Motivation and emotion/Book/2020/Autonomy support and motivation

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Autonomy support and motivation:
What role does autonomy support play in motivation and how can it be fostered?
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Overview[edit | edit source]

Have you ever felt like the reason you were doing a task was out of your control? Do you feel your teacher or supervisor at work doesn’t care about your perspective? These are common experiences for many, but you may not realise how seriously this impacts your motivation.

These instances refer to a construct understood in motivation literature as autonomy support (AS) or lack thereof. An autonomy-supportive environment facilitates individuals psychological needs and inner motivational capacity. Self Determination Theory (SDT) explains more internalised forms of regulation as parallel to motivation form to exist on a continuum of autonomy. AS can help individuals satisfy their psychological needs, such as autonomy, and thus move towards intrinsic motivation.

Autonomy-supportive leaders take the perspective of their subordinates and respond to their inner motivational resources. AS can be fostered in leaders by helping them to understand and endorse this theory and giving concrete examples of how to enact it. Instructional behaviours such as providing choice, acknowledging negative affect and providing explanatory rationales will be exemplified in this chapter. A majority of research presented will be from educational settings, with some from workplace and training settings.

Focus questions:

  • What is autonomy support?
  • What role has autonomy support been demonstrated to play in motivation?
  • How can autonomy support be fostered?

Theory behind autonomy support[edit | edit source]

AS is a facet under SDT (Ryan & Deci, 2000). SDT acknowledges inherent growth tendencies in humans (Deci & Ryan as cited by Alley, 2019) and refers

Figure 1. A taxonomy of human motivation showing types of motivation to exist on a continuum of autonomy. Integrated regulation has the highest autonomy within extrinsic motivation, not overall.

to three psychological needs, autonomy, competence and relatedness. According to SDT, individuals are intrinsically motivated to satisfy these needs and through such satisfaction may reach optimal functioning (Ryan & Deci, 2000). See Edward Deci speak about the theory here.

SDT explains a continuum of motivation, which aligns with self-determined or non-self-determined regulatory styles (Ryan & Deci, 2000). People are inherently motivated to integrate themselves with their actions, however, contextual factors can impinge on this (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Cognitive Evaluation Theory (CET) posits that individual's 'locus of causality' impacts the intrinsic nature of motivation, such that those with an external locus of causality do not attribute themselves as responsible for their behaviour, which then decreases self-determined forms of regulation (Deci & Ryan as cited by Pelletier et al., 2001). Thus, contextual factors can inhibit internalisation of regulation (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Motivation then exists on a continuum of autonomy, such that the more volition someone feels over their actions, the more they are able to attribute it as internally motivated (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

You can read more about these phenomena in other book chapters. For the purpose of this chapter, just remember that moving towards intrinsic motivation is considered desirable and this can be done through satisfying psychological needs (Ryan & Deci, 2000). AS then refers to creating an environment that allows individuals to be autonomous in their behaviour, and thus become more self-regulated (Reeve, 2009). AS facilitates individuals' motivational resources and creates an environment that supports and fosters their autonomy (Reeve, 2009).

Attributes of autonomy-supportive leadership[edit | edit source]

The literature generally describes autonomy-supportive leadership as including the following attributes, as detailed by Reeve (2009):

Table 1

Attributes of Autonomy-supportive Leadership

Adopts others' perspective Take the subordinate's perspective, whether a student or employee, which enables creation of an environment that is in line with subordinate's autonomous motivation. While the leader's perspective is important, this must not override the subordinate's perspective.
Provide rationale Provide explanation for why subordinates must partake in a particular behaviour, especially for boring activities.
Avoid rewards, pressures or constraints These are seen as disruptive to autonomy as they are considered external regulators.
Choice Allowing students or employees choice over how and when they complete a task allows the individual to feel autonomy over their actions.
Patience Allow learners to reach appointed goals in their own time.
Acknowledge and accept expression of negative affect Treat complaints from subordinates as valid.
Non-controlling language Includes informational communication, and helps to diagnose and solve motivational problems rather than using pressuring language such as "should" and "have to".

