Dr. Nicole Tschierske

The Impact of Freedom and Autonomy on Motivation in the Workplace

Has your boss ever asked you what they could do to motivate you? When I was asked once, my honest answer should have been, “Stop standing in the way of my motivation.” And I didn’t mean that my boss was personally in my way, but the way the organisation functioned as a whole definitely was. Have you ever wondered how you, as a leader, can motivate your team? If so, I think you’ll find some food for thought here. 

Extrinsic and intrinsic motivation

What impacts our motivation at work? In a study from 2000, Deci & Ryan state that motivation exists on a continuum that has extrinsic on one side and intrinsic on the other, as represented here.

Extrinsic motivation explained

On the left (extrinsic) side, we find ourselves driven by external or internal pressures. External pressures include:

  • Rewards, such as bonus schemes, anticipated praise, or a promotion.  
  • Punishments, such as knowing we’d get into trouble for stealing office supplies or choosing to adhere to the code of conduct.
  • Or threats, such as the fear of being reprimanded or disciplined for challenging your boss.

When our motivation is driven by extrinsic factors, we do the things we’re expected to do but with little engagement and persistence and a lot of tension, anxiety, and dissatisfaction. I would even argue that we’re not realising our full potential because we simply do as we’re told without using our creativity for the sake of adhering to non-sensical objectives – no matter how harmful to the company.

Internal pressures that impact our motivation are the musts, shoulds, and supposed-tos. In other words, internal pressures are expectations (whether our own or others) that we try to fulfil. An example of this may be working long hours because that’s what we need to do (or think we need to do) to get ahead in the company. Again, this kind of motivation doesn’t leave us feeling great. In fact, we probably experience feelings of shame, guilt, and a low sense of self-worth.

Any leader using external or internal pressure to encourage certain behaviours in their team should know that while you might get short-term compliance, you’ll never get a long-term commitment. Also, as humans, we can adapt to anything. That means that in order to keep being effective, rewards need to become increasingly greater and punishments more severe. Plus, when employees feel dissatisfied and guilty, they won’t do their best work.

Internalised motivation explained

Towards the middle of the continuum, we find internalised motivation. The reasons for action here don’t necessarily arise from deep inside ourselves, but we find ourselves saying yes to them wholeheartedly. When driven by internalised motivation, we do things because they are either useful or because they match our values. Why do we like doing things we perceive as useful? Because we want to be relevant and add value. So writing long reports that no one reads, for example, will crush our motivation, and we won’t put effort into them.

We also do things that match our values. So, for example, if someone values benevolence, they’ll go the extra mile to preserve and enhance the welfare of their colleagues. They might organise team lunches, listen deeply when others talk, stand up for a colleague if they feel someone’s being mistreated, or offer support for tasks that fall outside their role.

Intrinsic motivation explained

On the right side of the motivation continuum, we have true intrinsic motivation.  These are the things we do ‘just because’ – it’s what we find inherently interesting and enjoyable. This is where our basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness are most satisfied. And these needs are all met simply by doing our work.

Both internalised and intrinsic motivation leave us feeling energised. We feel we have the power to choose, we experience pleasure and satisfaction (yes, even at work!), we learn and perform better, and we are more persistent.

I invite you to take a look at this continuum. Where do you spend most of your days at work? How do the various tasks you have to perform, the people around you, and how you think about your work influence where you find yourself on this sliding scale? Depending on the type of motivation you experience, how do you feel at the end of the work day? What effect do these factors have on your thoughts and actions?

And as a leader, what ‚motivation tools‘ (if any), do you tend to resort to? Where do you think your team members fall on this continuum? Can you think of examples where either you or your organisation might have been in the way of your team’s natural motivation?

Positive effects of intrinsic motivation

As summarised by Manganelli et al (2018), the more people are on the right side of the continuum, the more positive the effects for both the employee and the organisation. These include: 

Being more on the left end of the continuum, however, “is  associated with impaired performance and persistence due to difficulties related to concentration and memory (Vallerand, 1997) as well as more physical complaints, psychological distress, and lower levels of engagement (Trépanier et al., 2015).” (Manganelli et al, 2018)

The psychological needs that fuel intrinsic motivation

So what fuels intrinsic motivation? There are three basic psychological needs that generate intrinsic motivation. These are: 

