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Choice is a Key to Motivation, Engagement
August 2011

As leaders, we get used to telling people what to do, and how to do it. It's a habit we need to break, especially if we're trying to motivate and engage our direct reports, and the rest of our organization. A sense of choice is a key to motivation and engagement.

According to Ken Thomas, author of Intrinsic Motivation at Work, a sense of choice is one of four elements of intrinsic motivation. (The others are a sense of meaning, competence, and progress.)

Giving people a sense of choice also promotes accountability. When people feel that the choice is theirs, that they're in control, they're more likely to accept the consequences of their actions, and thus hold themselves accountable for the results of their actions.

A third reason to give people choices is that it promotes innovation. People are more likely to take calculated risks, to try new approaches, in an environment the rewards innovation and risk-taking. Innovation is how we develop new, creative solutions to old and current problems.

But sometimes we get stuck in a mindset of giving orders and direction. Successful organizations are moving away from "command and control," cultures of micromanagement, and moving towards collaboration.

What can you do to give people a sense of choice?

Give broad direction. Rather than giving specific instructions in how to do something, give the overall goal, and let them develop the methods for achieving that goal.

Ask for feedback on choice-related issues. People have different styles and preferences for how they like to work, and to achieve goals. We presume that everyone likes to do things the way we do them, and that is often not true.

Learn the language of choice. Instead of telling people what to do, start asking. "Get me this report by 5pm Monday" is an order. "Since the customer needs the report at 8am Tuesday, when can you get me the report?" is a request that gives the other person a choice.

Look at things you currently require to see if you can give people a choice. You'll probably find that a lot of them don't need to be done a certain way, but could be left up to the individual.

Apply this principle to customers and vendors. Remember that customers, vendors, and suppliers need choice as well. If you're trying to motivate them to meet your organization's needs, giving them a sense of choice may make sense.

Of course, emergencies require decisive leadership. If there's a fire in the building, you don't say, "Leave if you want to." You say, "Fire—get out! Let's go!"

Another exception might be performance problems. If a direct report isn't performing, you might need to give straightforward requirements on necessary improvements. But even then, you're giving the person a choice: Improve, or accept the consequences.

Giving direct reports a sense of choice is the best way to motivate them, to get them engaged in their work, and more committed to the organization's purpose.

How well do you promote a sense of choice? What actions should you take to give people more choice?

Until next edition, keep leading the way!