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JEFFREY TOBIN: The man with three legs

by on March 16, 2014 1:50 AM

I know a guy with three legs. Really. Three legs. His name is Richard M. Ryan, and for many years as an academic, he’s walked around on his three legs as easily as you or I might walk around with two. Pretty amazing.

Recently, though, some strangers have dragged him out of this protected academic world and into an entirely new one: The world of business.

And Richard is not doing very well here.

No one in this new world seems to have noticed the challenges he and his three legs face. To most, he glides along effortlessly without deserving even a second glance. But I can see a big problem for Richard. As strange as it may sound, and it really does, the man with three legs is actually missing a leg! Here in the business world, Richard needs four legs.

You see, Richard’s three legs are legs on a figurative stool. He and other noted psychologists are known for something they call “self-determination theory,” or SDT. This is a three-legged theory of human motivation with respect to competence (effectively dealing with the world around oneself), autonomy (the freedom to act in harmony with one’s own personal drives) and relatedness (being connected to other caring people.)

The balance of these three legs of the stool plays a big role in personal motivation. And while it’s a wonderful theory of human motivation, it is nonetheless debilitated in the business environment without a fourth and final leg.

Self-determination theory doesn’t address the undiscovered, yet critical, factor of effectual employee engagement. For our purposes, I’m going to call this fourth leg “mutuality.” Richard’s three legs are important, but employee engagement is transformed — and becomes transformative — only in the presence of the fourth leg of mutuality.

Mutuality is the powerful chemical reaction that occurs when the purpose (life-legacy objectives) of the employee meshes with the purpose of the organization.

In this place, both entities find the uncommon ground where their purposes serve each other, where each entity benefits while working to attain the purpose of the other.

It’s where one plus one equals 11.

Richard M. Ryan brings three important legs to the process of organizational growth. But without the fourth leg of mutuality, he stumbles forward where he might otherwise sprint.

Your employees need to be and feel competent in their work and surroundings. They need autonomy that affords congruity between their values and their actions.

They need the relatedness that comes with caring for — and being cared for by — others. But in the business world, they need the new leg of mutuality, where the purposes of the individual engage with the purpose of the organization.

This new perspective about self-determination theory gives Richard Ryan an extra leg; the extra leg that enables us to gain two legs up on the competition, all the while sprinting forward into our common futures.

Jeffrey Tobin, an international speaker and business coach. He is also the owner of Henry Hall Office Products in Indiana and hosts the website His professional advocacy columns appear Sundays in the Business section of The Indiana Gazette and the Community News page on The Indiana Gazette Online.
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