3 universal needs

ABC of motivation

At the heart of Self-Determination Theory are the three basic psychological needs for autonomy, belongingness and competence, also referred to as ABC. These three psychological needs are universal, and thus present in each of us.

When these needs are fulfilled, we feel energized, take initiative more quickly and can face problems more easily, regardless of our cultural background, age or social class (Vansteenkiste & Soenens, 2015).


We want to experience a sense of psychological freedom in our job. We need choices and room for initiative in our work. We want to be heard and feel that our opinion matters. Even if we have concerns or feel insecure, we don't want to feel inhibited to speak up.


We want to feel connected with our colleagues, staff and leaders, as well as with the organization in which we work. We want to belong and feel at home at work.


We want to feel that we can succesfully complete our tasks and achieve our goals. We want to be able to use our qualities to the full, but also to grow and further develop our knowledge and skills.

useful handle for practice

ABC as a lens to look at yourself and others

Because of the vital role the ABC needs play in our daily well-being, they provide an interesting angle from which to reflect on our own or others' functioning.

Positive experiences in the workplace can often be reduced to feeling 'free' (A), 'connected' (B) and 'competent' (C). At the same time, negative experiences can be better understood in terms of tensions or frustrations with one of these needs. The needs for autonomy, belongingess and competence are therefore very recognizable.

The ABC needs are easy to remember and, as a concept, can be described in a relatively simple, understandable and accessible way:

  • Autonomy = being able to be oneself

  • Belongingness = experiencing a sense of belonging to others

  • Competence = being able to develop one's own skills

ABC offers a useful handle for daily practice.

  • It helps us to reflect on what it means to fulfill the ABC of our colleagues, employees, customers, .... as much as possible (i.e. need support).

  • We can also look for activities in our work that strengthen our own ABC, and thus act as a manager of our own motivation (d.i. need crafting).

leverage for maximum positive impact

ABC as common language

ABC plays a crucial role in creating a common language within organizations. This common language in turn is an important lever for maximum positive impact, because different stakeholders within the organization look at successes, problematic situations and opportunities from the same perspective.

It ensures that all parties involved give the same conceptual interpretation to the processes underlying the (un)desired effects in the organization and what is needed from the context to create the conditions in which sustainable motivation can manifest itself. This in turn offers a starting point for further actions for both personal development and leadership and/or organizational development.

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