These factors will be revisited later in the chapter. Let's move onto antecedents of AS.

Antecedents of autonomy support[edit | edit source]

There are many factors which may draw a leader toward an autonomy-supportive motivational style or away to a controlling style. These will be outlined as factors that help or hinder an individual towards being autonomy-supportive.

Understanding and endorsing the value of autonomy support[edit | edit source]

An important aspect and predictor of being autonomy-supportive is understanding and endorsing its importance. Education on the benefits of AS is a part of many empirically tested interventions for teachers and supervisors (Cheon & Reeve, 2015; Yong et al., 2019). Some include lecture-like presentation of content, while training developed for low-skilled supervisors involved concrete examples of different supervisory styles that allowed applied understanding (Yong et al., 2019). The base theoretical assumption of SDT is that individuals are inherently motivated to satisfy their psychological needs and that being intrinsically motivated is satisfying (Ryan & Deci, 2000). This means leaders must trust that individuals possess the motivation required to achieve their and their leaders wants. The truth of this and how it is fostered by AS will now be demonstrated.

Autonomy support and motivation[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. Autonomy support helps to satisfy the psychological needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness. Satisfaction of these needs then allows for more autonomous forms of motivation.

Amoura et al. (2015) made a compelling confirmation of the SDT theoretical basis of AS, such that self-determined motivation is mediated by need satisfaction, which is shown to be enhanced by autonomy-supportive supervision. Interestingly, they found autonomy to be the main factor of influence between AS and self-determined motivation. Only students' perception of AS was measured in this study, which is proposed to be the most important aspect and may explain previous research that didn’t show strong connections (Amoura et al., 2015). Amoura et al. (2015) give a valuable addition to AS research through evidencing need satisfaction as a mediation of self-determined motivation. However, their measure of motivation was global, measuring all levels of regulation and bringing them into one score, with high scores showing higher self-determined motivation.

Other research shows nuance in the impact of AS through the different forms of motivational regulation shown above. Pelletier et al.’s (2002) 2-year study of competitive swimmers compared drop-out rates with athlete’s motivation regulation style (i.e. introjected, external) and how this related to their perceptions of their coaches motivational style (autonomy-supportive or controlling). Controlling motivation is explained further below, but an autonomy-supportive style had positive relationships with more internalised regulatory styles, including introjected. Swimmers who had not dropped out at 22 months into the study were more intrinsically motivated and identified, and reported their coaches to be more autonomy-supportive and less controlling.

Workplace[edit | edit source]

Slemp et al. (2018) did a meta-analysis of 72 published and unpublished studies on Leader Autonomy Support (LAS) and it’s impacts in the workplace on outcomes, including internalisation of motivation and wellbeing. The SDT framework suggests that AS increases all three psychological needs, which then increases an individual's intrinsic work motivation which can positively impact multiple workplace and personal wellbeing outcomes (Slemp et al., 2018). The study supported this, showing that amotivation is negatively associated with LAS, external is not significantly associated and intrinsic motivation is positively associated (see table).

Table 2

Relationship Between Regulatory Styles with Leader Autonomy Support Found by Slemp et al. (2018)

Regulatory style Relationship
amotivation ↑↓ negative
external - no association
identified ↑↑ positive
intrinsic ↑↑ positive

Individual motivation levels[edit | edit source]

AS has a dynamic relationship with individual motivational levels. Black & Deci (2000) looked at the correlations between perceived LAS, grades, autonomous regulation, and various other outcomes in tutorial groups for an organic chemistry class. AS was significantly related to performance in those who were not initially autonomously motivated for the course, but for students who were already autonomous it was not related. This shows AS is even more important for those who are unmotivated, which aligns with Slemp et al. (2018).

Delrue et al.’s (2019) study required young judokas to read comics exemplifying autonomy-supportive or controlling interactions after a questionnaire including motivational measures. The judokas answered questions on how would feel and react in that situation, which included need satisfaction and frustration measures. It was found that those who were more autonomously motivated in the beginning reaped more benefits from autonomy-supportive coaches in terms of need satisfaction, and were more adversely impacted by control in terms of frustration.

