Magazine Article | October 13, 2011

How To Give Employees Autonomy Without Losing Control

Source: Life Science Leader

By Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson

Why the feeling of choice is what matters

Most managers and leaders have the unenviable task of trying to get other people to adopt particular goals. If you want your employees to live up to their full potential, they need to believe the goals they are pursuing have real value. In fact, you want them to make the goals their own — and with good reason. Studies show the greatest motivation and most personal satisfaction comes from those goals we choose for ourselves. Self-chosen goals create a special kind of motivation called intrinsic motivation — the desire to do something for its own sake. When people are intrinsically motivated, they enjoy what they are doing more and find it more interesting. They feel more creative and process information more deeply. They persist longer in the face of difficulty and achieve more. Intrinsic motivation is awesome in its power to get and keep us going.

Autonomy is particularly critical when it comes to creating and maintaining intrinsic motivation. But, in the workplace, goals have to be assigned. What’s a manager to do? Well, it turns out that it isn’t so much actual freedom of choice that matters when it comes to creating intrinsic motivation, but the feeling of choice. Choice provides a sense of self-determination, even when choice is trivial or illusory. The good news is that while true autonomy in the workplace can be hard to come by, the feeling of choice can be created fairly easily, using three methods:

Explain Why
First, and most obviously, your employees need to understand why the goal they’ve been assigned has value. Too often, managers tell their employees what they need to do, without taking the time to explain why it’s important or how it fits into the bigger picture. No one ever really commits to a goal if they don’t see why it’s desirable for them to do it in the first place. Don’t assume the “why” is obvious.

Let Them Choose How
Allowing employees to decide how they will reach an assigned goal can create the feeling of choice necessary to be intrinsically motivated. Being able to tailor their approach to their preferences and abilities will also give them a heightened sense of control over the situation, which can only benefit performance. (If you can’t give them total free reign, try giving them a choice between two options for how to proceed.)

Let Them Choose Something
If you have to assign both the goal and the method for reaching it, try creating the feeling of choice by inviting your employee to make decisions about more peripheral aspects of the task. For instance, if your employees have to attend weekly team meetings to improve communication and collaboration (with both the goal and method for reaching it predetermined), you can have team members take turns deciding what the topic of the meeting will be each week or even what kind of lunch will be ordered. Studies show that these more peripheral decisions create a feeling of choice, even when the choices aren’t particularly meaningful or relevant to the goal itself.


Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson is a motivational psychologist, speaker, and author of Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals. She is an expert blogger for HBR and Fast Company and a contributor to the BBC World Service’s Business Daily.