If you want to motivate people, avoid these four words: “You have no choice!”

Key Points:

  1. Providing support for autonomy can help provide the basic underlying needs for intrinsic motivation – autonomy, competence and connectedness.
  2. When these needs are satisfied, employees are more likely to experience intrinsic motivation for their work.
  3. This is in-turn related to higher levels of general well-being, work engagement and positive work behaviors, and lower levels of general work-related distress.

What underlies the drive of employees who don’t need either a carrot or a stick for motivation, but simply work hard and effectively out of their own preference?

Autonomy, Intrinsic Motivation, and External Rewards

Intrinsic motivation – doing something because it’s enjoyable and interesting rather than for anything external such as a reward or fear of punishment – is linked to many positive outcomes such as work engagement, job satisfaction and job effort.  Employees who are motivated to work because what they’re doing aligns with their own interests and values, are more able to fully engage with it.

In contrast, when employees do a job solely for either reward, or to avoid punishment, it can lead to lower tenacity, greater work anxiety, burnout, less problem solving, less creativity  and higher turnover intentions.

So, How can leaders foster intrinsic motivation and the positive outcomes associated with it?

Well, theory suggests that intrinsic motivation is based on three factors: 

• Autonomy – the ability to make choices and have control over our own lives 

• Competence – feeling we have the skills to succeed 

• Connection – having a sense of belonging to other people. 

In the workplace, leaders can encourage employees’ autonomy.  This doesn’t mean being absent and ‘hands off’ – but rather by behaving in ways which promote empowerment, support and show understanding. For example, by acknowledging different perspectives, enabling employees’ input and choices, encouraging them to use their initiative, and avoiding the use of either rewards or punishment as incentives employees can be empowered and supported. With this approach, employees are given control in – and feel in control of – their work. With this greater control they are then likely to find the work more engaging and satisfying. 

If the theory is right, experiencing this leadership style should improve their intrinsic motivation for their work.

But does it actually work?

Does the Theory Hold Water?

To see that in 2018, Gavin Slemp, along with Margaret Kern, Kent Patrick and Richard Ryan, published a meta-analysis of 72 individual studies including data from over 30,000 participants, exploring the links between experiencing a leadership style which supports autonomy; and employees’ motivation, well-being, and other work-based outcomes. The authors gathered data from both published and unpublished studies to test the theory that employees who have a leader who supports their autonomy will have stronger levels of intrinsic motivation. 

Employees who experienced support for their autonomy from their leaders reported feeling greater levels of autonomy, competence and connection – all of which were associated with increasing internally sourced work motivation. Meaning that the more free, capable, and supported people feel, the more likely they are to be motivated without the presence of rewards to execute in their work. This self-directed motivation was then, in turn, related to greater well-being, work engagement and positive work behaviors such as helping others and seeking feedback. It was also associated with lower levels of distress such as burnout and work-related stress. Additionally, the positive effects didn’t change whether the leader exhibiting the supportive behavior was a direct supervisor or senior leader, and there was no difference based on the culture of the country the study was conducted in. This suggests that these are social and psychological phenomena that apply to people in general, and are not likely to exclusively arise due to the contextual constraints like culture.

However, when it comes to performance, supporting employees’ autonomy was slightly weaker when objective, rather than self-reported, measures of performance were used. This suggests that it’s probably better to use objective rather than subjective measures when applying interventions to enhance autonomy and performance.

What are the take-aways for you and your practice?

What we can conclude from this work is that leaders who support and promote autonomy are likely to be more successful in promoting higher levels of well-being, engagement and positive work behaviors among those in which they’re charged to lead.

  • Practically, the findings suggest that when done effectively, leaders are able to develop  working environments that meet employees’ need to have a feeling of autonomous control over when, where, and how they do their work. 
  • Allowing space and time to listen to employees’ opinions, taking their input on board, and recognising and supporting their initiative will all help them to feel a level of autonomy in their work.  This in turn could positively influence their well-being, work engagement and job satisfaction. By hiring competent employees and giving them the freedom to execute their work while trusting them to do it competently without being micromanaged, you’re likely to see some great secondary rewards like a happier, healthier, and more productive organization.
  • Regarding the association between leader autonomy support and performance, it’s important to note that the correlation ranged from small to moderate in effect size; meaning that although leader autonomy support is likely to impact outcomes pertaining to health, happiness, and productivity, that they aren’t a silver-bullet. In truth, there are no silver bullets and your strategies to improve your organization should therefore be evidence-based, multifaceted, and apply a more comprehensive approach to tackling the issues you’re facing that may include improving a full spectrum of variables that could improve your situation.

By applying these evidence-based practical recommendations in your organization, your leaders are likely to provide the necessary circumstances that naturally propel people to give their best efforts. If you’re thinking of experimenting with autonomy supportive leadership, it may be best to try it with a small group of your most capable employees and expand it from their. Your people may surprise you with just how capable and motivated they can be when provided with the right ingredients.

Trustworthiness score:

The trustworthiness of the study is moderate (80%). This means there is a 20% chance that alternative explanations for the effect found are possible.

Learn how we critically appraise studies to assign them a Trustworthiness Score.

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Slemp, G.R., Kern, M.L., Patrick, K.J. and Ryan, R.M. (2018) Leader autonomy support in the workplace: A meta-analytic review. Motivation and Emotion 42:706–724. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-018-9698-y

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