Cover image from Perry's Ten Pillars of Success book
Coaching, Education, Sport and Exercise

Autonomy: a pillar of success

Chartered Sport and Exercise Psychologist Dr Josephine Perry has just published her fifth book; The 10 Pillars of Success. Here, we take a look one of the key pillars; autonomy.

23 August 2022

Chartered Sport and Exercise Psychologist Dr Josephine Perry has just published her fifth book. Her first four books were focused on Sport Psychology but her latest; The 10 Pillars of Success, combines an Acceptance and Commitment Theory approach with research in sport, business, education and medicine and interviews with well-known successful role models (i.e Kelly Homes, Maxine Peake, Sara Pascoe) to highlight 10 key characteristics that help us to feel successful. Here we take an extract from the pillar of Autonomy…

Early in my career, I ran a large team in a corporate organisation. I wasn’t very good at it. I wanted the best for all the members of my team, but my positive intentions were thwarted by my poor understanding of how to get the best from people. I had years of specialist experience and knew how to do every job in the team. As a result, I strongly encouraged my team members to do things in the way I did, and that was my downfall. After spending a lot of time reflecting on the situation, I realised that there were many different ways of achieving the desired results. Being fixated on doing things in one particular way meant that I failed to realise that it was more important to achieve the right outcome; finding different ways of doing things would have opened up new opportunities and given the team a sense of achievement for succeeding on their own. I didn’t provide what we would call an ‘autonomy-supportive environment’. I would have been a far better leader if I had.

"An inspiring and practical guide, showing how we can all use our strengths to achieve success'" - Dame Kelly Holmes

I am not alone in being a bad leader of a big team. How often do we see a new initiative being offered at work that doesn’t have the desired effect? Those impacted might say, ‘I don’t want yoga classes and free cupcakes on a Friday – I want to be asked what I want and for my opinions to be heard. I want to choose how I spend my time.’ We all want to have choices and to feel that our voice is heard. When we do, our motivation and wellbeing increase and our performance improves.

As psychologists we all know about Deci and Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory but I find when working with clients on how to increase their intrinsic motivation it is often Autonomy where we struggle. We can all work to increase our mastery and we can set our plans to build up our belonging but how do we grasp more autonomy as it is so often given to us and rarely within our power to take?

What is autonomy?

The formal definition of ‘autonomy’ suggests that it is the state of being the source of your own behaviour. It means feeling psychologically free and having the ability to control your life. In short, autonomy is all about having a choice and a voice. It fulfils an innate need to feel that we are acting of our own volition, allowing us to fully accept the consequences of our actions. There are three different aspects to autonomy:

  1. The belief that we are in control of our actions.
  2. Freedom from being pressured by others to do things.
  3. The flexibility to make choices.

Higher levels of autonomy tend to result in increased job satisfaction because we feel more responsible for the quality of our work.

When we have a choice over our actions and feel in control of the decision-making processes that will impact us, we possess autonomy.Autonomy isn’t about standing alone and shunning everyone else; as we’ve seen, we still need a sense of belonging and the ability to develop our mastery with others. However, while the concept of autonomy accepts that we should sometimes be influenced by others, it is about feeling that we are able to make our own choices. We don’t ignore other opinions or ideas, but we do get to choose whether or not we listen to them. There is no feeling that we have to conform to expectations or coercion.

The benefits of autonomy

When we are able to be autonomous, our behaviours and the choices we make feel more authentic. As a result, we buy into our work and have a stronger sense of self. We can express what we believe in, and our behaviours and activities represent who we feel we are.

In the workplace, higher levels of autonomy tend to result in increased job satisfaction because we feel more responsible for the quality of our work. And with job satisfaction, we are more likely to be loyal to our employers and less likely to want to move elsewhere. We are more engaged, meaning that we are more productive, and we are also more likely to have a better work–life balance. The authenticity that comes with autonomy has another beneficial side effect: instead of having to deal with the tension between our values and those imposed on us by others, which can be stressful and tiring, we can just get on with doing a great job.

Away from the workplace, autonomy means that we enjoy sports and hobbies more and make faster progress, and the increase in motivation reduces drop-out rates. A swimming club in Quebec that worked to give its swimmers far more autonomy, allowing more choices in their activities and soliciting their opinions, saw its drop-out rate fall from 36 to just 5 per cent. In an experiment prior to the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, a number of coaches for the Korean national team were chosen at random and asked to create an autonomy-supportive environment, while other coaches continued with their usual control-based focus. The athletes who were coached in an autonomy-supportive environment not only felt better connected to their coaches and teammates, but won significantly more medals.

