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Giving employees the feeling of choice when you’re still pulling the strings

3 min read


This guest post is by Heidi Grant Halvorson, a motivational psychologist and author of “Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals.” She is also the author and co-editor of the academic book “The Psychology of Goals.” Follow her on Twitter at @hghalvorson.

Most managers and leaders have the unenviable task of trying to get other people to adopt particular goals. Companies have agendas, and employees need to support those agendas if the company is to succeed. However, if you want your employees to live up to their full potential, it’s not enough that they do what you tell them to.

You want them to make the goals their own. Again and again, studies show that the greatest motivation and most personal satisfaction comes from those goals that we choose for ourselves. Self-chosen goals create a special kind of motivation called intrinsic motivation, the desire to do something for its own sake. When people are intrinsically motivated, they enjoy what they are doing more and find it more interesting. They feel more creative and process information more deeply. They persist in the face of difficulty. Intrinsic motivation is awesome in its power to get and keep us going.

Autonomy is particularly critical when it comes to creating and maintaining intrinsic motivation. But in the workplace, goals have to be assigned. What’s a manager to do?

It turns out that it isn’t so much actual freedom of choice that matters when it comes to creating intrinsic motivation, but the feeling of choice. Here are three tips for fostering that feeling:

  • Explain why the  goal they’ve been assigned has value. Too often, managers tell their employees what they need to do, without taking the time to explain why it’s important, or how it fits into the bigger picture. No one ever really commits to a goal if they don’t see why it’s desirable in the first place. Don’t assume the why is as obvious to people on your team as it is to you.
  • Allow your employees to decide how they will reach the goal. The freedom to tailor their approach to their preferences and abilities will also give them heightened sense of control over the situation, which can only benefit performance. If you can’t give them total free reign, try giving them a choice between two options for how to proceed.
  • Invite your employee to make decisions about peripheral aspects of the task. For instance, if your employees have to attend weekly team meetings to improve communication and collaboration (with both the goals and method for reaching it predetermined), you can have team members take turns deciding what the topic of the meeting will be each week, or even what kind of lunch will be ordered. Studies show that these more peripheral decisions create a feeling of choice, even when the choices aren’t particularly meaningful or relevant to the goal itself.

Take time to reflect on how you might be able create a greater sense of autonomy in your own workplace using these three steps. Choice is incredibly motivating — to bring out the best in your employees, harness its power.