Taking Delrue et al. (2019) and Black & Deci’s (2000) findings together, it can be understood that although those who are more autonomy-supportive may not show increases in results under autonomy-supportive leadership, they internally flourish in this setting and are more adversely impacted by control.

Transfer across contexts[edit | edit source]

The trans-contextual model explains autonomous motivation can transfer across contexts (Soos et al., 2019). Soos et al. (2019) found that this can apply to increase in autonomous motivation gleaned from autonomy-supportive environments. School children aged 11-18 years were surveyed on intentions, behaviour, beliefs and perceived autonomy in multiple contexts. Autonomous motivation in Physical Education and leisure time contexts was positively related, which was positively associated with perceived AS from teachers, friends and family. It must be understood that being autonomy-supportive is not just about keeping attention during a particular lesson or work day, but about the personal and motivational growth it can foster across situations (Reeve, 2009).

Controlling motivational style[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. Patience allows avoidance of intrusions into the students work space, which may include grabbing their utensils or directing their hands as explained by Reeve (2009).

In becoming more autonomy-supportive an awareness must also be made of the controlling motivational style. It is important to understand the tendency for supervisors and teachers to use it, the detrimental impact of it and the fact that it can appear simultaneously with AS.

A controlling style involves not taking the subordinate’s perspective and pressuring them to think, feel or behave in a certain way using pressure, rewards or sanctions outside of the individual's control (Reeve, 2009). Additionally, expressions of negative affect may be met with power assertions such as “quit your complaining and do as I tell you” (Reeve, 2009). Intrusions into a subordinate's space can be a marker of impatience, see figure 3., which may display a lack of trust in their abilities (Reeve, 2009). According to CET, these intrusions into a person's learning or work environment are said to disrupt their intrinsic motivational flow and induce an external locus of causality (Reeve, 2009). This can also be done through internal processes, as in introjected regulation, by inducing ego involvement such that individuals feel shame or guilt or a lack of self-esteem due to behaviour that is not in line with their leader’s wants (Reeve, 2009).

Amoura et al. (2015) found the negative impact of control on self-determined motivation was mediated by psychological need-thwarting. This means the impact of control is not just a lack of need satisfaction, but an impingement on it. Research has found controlling motivational styles to be associated with non-self-determined forms of regulation (Pelletier et al., 2001), and to be negatively related to student’s perceived autonomy (Reeve et al., 2006).

But what if someone is disruptive in a learning or training environment?

There is a common adage that control is appropriate in response to disobedience, and that less controlling styles ‘will not work’ (Delrue et al., 2019). Reeve (2009) stated that using a controlling style may be needed when students become aggressive or violent; when the safety of the child, classroom or teacher may be at risk. However, this is starkly different to simple classroom disruption. Delrue et al. (2019) found coaches use of a controlling style can increase expected defiance, which may bring about disruption that could have been avoided. In Delrue et al.’s study (2019) participants' reported expected levels of defiance were not different between controlling or autonomy-supportive contexts when questioned about an example of a judoka being disruptive during training. This meant a controlling style would not be more effective in subduing disruptive students.

Additionally, those who were more extrinsically motivated were more inclined to be defiant. This may be due to more defiant individuals having been exposed to more controlling teaching (Delrue et al., 2019). However, it may be in the interest of leaders to help students move away from controlled motivation to diminish defiance.

Overall, the multitude of benefits of an autonomy-supportive style as opposed to controlling, as well as lack of evidence that a controlling style actually decreases intent of defiance should point leaders away from this style and toward AS, even in difficult situations.

