February 19, 2011

Autonomy-support in organizations: what, why, and how?

While reading Human Autonomy in Cross-Cultural Context I came across a wonderful chapter by Johnmarshall Reeve and Avi Assor called Do Social Institutions Necessarily Suppress Individuals' Need for Autonomy? The Possibility of Schools as Autonomy-Promoting Contexts across the Globe.

This excellent chapter explores themes like: What makes organizations controlling? Do they really need to be controlling? Can they be smooth-functioning while non-controlling and autonomy-promoting? What would such an organization (as an example they use schools) look like?

Why support autonomy?
As an enormous amount of research within SDT has shown that when people experience a sense of autonomy they experience affective, cognitive and behavioral benefits. In other words, they thrive. Research has also shown that environments can affect the degree to which individuals feel autonomous. Controlling environments undermine a sense of autonomy and thus thriving while autonomy supportive environments do the opposite.

When will individuals within an organization promote autonomy?
The authors use the framework of the theory of planned behavior (TPB, Ajzen, 1988, 1991) to explain how likely it is that individuals in an organization will engage in autonomy supportive behaviors. Individuals are likely to engage in these behaviors when they 1) perceive the behavior to be in their control, 2) have a positive attitude toward the behavior, and 3) experience the behavior as the subjective norm within the organization. Four interventions can enhance these factors:
  1. Intervention training to learn how to support autonomy ® enhancing perceived behavioral control
  2. Learning the benefits of autonomy support ® enhancing positive attitude
  3. Value support for autonomy ® enhancing subjective norm
  4. Political support for autonomy ® enhancing subjective norm 
To what extent can hierarchical structure and autonomy support be combined?
The authors explain that in organizations hierarchical structures can enhance smooth and conflict-free functioning that is consistent with the organization's goal. These hierarchical structures are often equated with coercive control which involves demands, insistences, sanctions, and rigid roles. But structure does not require these. For instance, research shows that in school settigns providing structure and autonomy-support can go hand-in-hand which leads to best results. Here is an explanation of those two terms:
  1. Providing structure: 1) formulating (with students' participation and input clear goals, 2) communicating reasonable expectations, 3) providing guidance, and 4) offering feedback. 
  2. Autonomy-support:1) creating a structure and atmosphere that affords choice and supports students as they formulate their a) direction-giving goals, b) values, c) interests, 2) creating classroom conditions that allow students to experience autonomy.
Providing hierarchical structure and autonomy support becomes more incompatible when extrinsic values such as prestige, competitiveness, wealth or risking your health are promoted. 

How do you build an autonomy-promoting school?
The authors mention 6 factors which together can provide the foundation of autonomy-promoting schools (1, 2, and 6 are the most essential ones) :
  1. Each teacher is responsible for a small number of students with whom he or she has regularly scheduled dialogues. 
  2. Students have considerable influence and responsibility (democratic participation)
  3. Foster the development of individual interests
  4. Support exploration of and open reflection on important social and moral identity-defining values and issues 
  5. Pro-social activities that are satisfying and choiceful
  6. Reduce the amount of information students are tested on and the frequency of comparative achievement tests

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