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Unlocking the Brain's Reward System: How Autonomy Can Increase Motivation and Well-Being

Updated: Jan 31

The Link Between Autonomy and Intrinsic Motivation

Much research has been done on the relationship between autonomy and intrinsic employee motivation. The idea behind autonomy is that employees have more control over where, when, and how they accomplish work activities. Time and again, research shows that a high degree of autonomy leads to more responsibility, commitment, and job satisfaction.

It is important for business owners and leaders within a company to realize this because all too often employees succumb to poor leadership, micro-management, or an excess of processes and procedures. As a result, employees are more likely to suffer burnout or call in sick with other complaints.

A study published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology (2017) analyzed data from more than 200,000 employees in 34 countries over a 20-year period and found that the percentage of employees with burnout symptoms had increased significantly, from 18.9% in 1996 to 28.4% in 2016. Despite the growing demand for leadership courses and training, we just can't seem to master the art of good leadership. We are only getting worse at it given the data.

Studies on autonomy and intrinsic motivation

Deci and Ryan developed The Self-Determination Theory (SDT) trying to explain how human motivation works. The theory states that people are intrinsically motivated to fulfill their basic needs of which autonomy, mastery, and meaningfulness are key components.

Autonomy: is about the need to have control over our own lives and work.

Mastery: is about the need to want to become better at something and to learn.

Meaningfulness: is about wanting to contribute to a greater whole, of which you yourself are still a part and which benefits people or society.

Self-determination theory is not based on one specific study but on an extensive collection of experiments, observations, and analyses conducted over the years.

In one of these experiments, subjects were instructed to solve a puzzle. Some were given the freedom to choose which puzzle to solve, while others were given a choice. The results showed that those who were given a choice were more intrinsically motivated to complete the task and performed better.

Deci and Ryan's study does not stand alone. Another study was conducted by Wrzesniewski and Dutton (2001) in which they examined employees in a hospital. They found that employees who had more autonomy in their work.

Research has also shown that when people have choices and experience autonomy in their work, it can lead to increased dopamine activity in the brain. This, in turn, can contribute to feelings of reward and satisfaction, which can enhance intrinsic motivation.

In addition, research has shown that when people experience a sense of belonging and autonomy at work, this can lead to increased oxytocin levels in the brain.

This, in turn, can contribute to feelings of well-being and satisfaction, which can also contribute to intrinsic motivation. However, it is still unclear whether increased levels of these substances are the direct cause of intrinsic motivation, or whether it is more of an indicator of the positive effects of autonomy and intrinsic motivation on the brain.

Which form of leadership gives the most autonomy to employees?

While every company and market requires a different leadership style, there are two leadership styles that stand out when it comes to promoting autonomy. These are transformational leadership and servant leadership.

Transformational leadership

In transformational leadership, the leader is often someone who inspires with an authentic and charismatic personality. The emphasis is on encouraging and motivating employees to set and achieve their own goals.

A transformational leader creates an environment where employees have the space to develop their own ideas and initiatives and where there is plenty of room for playfulness, creativity, and innovation. The leader focuses on coaching and supporting employees in developing their skills and abilities so that they can take more autonomy and responsibility for their work.

Servant leadership

Servant leadership focuses on serving the needs of employees. The leader acts as a facilitator and mentor to help employees achieve their goals and aspirations. By supporting employees and giving them the tools they need to do their jobs well, they can take more autonomy and responsibility for their work.

What does autonomy provide, besides intrinsic motivation?

Of course, every business owner and leader wants intrinsically motivated employees. Fortunately, companies themselves have a great deal of influence on how intrinsically motivated employees are. But what exactly does autonomy provide for the company? Here are the four main benefits.

  1. Autonomy can contribute to higher productivity: When employees experience more autonomy in their work, they have more control over how they perform their tasks and can work more efficiently. This can lead to higher productivity and better results.

  2. Autonomy can lead to more creativity and innovation: When employees have more freedom to develop their own ideas and initiatives, it can lead to more creativity and innovation in the workplace. This, in turn, can help make the organization more competitive.

  3. Autonomy can increase feelings of engagement: When employees have more control over their work, they feel more committed to the organization and its goals. This can lead to greater loyalty and better long-term performance.

  4. Autonomy can contribute to better work-life balance: When employees have more autonomy over their work, they can better align their work with their personal needs and commitments. This can contribute to a better work-life balance and a higher quality of life.

The conditions for allowing employees to work autonomously

Good leadership alone is not enough to allow employees to work autonomously. You cannot expect every employee to make the right choices without frameworks and guidelines. First and foremost, it is, therefore, necessary for an entrepreneur or leader to convey the purpose and vision of the company. Employees need to know what they are contributing to. Simon Sinek once said, "People don't buy what you make, they buy why you make it." 

In addition, it is important to create a company culture that supports autonomy. At a minimum, the culture should be based on mutual trust, open communication, and giving solicited and unsolicited feedback.

Finally, it is fundamental that goals are also clear at the task and project levels. That way, employees know what needs to be done and how it contributes to the bigger picture.

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