The hidden damage of the controlling motivational style

We want to get people moving in education, training and work. How do we do that? Roughly speaking, two motivational styles have been distinguished, both of which are common: the controlling motivational style and the autonomy-supportive motivational style. Much research from self-determination theory has shown that the autonomy-supportive style is far superior (see for example here). People feel better about it and they function better. But the controlling style, however ineffective, is still very common. How did that happen?

The controlling motivational style

The controlling motivational style (or coercive motivational style) is rooted in an old way of thinking about people. This assumes that you can get people moving through punishment, reward and control. The controlling style includes:

  • authoritarian language and tone
  • threaten with punishment
  • induce guilt for undesirable behavior
  • rewards in advance to elicit desired behavior
  • flattering to get something done from the other person

Controlled motivation

The controlling style leads to controlled motivation. If we are motivated in a controlled manner:

  • we feel fear and tension
  • the activity costs us a lot of energy
  • we feel little involved
  • we are dissatisfied
  • we take the shortest route to the goal
  • there is a greater chance that we cheat 

The autonomy-supportive motivational style

The autonomy-supportive motivational style is based on a different view of humanity, namely that people are naturally motivated because they enjoy doing and trying things and because they want to make a useful contribution. With autonomy support we create the conditions within which the other person can motivate themselves. This includes, among other things:

  • acknowledge the other person's perspective
  • offer choices
  • encourage own initiative
  • involving others in setting goals and making decisions
  • giving a good reason when you ask the other person to do something
  • providing structure

Autonomous motivation

When we are autonomously motivated, we support doing the activity because we find it fun and/or important. If so:

  • we feel better
  • we function better
  • we are more creative
  • we work better together
  • we learn more in depth
  • persist longer at the task

This video by Edward Deci explains more.

Why people still stick to the controlling motivational style

Although there are now hundreds of studies worldwide that have shown that autonomy support works better than the controlling style, the latter is still very common. How is that possible? I see several reasons for this.

We don't know anything else

The first reason is that we often believe in what we know. In psychology, this phenomenon is known as the mere-exposure effect. This means that we have a preference for things with which we have experience. For example, if we have been raised or are directed in an authoritarian manner, this increases the chance that we will also act in an authoritarian manner.

You could describe this first reason as: 'to know is to do'. But this raises a new question: why were we raised in an authoritarian way? Why was this controlling style of parenting ever popular in the first place?

We mistakenly think that we observe that it works

This has to do with the limitations of our own observations and intuitions when it comes to matters related to psychology. Although the controlling approach does not work well in many respects, it does seem to work well. The methods of the controlling approach, such as threatening, raising your voice, punishing and promising a reward, often have a rapid effect on people's behavior.

The hidden damage of the controlling motivational style

A teacher who speaks loudly to his class will probably quickly silence the class at that moment. The teacher may conclude that thunderous speech works and is necessary when students are difficult. But appearances are deceiving. 

What mistake is this teacher making? There are five types of damage that occur but are not easy to observe because they occur in the student's mind.

  1. Intrinsic motivation decreases (the other person starts to like it less)
  2. Internalized motivation does not come about (does not see the importance)
  3. Connection doesn't occur; the relationship is damaged (leads to fear/resentment)
  4. As soon as you stop, the unwanted behavior returns
  5. Habituation often occurs, meaning ever more pressure is needed for the same effect


The controlling style of motivation is still common. This is partly because people often do not know any other approach. In addition, there is a more subtle reason: the controlling motivational style seems to work if we mainly look at the immediate superficial effects. The negative side effects that occur are more difficult to see but very harmful.

► Do you use the controlling style? Then you would do well to let this go and switch to the autonomy-supportive style. This is not only more effective but also more pleasant for the people you work with and also for yourself.