How To Leverage the 4 T’s of Autonomy To Fuel Internal Motivation

Have you ever lost your passion for work or activities that once energized you? Perhaps you transitioned to a new role or organization and the fire inside no longer burns as brightly as it once did.  Your “getting stuff done”,  but not with the same passion and enthusiasm.  If your leading others, perhaps you’re doing well and have you’re Mojo, but those you lead daily are struggling to find theirs and get engaged.

There are lot’s of possible reasons for a lack of internal motivation, but autonomy is one that’s often overlooked. Autonomy is the desire to direct our own lives within and inter-dependent context. In plain english that means that even though we play nicely in the sand-box with everyone else according to rules, we still want to have a meaningful say in what and how we play……a measure of control.

Autonomy and it’s relationship and importance to internal motivation is easy to overlook, because we: a. don’t even think about it or b. consider it kind of a “reward” for a job well done or something that can only be entrusted…albeit limitedly….to high-performers. The reality is that autonomy, some measure of control,  is critical to everyone. So much so that Deci and Ryan said autonomy was the most important of the three basic human needs of Self-determination theory. How’s that for important?

Although I’ve been extremely blessed with lot of autonomy in most of the settings and roles I’ve had, two things surprised me when I reflected on this topic further.  First, I realized that I enjoyed a lot of autonomy even in the manual labor jobs I had while growing up (grass farm mower, electrician helper and construction site clean-up guy) . The other was that the time I felt I had the least autonomy was during the initial phase of the first assignment I had after getting my PhD!  Although that may seem counterintuitive, it makes a lot of sense if you understand the four essential aspects of autonomy as they relate to work:  What people do, When they do it, How they do it, and Who they do it with. All of four these don’t have to be there, but you have to have at least one at any given time.

Dan Pink in his best-seller Drive breaks down these essentials into the 4 T’s of Autonomy:

  1. Task- That thing you actually do. You might have the latitude to choose in your primary work, or have your employer allocate a certain amount of time to work on what your passionate about. It was this kind of lee-way by 3M that resulted in Post-it notes and over 1/2 of Googles new offerings are birthed during the “20%” time they afford to their employees.
  2. Time- Emphasizing a results-only work environment (ROWE) where what gets done is more important than how long it takes.
  3. Technique- Tell someone what you want done and then get out of their way and let them do it. This doesn’t do away with the importance of critical safety and performance checklists (think aviation and surgery), but it does mean that within given parameters you have the latitude to be creative, improvise and be more efficient in what you do. If Zappos can find away to leverage this aspect of autonomy with their call center reps, then chances are anyone can.
  4. Team- This is about chemistry and having the ability to choose who you work closely with so as to bring out the best in each other.

Although its easy to see how the “4 T’s” or flavors of autonomy fuel internal motivation in creative, heuristic type work characteristic of a knowledge economy, how do they fit with the more mechanical, algorithmic work that still abounds? That’s where the following three practices serve as important qualifiers and catalysts:

  • Advise them on why the task is necessary and why it’s important- connect it to the larger purpose and mission
  • Admit the task is boring. It’s an act of empathy and let’s them know you aren’t being pollyanna or manipulative. This is also one of the rare instances where “if-then” external rewards can play in important part of lasting motivation.
  • Allow people to complete the task their own way. This relates to the 3rd of the “4 Ts” of autonomy but given the scope of the task, it may need to be at a more granular level.048Enough1

Becoming aware of and grasping the fundamental importance of autonomy to our well being in general and work in particular is the first step in being able to leverage it in building internal motivation. Breaking down the concept of autonomy into a “4 T”  working model with 3 qualifiers then allows you understand what you need to do about it, both for your self and others.

Looking back through the lens of that model, it’s easy to see why I had more motivation in some of my manual labor jobs than I did initially as a PhD researcher in a military medical center. As Dan Pink would say:  “Were born to be players, not pawns”.

How is the factor of autonomy affecting your internal motivation right now?  Which of the “4T’s” can you leverage in a way that best serves yourself and others? It’s always good to hear how others have found ways to make these concepts work, so please leave a comment if you have a pearl to share.