  • Autonomy. This relates to having a say in how we go about our work and to being able to act in line with our values. In other words, having autonomy means we have greater flexibility to choose how we plan and execute our work and that leaders leave us with choices instead of micro-managing us. Autonomy means we can make decisions, and I’ll share more ideas below around how this need can be satisfied in order to boost intrinsic motivation.  
  • Competence. This relates to the feeling that what we do is important and leads to results. We have competence when we get the training and resources we need, when we are faced with challenging tasks, when we get feedback on how we’re doing, when we have ownership of our tasks, and when we’re able to complete them from start to finish
  • Relatedness. This relates to having meaningful relationships with others. The leadership style of our boss also matters. It’s about having regular interaction with our manager and working in an environment where leaders foster cooperation between team members and our emotions are validated. 

You’ll notice that money wasn’t included in this list. Does it mean that money is inherently bad as a motivational tool? Not necessarily. As suggested by Manganelli et al (2018), this depends on a couple of factors. These include:

  • Pay for performance. When money is used in bonus schemes where the bonus is tied to a specific outcome, the money may narrow attention to the outcome. This, in turn, leaves little room to be motivated about the path that gets you there. As a result, you experience decreased quality of work, especially around more complex tasks. Having said that, pay for performance can be useful if used on an ex-post basis. This means that we don’t know when, how, and how much we’ll be compensated. As far as this is a transparent and fair process, it can have positive effects on motivation. 
  • Individual considerations. Why does someone want to earn more money? Often because money enables you to live the life you want – you can meet your lifestyle needs, give to charity, and feel proud and fairly compensated for your work. That, in turn, can promote well-being. When we want to earn more because we’re comparing ourselves to others, want to boost our own self-esteem, or be able to spend impulsively, then earning more won’t necessarily satisfy our psychological needs. 

Autonomy at work

But let’s go back to the first of the psychological needs that fuel our intrinsic motivation – autonomy. What does having autonomy at work mean? It certainly isn’t about operating in an environment reigned by anarchy where everyone does as they please with a complete lack of direction. In a 2011 study, Gagné & Bhave conceptualise autonomy as:

  • Having freedom and independence over our work schedules and processes. 
  • Having control over when and how fast we carry out tasks (i.e. timing), how we complete our tasks (method), and what we do on top of our work (for example, maintenance, ordering supply, quality checks, and even boundaries of work).
  • And finally, autonomy is linked to having decision-making control. 

The impact of autonomy at work

In a 2011 study, Gagné & Bhave show that, on an individual level, autonomy at work impacts the following aspects:

  • Employee engagement and empowerment. Low levels of autonomy can leave us feeling powerless, which, in turn, makes us dissatisfied with our job and creates a lower commitment to the organisation. When we lack the right level of autonomy at work, we may also feel helpless and alienated. And for their part, leaders observe a greater need for rule enforcement. Did you expect this as a consequence of not giving your team enough autonomy?
  • Individual performance. When we have more autonomy at work, our task performance increases. We achieve better results and more positive behaviours. For example, we are more proactive and innovative and also increasingly motivated to learn and share our knowledge. We are also more prone to “pro-social rule breaking (i.e. breaking a rule to promote the welfare of an organisation or a stakeholder).”
  • Well-being. Good levels of autonomy promote overall well-being with higher satisfaction, lower work-family conflict, reduced intentions about leaving, and less stress and burnout. Good levels of autonomy also act as buffers against job stress caused by high job demands.

Gagné & Bhave (2011) also state that on an organisational level, autonomy can lead to the following:

  • Autonomous work groups. When these are created, there’s typically no supervisor in charge. People in the group are responsible for allocating jobs amongst themselves, meeting targets for production and quality, and organising their whole group. This will include maintenance, problem-solving, sourcing of materials, delivery of goods, training newcomers, etc. 
  • Participative management, i.e. employees are allowed to participate in decision-making. So they will have a say in how they go about their work, how they monitor processes, how they set goals and distribute tasks within the group, and also around what changes to develop and implement in the organisation. 
  • New work arrangements. An example of this is working from home, where employees have to exercise greater control over how they structure and self-regulate during their workday. 

Practical tips to foster motivation in your team

So what can you do to ensure your team feels motivated at work?

Have open conversations with your team – ask them!

Have a conversation to find out what motivates your team members. You can start with an open question in a one-to-one or in a group setting. How do they think or feel about their work? Listen closely to their answers and ask for explanations to get more details. Approach these conversations with compassion and curiosity – people need to feel safe enough to share openly.

