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The Need for Autonomy


Explanations > Needs > The Need for Autonomy

Need | Example | Related to | Discussion |  So what?




We have a need to make our own choices and to have the ability to implement these choices. This may include deciding what we do, how we do it, when we do it and where we do it.

If we are challenged in a way that restricts our autonomy, we will often rebel in a way that asserts autonomy, perhaps in other ways.


A teenager has an argument with a parent about staying out late. Even though they have been told to come home early, they still stay much later.

A manager at work is known for 'micromanaging' people, directing their every action. Many of the people who work for him leave to work elsewhere. Others voice their complaints, loudly.

Related to




Autonomy has two parts, which may be called 'will' and 'ability'. The first part, will, is relatively straightforward in that anyone can make decisions, although the quality of those decisions may vary, particularly in consideration of future risks. Ability includes having both skill and resources (such as money, equipment and access to people).

Autonomy is a critical part of the three-factor Self-Determination Theory. While we all are capable of deciding what we do at any moment, we are significantly influence by social factors, including the desire to be liked and the need not to upset those who have power over us.

A very common stressful situation that is typical in many workplaces, is where we have limited control over what we do, yet we may still be punished if we do not achieve defined goals. In other words, where there is responsibility without authority. This happens when managers tell us to do things and then provide insufficient support to enable us to complete the work on time.

Autonomy is a common issue with children as they seek to make their own decisions perhaps before they are able to understand the potential negative consequences, and is a source of many parent-teenager arguments.

When autonomy is restricted, it may be asserted elsewhere, for example in rebellious or displaced actions. This is the nature of needs --- they cannot just be held in.

So what?

If you want to motivate people who work for you, give them more autonomy. Trust them. Give them the tools to do the job and help them unblock issues.

See also

The Need for Achievement, The Need for Freedom


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