Why managers need to cultivate autonomy in their teams

by Bee Heller
March 28, 2017

Dan Pink popularised the idea that autonomy is a critical source of intrinsic motivation in the workplace. In his book ‘Drive’ he talks about Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose as being more useful sources of motivation for 21st Century organisations than traditional financial incentives. His TED talk on the subject has been watched nearly 18 million times.

Pink isn’t waxing lyrical about an unfounded idea. Psychologists have long studied the concept of self-determination theory – what motivates people’s actions and choices in the absence of external influences.

Numerous experiments have demonstrated that people’s perception of autonomy can be a source of intrinsic motivation. Here are three I think it’s worth highlighting.

1. Extrinsic rewards undermine our intrinsic motivation

In 1971 psychologist Edward Deci carried out a study that asked participants to build different shapes out of puzzle pieces. Between attempts at solving the puzzles, participants were left with the puzzle pieces and a stack of magazines. In the experimental condition, in which participants were paid a financial reward for each shape they successfully constructed, participants tended to stop working on the puzzles and read the magazines between attempts at puzzle solving. In the control condition, where no financial rewards were offered, participants tended to continue working on the puzzles.

A task that people enjoyed doing (the control group continued working on it of their own volition) was made to be seen as something they were only doing because they were being paid to do it.

The introduction of a financial reward changes people’s perception of the situation and in so doing can undermine their intrinsic motivation for carrying out activities.

2. Externally imposed deadlines undermine our intrinsic motivation

A later study by psychologists Amiable, Dejong and Lepper used word games rather than puzzle pieces as the task. Participants in the experimental condition were challenged to solve the word games within an explicit time frame. The control group were allowed as much time as they needed. Despite virtually all participants solving the games within the allotted time (regardless of whether they had been explicitly given a deadline or not), those participants in the no deadline condition were shown to have more intrinsic interest in continuing to solve the word games.

Again, the introduction of an external motivator (such as a deadline) changes how people construe the situation. Rather than seeing the task as inherently enjoyable and something they might do for their own sake, instead people see themselves as only carrying out the task because of the deadline.

3. Choice enhances our intrinsic motivation

Two years later psychologists Zuckerman, Porac, Lathin and Deci built on these earlier studies by looking at the effect of choice. Again they asked participants to solve puzzles but this time paired participants so that one half of the pair got to choose which puzzles to work on and how long they had to solve them. The other person had to follow the choices of their partner. The person who had been given the choice was shown to be more intrinsically motivated to continue working on the task.

When people believe or perceive that they have chosen to do something, they are more likely to be intrinsically motivated to carry out the activity.

So what does this mean for managers?

The evidence is pretty compelling – if you give people a sense of autonomy, the perception of self-direction and choice, they are more likely to be motivated by the work they do for its own sake.

However from an organisational perspective, it’s no good just allowing people to do whatever they fancy – this will likely create a chaotic and unproductive environment. Managing people in a way that balances the need for providing instruction and direction while also appealing to people’s desire for autonomy is therefore critical.

Here are three top tips for managers who want to harness autonomy as a source of motivation in their teams:

  1. Set clear goals. Be clear about what you’re trying to achieve and why but then allow people to decide for themselves how to get there. Don’t micromanage the process but do keep reminding people of the goal.
  2. Make people feel safe. One reason people often shy away from pursuing their own ideas or a new way of doing things can be a fear of making a mistake. To encourage autonomy in your team you need to let people know that it’s ok to make a mistake. You need to demonstrate that you’ll protect them from any fall out from senior management and/or other parts of the business if things go wrong.
  3. Give people choice. As far as reasonably possible, allow your team to choose the kind of work they do. Allow them to work on the things that interest them and that they’re good at. Help them to reach their personal goals as well as the company’s goals.


As with my previous blogs in this series on intrinsic motivation (‘How to help people learn and progress – create the conditions for flow‘, ‘We all just want to belong‘ & ‘We all really want to be special‘) HR Director and blogger, Gary Cookson has written a response to this blog based on his personal experiences.

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