Have you ever had a conversation with your staff about why they turn up to work? If so, you’ve probably noticed that employees bring different motivations to work each day. Some are just going through the motions and are completely indifferent about their work.
Others might be motivated by a desire for material rewards or approval, or to avoid punishments or criticism. Some might use their job as a form of self-esteem maintenance: by working, they avoid guilt and feel secure and productive.
And yet others may turn up because they value their work activities, see work as part of ‘who they are’, or simply love their work and enjoy the experiences it brings them. This ‘intrinsic motivation’ is the key to a productive, satisfied workforce, and our recently published meta-analysis of more than 30,000 employees worldwide has identified how leaders can foster it in the workplace.
Why do people work?
The varied forms of work motivation sit along a spectrum — from a complete lack of motivation, to highly extrinsic forms of motivation, to intrinsic motivation.
Highly extrinsic forms are contingent on external events, like rewards or approval. Intrinsic motivation, in contrast, is driven by inner experiences, such as enjoyment, satisfaction or growth. It involves participating in an activity simply because it is interesting or enjoyable.
Intrinsic motivation is regarded as the highest quality form of work motivation because it tends to foster greater workplace wellbeing, proactivity, engagement, and performance. It is also more sustainable because when employees are intrinsically motivated, they are self-motivated.
So, how do leaders foster intrinsically motivated employees?
According to our study they can use particular practices to have a positive influence on employee work motivation, performance and psychological functioning.
- providing opportunities for employees to make their own choices and have inputs into decisions;
- encouraging self-initiated behaviours within structured guidance and boundaries;
- showing an interest in the perspective of employees, demonstrating empathic concern;
- encouraging ownership over goals, and interest and value in work tasks by clearly articulating a rationale about why those tasks are important; and
- avoiding the use of controls that restrain autonomy, like overtly controlling behaviour (e.g. micro-management), or tangible sanctions or rewards to prompt desired job behaviours.
Controlling vs autonomy supportive leadership
These autonomy supportive behaviours contrast with an opposing style of leadership, which employees experience as controlling.
The evolution of cars might help clarify how these two leadership styles differ. Early cars had manual gear shifts. At every point the driver was in control of the gears, speed and direction. A manual car is fully ‘controlled’ by the driver. Yet as automotive technology has developed, cars have become more autonomous and it is the car – not the person in the driving seat – that is in control. The driver becomes a guide, making small corrections, but generally leaving the car in control.
Just like the driver of a manual car, leaders can be very controlling, governing every aspect of their employees’ working lives. Or they can be like the driver of an autonomous car and let their employees take control of their own work, guiding them only when necessary and appropriate – an autonomy supportive style.
A controlling leadership style is restraining and suffocating, whereas an autonomy supportive style is empowering, treating the employee like a self-directed agent who can think and act for themselves. Leaders may not entirely conform to one style over the other, but the more autonomy supportive a leader can be, the better the outcomes for their employees.
Our study drew on data from people who’ve experienced autonomy-supportive leadership to varying degrees and found it supports greater intrinsic motivation, workplace well-being, job satisfaction, committed and loyal employees, and higher work engagement. Employees are also less likely to suffer from burnout.
Interestingly, the study also showed that autonomy supportive approaches benefit employees irrespective of national culture – it is not just the way we like things to be in the West.
But perhaps the most important aspect of the study was that it showed how autonomy support leads to positive outcomes in employees. The study suggests it helps employees satisfy three basic psychological needs — for autonomy, competence, and relatedness.
When employees work for an autonomy supportive leader they naturally feel more autonomous. Yet they also tend to behave in ways that support their competence and relatedness needs. For instance, they might seek out new challenges and learning opportunities, or take steps to develop relationship with peers. Decades of research document the positive effects of satisfying these three needs and autonomy support is an important contributor.
Given the demonstrated benefits stemming from employee autonomy, it may be worth joining the growing number of organisations proactively adopting strategies to nurture the autonomy of their employees. At Netflix, for example, leaders are encouraged to assume that employees work at their best when they don’t have to ask for approval at every turn. Instead, employees are trusted to think and act volitionally on behalf of the organisation.
How do things look from your driving seat?