from a bedroom has been a challenge!), I have been reflecting about how we have used motivational psychology to grow the service over the years and how these experiences are important to draw upon now, as we support our team and the settings we work with.

The influence of Self-Determination Theory

I have always been interested in how people are motivated by different things and how the environments in which we work shape what we are driven by. The first distinction to make when we talk about motivation is the difference between extrinsic motivations (i.e. doing something for a separable outcome) and intrinsic motivation which is defined as “doing something because it is inherently interesting or enjoyable” (Ryan and Deci, 2000). Within the workplace it is common to find extrinsic forms of motivation in action, for example, individuals completing tasks for the sole purpose of obtaining their income or to avoid sanctions (external regulation), doing things to look good in the eyes of others or to avoid feelings of guilt (introjected regulation), or working towards something beneficial for their development, such as career progression (identified regulation). Whilst paying your staff ‘enough money’ is an important factor, creating an environment in which people enjoy coming to work is essential in ultimately supporting their mental health and feelings of job satisfaction, and thereby helping ensure staff retention in the long run.

According to Self Determination Theory (SDT) (Ryan and Deci, 2000, 2002), in order to promote intrinsic motivation, the universal needs of Relatedness, Autonomy and Competency all need to be met at the same time.

  • Relatedness – The need to feel connected, cared for and close to significant others within an environment

  • Autonomy – The need to feel that you have a choice and are self-initiated

  • Competency – The need to feel confident and able to effectively interact within an environment

I have found SDT to be a really useful framework to use in my practice as an Educational Psychologist when a school raises concerns about a child’s engagement towards learning. This is because it tends to lead to exploratory questions about how we might change a learning environment, usually in subtle ways, to foster intrinsic motivation and promote more pro-social behaviours. This might include questions when planning a task, for example:

  • How can we include the child in doing something that they will enjoy? (Relatedness)

  • How can we give the child some control regarding how they do the task? (Autonomy)

  • How can we present information to promote confidence towards the task? (Competency)

I often suggest to my schools that we get out the ‘RAC van’ (get it?) to investigate what might be preventing a child from enjoying their learning. This can also help staff to move away from more extrinsic approaches, which although can sometimes work well in the short term if used appropriately, tend not to have longer lasting positive outcomes.

By applying the principles of SDT at a service level within our team, through exploring how we can help staff feel connected to each other, have control in their professional practice and be confident in their respective roles, this has really helped our psychologists and specialist professionals to flourish and produce quality work on a consistent basis.

Using Self-Determination Theory to motivate your team during COVID-19

During these uncertain times, staff well-being will be of critical importance to ensure that the setting in which you work operates effectively both now and in the future. Using an RAC strategy framework, here are some recommendations for those working in leadership roles to help members of your team to feel connected, in control and good about themselves:


  • Create a safe space to support your team in sharing their reflections, ideas and views. Our WhatsApp group has been a revelation in providing on-going support and humour!

  • Listen carefully to your staff and ask them how they would like to be supported.

  • ‘Check-in’ with your team regularly and let them know you are available if needed.

  • Tell your team how much you value them as this will help to promote feelings of belongingness.

  • Make a note of everyone’s birthday and be sure to send a personal greeting.

  • Be open with your team if you are having a difficult time – it shows you’re human!


  • Trust your team to manage their diaries and workload. Many people are unable to follow a consistent routine at this time due to balancing family and professional demands… believe me, I know!

  • Do not pressure your team in to doing things they are not comfortable with – everyone’s response to COVID-19 will be different and this needs to be respected.

  • One approach could be to provide different options with regards to roles and responsibilities which staff could choose to become involved with, thereby giving them a sense of ownership over how they can best support the team at this time.

  • Encourage your team to work creatively and to try new things out. I’ve never realised before how effective on-line conference meetings can actually be!

  • If arranging team gatherings using on-line platforms, ask attendees in advance if they would like to contribute. Operating an ‘Information Give’ and ‘Information Share’ approach can really support collaboration.

  • Create a centralised shared resources area to support your team to engage in Continuous Professional Development and ask them if they would like to share any new learning with the team.


  • Let your team know that they are doing a great job under difficult circumstances.

  • Praise individuals regularly for their effort and commitment. As Mark Twain once said, ‘I can live for two months on a good compliment’.

  • Be positive and enthusiastic about the challenges you are facing and how important the skill set of your team will be, in developing solutions together moving forward.

  • Build in solution-focused supervision sessions to help people reflect on what they are already doing well and to identify their personal strengths in coping with any difficulties emerging.*

  • Share successes with all team members. Good news will make you and others smile!

  • Most importantly, tell your team that you are proud of them. We’re in this together!

As we navigate these somewhat choppy waters it is important to acknowledge that being in a leadership role can sometimes feel very challenging, as we need to support both ourselves and those we work closely with. I hope the above suggestions are helpful in supporting intrinsic motivation to flourish within your setting.

Wishing everyone good health. Stay safe.

Dr David Lamb

David is an educational psychologist and director at Applied Psychologies. His areas of interest include motivation (unsurprisingly), literacy interventions and group problem solving models.

*For more information about solution-focused supervision sessions, please discuss with your Educational Psychologist or contact us direct at

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