Home life is also better when we have more autonomy, and the feeling has been linked to increased quality of life. In a study on the effect of autonomy within friendships, it was found that when someone offers a friend far more choice over shared activities and prompts them to express more of their views, the experience for both friends led to increased emotional resilience and psychological security.

When we are completely engaged in our work, feel psychologically safe and know that we have good levels of support if we need it, we are happier, more enthusiastic and work harder.

While possessing complete autonomy from birth would obviously put us in some tricky situations as young children, growing up in autonomous environments helps us learn when to ask for advice and support from parents, teachers or coaches. Over time, we internalise the advice that suits our personality and we develop our own decision-making skills. Studies of students have found that those in this position have a more defined view of themselves and have greater awareness of their ambitions. When we feel like we have a choice and a voice we are able to go with our gut. When we are completely engaged in our work, feel psychologically safe and know that we have good levels of support if we need it, we are happier, more enthusiastic and work harder. We are able to innovate and can work more creatively, taking full ownership of what we do with confidence and optimism. And this all builds a perfect pillar for success.

Building autonomy-supportive environments

In autonomy-supportive environments, leaders offer as much choice as possible, provide explanations for tasks or rules, ask other people how they feel and acknowledge those feelings. They give opportunities for team members to take the initiative, provide constructive feedback and refrain from taking control, criticising, punishing or rewarding. They encourage choice and problem-solving, and proactively call for participation in decision-making. In this type of environment, regardless of your level, you are aware that your voice is not only valid but welcomed and that decisions that impact you won’t be made without your input.

Autonomy-supportive parents provide accurate information and open communication, but ultimately allow their children to make choices for themselves. Autonomy-supportive coaches focus on the individual needs of athletes and have a real belief in each athlete’s capabilities – not just in the sense of performing in the short term, but in making the best decisions for their career. For parents, teachers and coaches, the goal is to build up those in their care so that they are capable of making good choices, rather than controlling them because they assume that they are not able.

Being autonomy-supportive is about more than just giving people a choice and a voice – it is about offering transparent leadership, which means listening and providing focused, supportive feedback. It is about being a role model for behaviour and helping others to generate their own sense of confidence. You will offer helpful feedback, give social support, treat people as individuals and share relevant knowledge. Staff you have benefit from this, but so also do clients. When a psychiatric hospital for young people encouraged its staff to become more autonomous, they not only reported greater job satisfaction and wellbeing at work, but their patients engaged better with their treatment.

Ways you can help to create an autonomy supportive environment, whatever your level within an organisation include appreciation, delegation, explanation and trust:

Appreciation

Everybody wants to be appreciated for their contribution and, when we feel undervalued, we tend to take it personally. This is true both at work and in our personal lives. Work is just another social system and, when we don’t feel a sense of belonging, we reduce our effort or move to another organisation where we might be more valued.

Delegating: Effective leadership is all about identifying a goal, setting a strategy, modelling great behaviour and letting others reach the goal in their own way. It is important that we don’t delegate actions or processes. When we do, we simply hand over responsibility without giving autonomy. Instead, we should be sure that we are delegating the outcome, giving others the autonomy to achieve it in whatever way they choose.

Explaining

Telling people why we have set out a goal helps them buy into that bigger picture, which also encourages them to commit to it. When everyone is on board, it’s not necessary to employ any tactics because everyone is focused on achieving the same outcome.

Trust 

We have to expect the best of people. We have all been burned – expecting the best only to experience the worst – but, more often than not, the best happens, and being trusting helps us to get far more out of people. And that trust needs to be automatic and given, rather than earned.

Incorporating appreciation, delegation, explanation and trust – to shape an autonomy-supportive environment means that we all get to feel more autonomous. We all feel that we have a choice and a voice and, when our motivation increases, securing success is far more likely.

Growing up in autonomous environments helps us learn when to ask for advice and support from parents, teachers or coaches.

Eight ways to help create an autonomy-supportive environment:

  • Delegate outcomes rather than processes.
  • Give great explanations.
  • Start from a place of trust.
  • Show appreciation for anyone helping you or doing great work.
  • Being clear about your values and how the work you do helps you meet them.
  • Resolving to do what you can to lift others up.
  • Complete a control map so you can put your efforts and attention into the things you can impact. On a piece of paper draw two lines down the page so you have three columns. Label them: Control, influence, no control. Now think about an area of your life where you would like more autonomy and consider first what you have no control over, then what you can influence and finally what you can control. All your focus and effort should then go on the things in the control section where you can have most impact.
  • Know why you are doing what you do. Your job may well not be your purpose in life – often it is simply to pay the bills – but even remembering that when you feel micromanaged or underappreciated is helpful to keep things in perspective.


The Ten Pillars of Success: Secret Strategies of High Achievers by Dr Josephine Perry, is published by Allen & Unwin on 25th August.