Control as a separate construct to autonomy support[edit | edit source]

It is important to understand that increases in autonomy-supportive behaviour does not guarantee a decrease in control. A controlling motivational style is often presented as the opposite style to AS, however they are not two ends of a style continuum but rather two separate styles that can appear together. Amoura et al. (2015) found, consistent with previous literature, students perceived both autonomy and control in the same situation. Those who perceived high autonomy and low control had the highest self-determined motivation. Additionally, those who perceived both high or both low levels of autonomy and control were less autonomously motivated. This suggests a negative effect from control even if AS is high. Pelletier et al. (2002) also found that perception of controlling and autonomy-supportive styles were both positively associated with introjected regulation in competitive swimmers. This suggests the two styles to not just be opposite ends of the same spectrum, if they increased the same measure. Thus, it is important to understand that being controlling is detrimental to student's motivation, but being autonomy-supportive does not absolve leaders from being controlling.

What aspects of these motivational styles do you most often use?

AS training commonly incorporates an opportunity for leaders to reflect on their own motivational leadership style (Cheon & Reeve, 2015; Yong et al., 2019). Your answer does not mean that you are a good or bad leader. Remember these styles can be adjusted once aware, especially when you appreciate the importance.

Autonomy support in action[edit | edit source]

Figure 4. Reeve & jang (2006) asked participants to solve puzzles using happy cubes in their study looking at autonomy supportive instructional behaviours.

It is comprehensive what being autonomy-supportive entails ideologically, and the precursors to its actualisation but what does it look like practically? It may be clear now that AS isn't a set way of acting, but an attitude toward leadership and teaching that must be endorsed (Reeve, 2009). However, it can be useful to have concrete examples of what it can look like (Reeve, 2009). Instructional behaviours that are associated with autonomy-supportive or controlling teaching have been identified through observation of teaching and subsequent perceived AS ratings (Reeve et al., 2006). Reeve et al. (2006) did an experiment investigating which of these behaviours were actually associated with increased autonomy in participants. Preservice teachers completed the study in pairs with one in the role of teacher and the other student. 'Students' were given 10 minutes to complete 7 three-dimensional puzzle patterns using Happy Cubes, see Fig. 4. 'Teachers' were given an information sheet on how to solve them and were asked to assist the ‘student’ as they saw fit. Afterward, 'students' completed a questionnaire with perceived autonomy, and student outcome measure. Autonomy-supportive instructional behaviours found to be significantly associated with perceived autonomy were:

  • time allowing student to work in own way
  • time student talking
  • praise as informational feedback
  • offering encouragement
  • offering hints
  • being responsive to student generated questions
  • making perspective-acknowledging statements

This is not an exhaustive list, especially considering the lab environment of this study. Remember that endorsing the ideology of AS and avoiding controlling practices are the most vital steps in creating autonomy-supportive environments. Below are some examples of how to enact AS, but with the knowledge developed from this chapter others may come to mind.

Respond to inner motivational resources[edit | edit source]

The basis of AS is taking the others' perspective and responding to their inner motivational resources. This is a broad statement that can involve multiple instructional behaviours. Many of the instructional behaviours found by Reeve et al. (2006) to be associated with improved autonomy would fall under a category of understanding the student’s perspective and trying to respond to inner motivational resources. More time spent talking to students was associated with higher autonomy, which can come down to understanding what the student understands, what they're interested in and what support they need (Reeve et al., 2006). Spending time to understand your audience’s interests can allow work to be tailored to their inherent motivation (Reeve, 2009). Understanding their motivational style can help you understand how your motivational style will impact them, as previously explained (Feri et al. 2016; Black & Deci, 2000). These actions may help the individual feel understood and accommodated, with increased feelings of connectedness and positive social interaction (Amoura et al., 2015). This can also internalise motivation through relatedness as found by Amoura et al. (2015).

