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A classic illustration of the motivating power of choice from young Bugsy, aged 24 months.

You’d think that a being served a lovingly disarticulated Mandarin by Daddy would beat clambering onto the table, stealing a fresh Mandarin, and slowly, determinedly, peeling it with your own tiny little fingers. No.

Edward Deci and Richard Ryan are the guys who theorised that autonomy, of itself, was one of the fundamental motivators of human action. Google Self-Determination Theory, which, basically, proposes three fundamental motivators: autonomy, competence and connection. The thing I have never been comfortable with in this theory is the separation of autonomy and competence. In real life, they seem inextricably entanged. How can you separate the pleasure of exercising free choice from the pleasure of exercising a skill? It’s inevitable that we demonstrate skillfulness whenever we act without relying on others. 

The power of autonomy is probably one of the hardest concepts for change agents to take on board. Probably because it challenges the deeply embedded “we know best-ism” of institutional managers and boffins. After all, it requires a) trusting the public; and b) relinquishing control. 

In practice autonomy means letting people to decide HOW, WHEN, WHERE, WHO WITH and WHETHER they perform an action. Resistance (aka psychological reactance) is the biggest enemy of any change effort. Autonomous choice reduces resistance to zero. And the decision-making required for autonomous action generates that precious sense of ownership: “people respect what they make”.

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