Blue Line

Autonomy-supportive motivating style

January 8, 2014  By Danny Thompson

by Danny Thompson

We are all looking for ways to motivate ourselves and others to be the best that we can be. This is true of all organizations looking to remain competitive in today’s society. I became a supervisor within the RCMP at a relatively early stage in my career and quickly learned that the riddle of motivation has no easy answer. Every person is unique and each person is motivated for very different reasons.

I feel that, for many years, it has been believed that the traditional controlling motivating style was considered to be the best way to increase employee engagement. This style involves promises of rewards or punishment according to the perceived level of effort an employee puts forth. I argue that it focuses on compliance and not necessarily engagement. It places an emphasis on the supervisor to regulate the employee’s behavior rather than allowing the employee’s level of engagement to regulate his or her own behavior.

All people have the need for autonomy, competence and relatedness (<Reeve, 2009>). The autonomy-supportive motivating style supports the autonomy of the individual and as such translates into an individual becoming engaged in the tasks at hand. There are four components that I feel make it successful. They involve nurturing inner motivational resources, relying on informational language, providing explanatory rationale and acknowledging negative feedback.


{Nurtures inner motivational resources}

People who subscribe to the autonomy-supportive motivating style find ways to discover the strengths of their team and provide an environment that allows these strengths to flourish. Most times a person’s strengths are evident but sometimes it requires some discussion. By nurturing the strengths of the employee we are creating within them an “intrinsic” motivation. When an employee is intrinsically motivating there is often very little need for the external motivators used in the traditional controlling motivational style such as incentives or punishments.

{Relies on informational language}

Sometimes the people we are trying to motivate perform poorly for any number of reasons. Supervisors that believe in the autonomy-supportive motivating style treat these types of employees as motivational challenges rather than simply writing them off as “poor performers”. Controlling motivational styles will often subject these “poor performers” to criticism in the hopes that the criticism will spark motivation (<Deci, Connell, & Ryan, 1989>). According to the autonomy-supportive motivating style a supervisor will make use of informational language rather than rigid or shame inducing language. By simply acknowledging the poor performance and asking why it occurred I feel that will see more benefit than imposing shame inducing criticism.

{Provides explanatory rationales}

We can all think of times when we ask the members of our team to complete tasks that are simply uninteresting. When trying to motivate others to complete uninteresting tasks, supervisors subscribing to the autonomy-supportive motivating style will explain the value in completing the task. This is opposite to the traditional controlling style that involves just directing the individual to complete the task without any explanation. By using the word “because” in the explanation of why the task is important we greatly increase the likelihood that the task will be completed. Once a person understands the reason a task needs to be completed they are more likely to put forth voluntary effort to complete it. This emphasizes the importance of dialogue with employees.

{Acknowledges and accepts negative feedback}

As we are all aware sometimes the people we try to motivate provide negative feedback as it relates to our efforts – especially related to activities they are asked to complete that are uninteresting. This resistance can sometimes be interpreted as “attitude”. People that subscribe to the autonomy-supportive motivating style look at this “attitude” as a starting point in a dialogue to resolve the negative feelings. The controlling style views the negative feedback as insubordination and resolves it by seeking compliance rather than discussion.


The important points for a supervisor to remember as it relates to the autonomy-supportive motivating style include listening carefully to your employees, allowing them the opportunity to speak, providing rationale, asking for input regarding the direction of the team and encouraging effort (<Reeve, 2009>). As mentioned earlier all persons have a need to feel autonomous. By supporting this need we promote healthy motivation, strong engagement, enhanced performance and psychological well-being ().


Cpl. Danny Thompson is presently a team leader in the RCMP and currently posted in the Kings District of Nova Scotia. He has completed 11 years with the RCMP and is currently studying to complete his Bachelor of Art Communities Studies Degree at Cape Breton University.

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