The Importance of Autonomy in Motivation

Learn about the importance of autonomy in motivation and how it affects performance through Drive Theory.

The best example of autonomy—our inherent need to feel that we are “in control” and have choices as to what happens next—is to watch a three- or four-year-old child struggle with something, like tying their shoes, and then erupt into a fierce tantrum when their parent does it for them. “I do it!” is the rallying cry of the toddler, but the cry only gets quieter and more deeply internalized in the adult. We, all of us, crave autonomy, and we find ourselves chafing when our autonomy is taken away.

Keep in mind that autonomy doesn’t mean “entirely hands-off” or “sure, do whatever you want”; it means that as managers, we should focus on the results, not the process (except in those cases where the process is the result—and even then keep an open mind). Employees need to feel like they have control over how they do their work. Can they tackle the story with their own approach? Do they get to do the class design? Is it up to them to figure out the algorithm or data structures to use? With relatively few exceptions, the clients/customers/users of what we build don’t care about the internals, so long as the feature works as intended.

This, by the way, is where Drive Theory really breaks down: By externalizing the source of the motivational outlook, we essentially undermine their autonomy. They’re doing this because they “have to,” and are essentially now controlled by that external source. (Interestingly enough, one study shows that when a athletic training coach yells at their trainee to improve, performance is significantly lower than when the coach keeps quiet and attentive, allowing the athlete to find the drive within.)

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