November 8, 2014

Are you autonomously motivated?

By providing autonomy-support to others you can help them a lot. But what do you do when your own motivation isn't so autonomous? 

Yesterday, we did a workshop progress-focused management with approximately 25 directors and team leaders of a group of schools. One of the topics we talked about was autonomy support. As a reader of this website, you probably know that self-determination theory distinguishes autonomous motivation from controlled motivation. For new readers, here is a brief summary.

We speak of autonomous motivation when you find what you do interesting or important and you fully endorse the doing of the activity. We speak of controlled motivation when you do something because you felt seduced of forced into doing it, not because you find it interesting or important. Many studies have shown that autonomous motivation not only tends to lead to better performance; it is also the case that autonomously motivated people feel better and healthier. By offering autonomy support, you can stimulate the autonomous motivation of employees or students. Core aspects of autonomy support are: 1) respect and work with the perspective of the person you are working with, 2) provide opportunities for choice, 3) be clear about what you expect, 4) provide clear reasons for what you expect from people. .

After we had introduced the topic to the participants, and we had spoken about it for some time, one of the participants said something along the lines of: "Autonomous motivation does indeed sound useful, both for managers and for teachers. I was only wondering: isn't it hard to to provide autonomy support when you are not very much autonomously motivated, yourself?"

An understandable question. There is indeed evidence that it is harder to offer autonomy support when your own motivation is mainly controlled. This is also reflected in the fact that children who have been raised authoritatively and in a controlled fashion are more likely to develop such parenting styles when they grow up. Is there hope? Yes. When you notice that you yourself are not so autonomously motivated, you can increase your autonomous motivation by reflecting on what is interesting and important to you. When you start to find these things out you can align your behaviors with these discoveries. Perhaps other people can help you with this. Also, it can be very useful to work together in your work team to increase autonomy support in your organization. This way, you can all help and encourage each other.

Question: Do you have any additional ideas? I'd like to hear them!


  1. There is a book by Susan Fowler called "Why Motivating People Doesn't Work" that talks about how to provide autonomy support for others as well as for oneself. She bases it on self-determination theory and her work in the corporate world. It's a great read.


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