Look for indicators to understand what motivates people

As a leader, you can also observe your team and how they act on a day-to-day basis. In particular, watch out for indicators. What seems to motivate them?

Here are some tips to help you work out what to look for:

  • Indicators of external motivation. Someone does things to get other people’s approval or because they think they’ll get more respect, a financial reward, or greater job security. This person may also want to do things to avoid being criticised.
  • Indicators of internalised motivation. Here you may notice that someone seems to want to prove to themselves that they can do something. They want to feel proud and not bad or ashamed. They think it’s important to put effort into their job because it’s one of their core values and something that’s significant to them.
  • When it comes to indicators for intrinsic motivation, you see people having fun doing their job. They find their work exciting and interesting.
  • And finally, you may observe indicators that someone’s motivation has tanked. They may feel they’re wasting their time at work, and they don’t believe their job is anything worth putting effort into. At this point, it’s clear they consider their work pointless.

Understand what level of autonomy your team needs

As autonomy has an impact on motivation, also try to find out how much autonomy your team members need. Is everyone’s need for autonomy satisfied? If not, how can you satisfy it? What needs to change? Remember that how much autonomy someone wants or needs is highly personal. Some people thrive on as few boundaries as possible and fit well in a self-organised environment, while other prefer structure and guidance to not feel overwhelmed.

The level of autonomy someone may need or want can also depend on the situation. I personally observed employees with a high need for autonomy who thrive on that freedom become overwhelmed by too much responsibility in the last phase of big programme implementation. In that situation, they preferred more structure and decisions from the top so they could focus on their specialist tasks to meet the deadline.

Provide autonomy support

In the words of Slemp, Kern & Vella-Brodrick, 2015, as a leader, you can provide autonomy support by “acknowledging and understanding employee perspectives, providing employees with opportunities for volition over what they do and how they go about it, encouraging employee initiative, and remaining open to new experiences.”

You can give autonomy support by enquiring and acknowledging others’ feelings and perspectives. Explain why you request certain work, give people more choice, and encourage initiative. This “differs from permissiveness (i.e. lack of structure) and neglect (i.e. lack of involvement) – autonomy support is not only important coming from you as the leader, but you can and should encourage team members to provide that support to each other.” (Moreau, & Mageau, 2012).

How do you do that? By following two simultaneous pathways: “(1) become less controlling; and (2) become more autonomy supportive. Becoming less controlling means learning to avoid controlling sentiment, pressuring language, and controlling behaviours, while becoming more autonomy supportive means learning to take the other person’s perspective, become mindful of the inner motivational resources others possess, and learning the ‘how to’ of autonomy support: nurturing inner motivational resources, relying on noncontrolling and informational language, providing explanatory rationales, and acknowledging and accepting negative affect.” (Hardré, & Reeve, 2009)

Specifically, here’s what you can do:

  • Nurture inner motivational resources. Start by understanding what interests and preferences your team members may have and then help them match those with what they need to do at work. Remember to use non-controlling language. When setting objectives, formulating requirements and expectations, and providing feedback, use informational and flexible messages instead of any language that might sound rigid, evaluative, and pressurising. It’s about helping your team member diagnose why they feel unmotivated or are performing poorly and helping them find a solution to resolve the problem and move forward.  
  • Provide rationales for requests. We already spoke about how important it is to understand the why of a request. Especially when it comes to work that might be perceived as uninteresting or unappealing, it’s good to understand its exact value and usefulness. So don’t leave people guessing. When formulating a request, simply add a sentence that starts with “so that…”. You’ll be surprised at how effective this can be. And similarly, any decision you make and communicate should always be followed by a „because“. 
  • And finally, acknowledge and accept employees’ expressions of negative nature. Start by listening, even when people complain or disagree with you, without immediately challenging their perception. Instead, accept that this is truly how they see and understand the world. Even if you don’t like what you hear, the fact that people are talking about you is a good sign, so take it as the springboard for a constructive conversation. There’s no harm in agreeing that some rules, requests, or decisions may not fit everyone. And sometimes, we just have to deal with that. Make sure, however, that you don’t invalidate someone’s experience. It’ll be much easier for you to align or realign your team if you acknowledge them and their struggles first. 

So, what actions will you take to fuel or re-fuel motivation in your team? 

Further Reading

Better Work Basics​