Dr. Nicole Tschierske

Motivating Your Team: The Power of Autonomy

Have you ever wondered how to truly motivate your team as a leader? Explore the continuum of motivation and learn how granting autonomy at work can unlock well-being, performance, and engagement.

As a leader, you may have asked your team what you could do to motivate them. However, the key to motivation often lies in understanding the complex interplay between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Let’s unravel the layers of motivation to find effective ways to inspire your team.

Motivation, as described by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, exists on a continuum with extrinsic and intrinsic motivation at its opposite ends.

Extrinsic Motivation: On the left side of the continuum, individuals are driven by external or internal pressures. Extrinsic motivation includes factors such as rewards, punishments, and threats. These can involve bonus schemes, praise, promotions, or, conversely, the fear of reprimand or disciplinary action. When motivated extrinsically, individuals perform tasks with little engagement and enthusiasm, often leading to tension, anxiety, and dissatisfaction.

Intrinsic Motivation: On the right side of the continuum lies intrinsic motivation, where people do things „just because“ they find them inherently enjoyable. This type of motivation stems from fulfilling basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness, which are met through work itself.

Between these two extremes, we find internalized motivation, where individuals embrace tasks either because they are useful or because they align with their values. For example, performing tasks that are seen as valuable or meaningful fosters motivation.

Leadership often hinges on understanding where team members fall on this motivation continuum and how to encourage intrinsic motivation. It’s essential to avoid relying solely on external or internal pressures, as they usually lead to short-term compliance but not long-term commitment.

Internalized and intrinsic motivation offer more profound and sustainable engagement. When employees feel internally motivated, they experience increased well-being, happiness, and energy, as well as lower stress and burnout. Their performance, productivity, persistence, and engagement in tasks improve. They also tend to fulfil their role requirements, cope with change more effectively, and exhibit a proactive and innovative mindset.

In contrast, individuals primarily driven by external or internal pressures tend to suffer from impaired performance, difficulties in concentration and memory, physical complaints, psychological distress, and reduced engagement.

Intrinsic motivation is fueled by three fundamental psychological needs:

1. Autonomy: Autonomy relates to having freedom and independence over work schedules, processes, and decision-making. Leaders should provide flexibility and choices to satisfy this need without micro-managing their team members.

2. Competence: Competence stems from the feeling that one’s work is significant and leads to results. It is achieved through proper training, challenging tasks, feedback, task ownership, and task completion.

3. Relatedness: Relatedness pertains to building meaningful relationships with colleagues. Leaders should encourage cooperation among team members and validate emotions to foster this need.

While money is not inherently a bad motivational tool, its effectiveness depends on the context. Pay for performance, when tied to specific outcomes, can narrow focus and reduce the motivation for the work process. However, transparent and fair pay for performance on an ex-post basis can have positive effects. Individual motivations for earning more money also play a significant role in its impact.

Among the three fundamental psychological needs, autonomy holds a key position. It doesn’t imply an anarchic work environment but revolves around providing individuals with:

  • Freedom and independence over work schedules and processes.
  • Control over task execution, method, and additional work-related responsibilities.
  • Decision-making control.

On an organizational level, autonomy can be achieved through practices like autonomous workgroups, participative management, and new work arrangements. Embracing autonomy at work leads to numerous positive outcomes:

  • Employee engagement and empowerment.
  • Improved individual performance.
  • Enhanced well-being and reduced stress and burnout.
  • Greater job satisfaction and commitment to the organisation.

Incorporating autonomy into the workplace is a powerful tool for leaders looking to motivate their teams effectively. By embracing autonomy, you can help team members find their intrinsic motivation, leading to greater well-being, performance, and engagement. It’s a win-win for both employees and the organization.

(This article is based on a chapter in Better Work: A Leader’s Guide to Creating Happier, Healthier, and More Productive Workplaces.)

Further Reading

Better Work Basics​