Acknowledgement of negative affect[edit | edit source]

Flowing on from this is the importance of acknowledging and validating expressions of negative affect in your audience as this is another way to embrace their perspective (Alley, 2019). Many leaders may see this as disruptive or defiant, but as previously demonstrated, in that case autonomy-supportive responses are most appropriate (Reeve et al., 2009) Furthermore, Reeve (2009) explains these expressions should be seen as positive as it opens up a dialogue on how to appropriately respond to their inner motivational resources. Questions following on from a complaint will allow you to understand and rectify a situation that is not in line with individual’s inherent motivation (Reeve, 2009). Delrue, et al. (2019) found vignettes of a struggling student being met with control were associated with higher levels of expected defiance than if the student was being disruptive. If a student is genuinely struggling and receives a controlling response, this may additionally stifle their relatedness needs as they are not being acknowledged and validated (Amoura et al., 2015). With this knowledge, try and choose what the best responses may be in the below situation.

Nuvola apps korganizer.svg
Pick a response

Imagine you are in a PE class and you're finding an exercise particularly difficult, so you express this to your teacher. Which of these responses would be most autonomy-supportive? Select all that apply.

Quit your complaining!
I know this is hard but it will help you do the next exercise
It's not hard, you just need to try harder
What are you finding most difficult?

Explanatory rationales[edit | edit source]

Increased autonomy can be seen as increased identification with or understanding of the value of your actions (Ryan & Deci, 2000). As you know, an autonomy-supportive leaders' job is to encourage this. However, not all tasks are inherently enjoyable and can be just plain boring. Reeve et al. (2006) did not find explanatory rationales to be significantly related to autonomy in their study, despite previous results. They thought this was due to the puzzle in their study being too inherently interesting and enjoyable. This shows how explanatory rationales are especially important to allow individuals to find value in what they are doing when they are doing something uninteresting (Reeve, 2009).

Table 3

Example of Class Direction with and Without Explanatory Rationales

No rationale Rationale
Do not speak while we are in the museum. When we are in the museum is it important that we be quiet for a few reasons. Being quiet in the museum will ensure yourself and others are able to concentrate on the information our guide will be giving us that will be very helpful for assignments. It will also help us avoid disturbing people not from our school who are in the museum.

Providing choice[edit | edit source]

Providing choice may seem difficult to attain due to constraints in a job or classroom, and expectations that must be met. However, small offers of choice may be more attainable than expected and can make a surprising difference. In Patall et al.'s study (2010) high school students were given a choice between two similar homework tasks in the experimental group and no choice in the control. Those who were provided a choice were more intrinsically motivated toward doing their homework and got better grades. Delrue et al. (2019) even gave an example that choice can be given in situations where a student is disruptive. In a situation where a student is being silly with a partner, you may give them the choice of continuing to work with their partner or working alone (Delrue et al., 2019). So, even a simple possibility of choice can make large differences in motivation, and this can be done in varying situations.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

AS is a leadership style that puts emphasis on the perspective of the subordinate and attempts to respond to their inherent motivational processes. AS has been shown to be associated with individual’s motivation becoming more autonomous, which is theoretically explained by SDT. AS is more beneficial for those who are amotivated or less internally regulated, but can have increased psychological benefits for those who are already autonomously motivated. Intrinsic forms of motivation gleaned from AS can generalise to situations outside of the realm it is being supported, and have been applied in education, workplace and training settings. Thus, AS is beneficial to more internalised forms of motivation and helps individuals generally.

Understanding and endorsing this is a key step for leaders to become more autonomy-supportive. Conversely, understanding the negative impacts and ineffectiveness of a controlling motivational style is important in becoming more autonomy-supportive and optimising its positive benefits. This is because aspects of both styles can exist in a leader at one time and lessen the positive effects of AS.

Understanding subordinates in order to best accommodate their inner motivation and enrich their connectedness is a key behaviour of an autonomy-supportive leader. Patience to avoid motivationally disruptive intrusions, acknowledgement of negative affect and using it as a bouncing pad to understand more about subordinates is beneficial. Even providing simple instances or choice and explanatory rationales are empirically proven ways of providing more autonomy-supportive leadership. AS is a valuable theoretical tool that should be widely endorsed and applied.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Alley, K. M. (2019). Fostering middle school students’ autonomy to support motivation and engagement. ‘’Middle School Journal, 50’’(3), 5-14. https://doi.org/10.1080/00940771.2019.1603801

