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Relatedness: Enough To Build An International Business On

Pim de Morree
Written by Pim de Morree July 11, 2018

Question: If Drive author Dan Pink is now our guru on motivation, who were his gurus?

Here’s a clue: “Deci and Ryan, in my view, are the sun around which all other research (on motivation) orbits. They are true pioneers. Forty years from now, we’ll look back on them as two of the most important social scientists of our time.”

Pink spoke to many experts before singling out Deci and Ryan. Why? Because of their Self Determination Theory (SDT). So, what is it?

Edward Deci was at the sharp end of the ‘motivation wars’ in the 1970s. At that time, he worked at Rochester University (NY) with joint appointments to the Schools of Business and Psychology. The Business School was so wedded to motivation via extrinsic rewards (bonuses, prizes, etc.), that they sacked him for suggesting otherwise. Fortunately, the Psychology School, took him on full-time. Richard Ryan joined him soon after and they have developed SDT ever since.

I call the business school view ODT—Other Determination Theory: others determine (or try to) what you do, and how and when. For me, in the 70’s, as a systems engineer, salesman and manager at a computer supplier, I took this view for granted. Why not? If I achieved 100% or more of my targets, I was paid well, and I got to attend the 100% Club meeting at an exotic, international location.

Not that I was unaware of some drawbacks. These included:

  • Internal competition for resources.
  • Inflexibility in resource usage: A slow year in one group didn’t release them for a more active area. Too much was tied to results to allow such flexibility.
  • If we had collaborated, and all exceeded our targets, there would be a big problem. The budget for the 100% Club assumed only about 70% of us would qualify. If all of us qualified, we’d have BIG budget problem!

Nevertheless, prevailing business wisdom still endorses individual financial rewards and promotion (both extrinsic factors) as the key motivators.

If Drive author Dan Pink is now our guru on motivation, who were his gurus?
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How does Pink’s view differ from Deci & Ryan’s?

Yes, they do differ:

  • Dan Pink = Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose.
  • Edward Deci & Richard Ryan = Autonomy, Competence, Relatedness.

Which raises the question: What is relatedness?

Relatedness has to do with the development and maintenance of personal relationships…including sharing a purpose. And it turns out that the autonomy need and, to a lesser degree, the competence need, are also satisfied via relatedness. Indeed, the highest quality personal relationships are ones in which people support the autonomy, competence, and relatedness needs of others.

In short, we relate best to, and perform best with, those whose friendship, values and purpose we share. Seems important to me!

We relate best to, and perform best with, those whose friendship, values and purpose we share.
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Then I had a lucky learning experience:

In 1991, I started an experiment in SDT, without knowing it. I launched a new business, training professionals in communication skills. Our best-known workshop (of Canadian origin) is called Think on Your Feet®.

But there was a problem. I couldn’t afford to pay one employee, let alone one in every location I wanted us to be in. So, I started via a network of independent, similarly minded, self-employed people. They developed their market, billed clients, and paid us for services.

This is a very simple business model. But I’d not been trained for one without employees. My prior management training—including from the world’s leading business schools—turned out to be lacking.

Salary administration, promotion, quotas, bonuses, and trips to exotic locations were all out the window. This meant I was now free to work on developing the business in new locations. It’s not called Ken Everett International (KEI for short) for nothing!

We started in Australia with a network of 10 people. It seemed like we should all meet. In 1993, we did—all together for the first time. Most of us were corporate refugees (think ex-EY, IBM, PWC, etc.). In a relaxed fashion, but mostly via individual presentations using transparencies (you can’t change habits too quickly), we shared our experiences.

The zinger was at the end. We each sat at a keyboard connected to an early PC. One member posed questions, and we entered our answers independently.

Here are the questions:

  • What do you like?
  • What do you dislike?
  • What do you value?
  • What do you want KEI to do for you?
  • What are you willing to do for KEI?

Then we all went off to the pub. To my shame, it was six weeks before I looked at the printout. And there it was: the core of our ‘relatedness’. It boiled down to:

  • Independence
  • Community
  • Shared Values

I call it our ‘shared stuff’. And clearly two of them refer to connectedness. So how does that help? The short answer is it guides everything! For example:

  • Roles: Mine became clear: to host the community, and to preserve its core. To offer more community and independence than they could get anywhere else. Above all, to safeguard the shared values.
  • Recruiting: We now knew who we wanted. Discussions start with ‘trust’, ‘collaboration’ and ‘values’, before we move to skills.
  • Separating: We’ve asked only one person to leave in 25 years. Although he was the best sales performer in his country, he tried to unseat a colleague in her own accounts. Not much ‘relatedness’ there!
  • Convening: We’ve held network meetings in ~20 countries. These are co-hosted by locals. Rarely do we show overheads. Well-chosen dinner locations, small group processes (like Open Space), and even the opening walk around the town (think Amsterdam) promote relatedness as we chat to and meet each other. I hope Deci and Ryan would agree.

The results? This network proved to be:

  • Resilient: All have survived economic shocks, intact, and independently.
  • Innovative: They suggest most of the product enhancement ideas.
  • Leader-full: They co-host our meetings, hire their own staff, and so on.

What more could one want?

Pink did us all a great service by bringing Deci & Ryan’s views to millions. He may have focused more on individual purpose. Perhaps this is because the early research reported how individuals performed in experiments. But this is speculation on my part. For communities, relatedness covers more bases—especially when this includes shared purpose.

At least, that’s our experience: it’s taken us to 30 countries so far!


Ken Everett is the well appreciated editor of the Corporate Rebels blog, Adjunct Professor at The Chinese University of Hong Kong and Executive Fellow at the University of Essex. He also founded KEI, a network of independent individuals and companies that distributes the Think on Your Feet® workshop throughout Asia and the Pacific.

Written by Pim de Morree
Pim de Morree
As co-founder of Corporate Rebels I focus on: researching, writing, speaking, and building our company.
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