Blue Line


February 22, 2013  By Danny Thompson

by Danny Thompson

We all look for ways to motivate both ourselves and others to be the best that we can be. I quickly learned that the riddle of motivation has no easy answer. Every person is unique and motivated by very different reasons.

It seems that, for many years, the traditional controlling motivating style was considered to be the best way to increase employee engagement. It involves promises of reward or punishment according to the perceived level of employee effort. This style places an onus on the supervisor to regulate the employee’s behaviour rather than allowing employees to regulate their behaviour through personal level of engagement. For this reason, it can be argued that the controlling motivating style focuses on compliance and not necessarily engagement.

All people have the need for autonomy, competence and relatedness (Reeve, 2009) and the autonomy-supportive motivating style best allows for these needs. It supports the autonomy of the individual and translates into their becoming engaged in the tasks at hand. Four components of the style make it successful – nurturing inner motivational resources, relying on informational language, providing explanatory rationale and acknowledging negative feedback.


{Nurtures inner motivational resources}

Leaders who subscribe to the autonomy-supportive motivating style find ways to discover strengths and provide an environment that nurtures and allows these strengths to flourish. A person’s strengths are often evident but sometimes discussion will bring them to the forefront. By nurturing the strengths we are creating within them an “intrinsic” motivation. When a person is intrinsically motivated, 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}

People we try to motivate often perform poorly for a variety 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 criticize these “poor performers” in hopes of sparking motivation (Deci, Connell, & Ryan, 1989). According to the autonomy-supportive motivating style a supervisor will use informational rather than rigid or shame inducing language. By acknowledging the poor performance and showing interest and concern as to why it occurred, autonomy-supportive motivators believe they will realize a greater benefit.

{Provides explanatory rationales}

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, which involves 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 it will be completed. Once a person understands the reason, they are more likely to put forth voluntary effort to do it. This emphasizes the importance of dialogue.

{Acknowledges and accepts negative feedback}

Sometimes the people we try to motivate provide negative feedback on our efforts – especially related to less interesting activities they are asked to complete. 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 kick back. 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 members, allowing them the opportunity to speak, providing rationale, asking for input regarding the direction of the team and encouraging effort (Reeve, 2009). All have a need to feel autonomous. By supporting this need we promote healthy motivation, strong engagement, enhanced performance and psychological well-being (Ryan & Deci, 2000b).


Deci, E.L., Connell, J.P., & Ryan, R.M. (1989). Self-determination in a work organization. , 74, 580-590.

Reeve, J. (2009). Understanding Motivation and Emotion. Iowa: University of Iowa.

Ryan, R.M., & Deci, E.L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development and well-being. 55, 68-78.


Danny Thompson is a RCMP corporal and team leader currently posted to the Guysborough District of Nova Scotia. He has 10 years of service and is currently completing his BA in Communities Studies at Cape Breton University.

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