Amoura, C., Berjot, S., Gillet, N., Caruana, S., Cohen, J., & Finez, L. (2015). Autonomy-supportive and controlling styles of teaching: Opposite or distinct teaching styles? ‘’Swiss Journal of Psychology, 74’’(3), 141-158. https://doi.org/10.1024/1421-0185/a000156

Black, A. E., Deci, E. L. (2000). The effects of instructors’ autonomy support and students’ autonomous motivation on learning organic chemistry: A self-determination theory perspective. ‘’Science Education, 84’’(6), 740-756. https://doi.org/10.1002/1098-237X(200011)84:6<740::AID-SCE4>3.0.CO;2-3

Cheon, S. H., & Reeve, J. (2015). A classroom-based intervention to help teachers decrease students’ amotivation. ‘’Contemporary Educational Psychology, 40’’, 99-111. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cedpsych.2014.06.004

Delrue, J., Soenens, B., Morbée, S., Vansteenkiste, M., & Haerens, L. (2019). Do athletes’ responses to coach autonomy support and control depend on the situation and athletes’ personal motivation? ‘’Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 43’’. 321-332. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychsport.2019.04.003

Feri, R., Soemantri, D., & Jusuf, A. (2016). The relationship between autonomous motivation and autonomy support in medical students’ academic achievement. ‘’International Journal of Medical Education, 7’’, 417-423. https://doi.org/10.5116/ijme.5843.1097

Patall, E. A., Cooper, H., W, S. R., & Graesser, A. C. (2010). The effectiveness and relative importance of choice in the classroom. ‘’Journal of Educational Psychology, 102’’(4), 896-175. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0019545

Pelletier, L. G., Fortier, M. S., Vallerand, R. J., & Brière, N. M. (2001). Associations among perceived autonomy support, forms of self-regulation, and persistence: A prospective study. ‘’Motivation and Emotion, 25’’(4), 279-306. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1014805132406

Reeve, J. (2009). Why teachers adopt a controlling motivating style toward students and how they can become more autonomy supportive. ‘’Educational Psychologist, 44’’(3), 159-175. https://doi.org/10.1080/00461520903028990

Reeve, J., Jang, H., & Harris, K. R. (2006). What teachers say and do to support students' autonomy during a learning activity. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98(1), 209-218. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0663.98.1.209

Ryan, R. M. & Deci, E. L. (2017). ‘’Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation development and wellness.’’ New York: Guilford Publications. https://books.google.com.au/books?hl=en&lr=&id=Bc_DDAAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PP1&dq=Self-determination+theory:+Basic+psychological+needs+in+motivation+development+and+wellness&ots=QIfckejU1i&sig=pjy4RUnsKwqSMc4nYwy9co9X3HU&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=Self-determination%20theory%3A%20Basic%20psychological%20needs%20in%20motivation%20development%20and%20wellness&f=false

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. ‘’Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25’’(1), 54-67. https://doi.org/10.1006/ceps.1999.1020

Slemp, G. R., Kern, M. L., Patrick, K. J., & Ryan, R. M. (2018). Leader autonomy support in the workplace: A meta-analytic review. ‘’Motivation and Emotion, 42’’(5), 706-724. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-018-9698-y

Soos, I., Dizmatsek, I., Lingm J., Ojelabi, A., Simonek, J., Boros-Balint, I., Szabo, P., Szabo, A., & Hamar, P. (2019). Perceived autonomy support and motivation in young people: A comparative investigation of physical education and leisure-time in four countries. ‘’Europe’s Journal of Psychology, 15’’(3), 509-530. https://doi.org/10.5964/ejop.v15i3.1735

Yong, A., Roche, M., & Sutton, A. (2019). Supervisory skills training for the neglected supervisors: Development and preliminary evaluation of an autonomy-supportive programme. ‘’Industrial and Commercial Training, 51’’(5), 315-326. https://doi.org/10.1108/ict-01-2019-0013

External links[edit | edit source]