Maybe you’ve noticed that adults can be as bad as kids when you tell them what to do. Apparently, without conscious thought, their knee-jerk reaction is a resounding “No!” Just consider the pushback as:
- Public health officials tell people to take the COVID-19 vaccine and mask up.
- Organizations direct people to come back to the office, work from home or arrange a hybrid model.
- Bosses require people to adapt to rapid change, follow protocols like leaving on videos in virtual meetings or attend diversity, equity and inclusion training.
It all begs the question: How do leaders get people to do what needs doing without setting off an automatic negative response?
Why people reject requests or demands
According to motivation science, a person’s reaction to your request or demand depends on how they internalize it. A “no” response could be for one of two reasons:
- People recognize they have a choice on how to react. They reject your request after thoughtful consideration leads them to conclude that complying betrays deeply held values or a sense of purpose. (Such mindful reflection might also lead to a values-based “yes.”)
- People feel their choices and options have been taken away. They reject your request, attempting to escape uncomfortable feelings of being imposed, pressured, or coerced. (Such a threatened response might also lead to a fear-based “yes.”)
In the first situation, people experience autonomy — our need to feel we have choices, options within boundaries and control of our actions. Autonomy is essential to three foundational psychological needs required for thriving: choice, connection and competence. When these three needs are satisfied, people flourish.
But, as in the second situation, people languish when a psychological need is diminished or absent. People don’t want to suffer, so they seek a substitution for what’s missing. Saying “no” is an unwitting attempt to take charge, feel in control and compensate for their loss of autonomy.
We call this phenomenon compensatory need satisfaction.
Compensatory need satisfaction: Triggered by a loss of autonomy
We’ve all experienced compensatory need satisfaction at some point in our life. For example, have you ever gone on a low-carb diet? One morning, you’re sitting in a boring meeting, and that dried-out muffin on the counter calls to you.
At that moment, you fail to remember why you embarked on the diet in the first place. Your autonomy is undermined as your internal self-talk shouts: “I can’t have that muffin! I can’t eat empty carbs.” You feel your autonomy threatened, so you compensate by doing the easiest thing to regain your lost choice and control: You eat the muffin. And feel guilty for the rest of the day.
These days, people can experience a loss of autonomy everywhere they turn. They feel manipulated by recommendations to take a vaccine, frustrated at losing their personal freedom through mask mandates or in the mood to resign because of return-to-the-office demands.
The sad irony is that many people choose potentially harmful substitutions, without their conscious awareness, as they strive to replace their loss of autonomy and regain a sense of control. They reject taking the vaccine, refuse to mask up or quit their job. We’re experiencing compensatory need satisfaction on steroids.
4 techniques for providing direction with autonomy support
What are you to do? You need people to follow the rules, comply with safety regulations, meet job expectations and make deadlines. The answer lies in an essential leadership skill: providing direction with autonomy support. Begin by trying these four techniques designed to encourage choice.
1. Invite choice, illuminate boundaries, explore options within boundaries
Example: You are a pharmaceutical sales manager who must ensure your reps follow FDA guidelines for sharing clinical research. Instead of dictating what they can’t do, explain the boundaries, then invite a discussion about options. Creatively explore ways to sell your product while staying within the appropriate guidelines. The most effective sales reps can do both.
2. Present goals and timelines as valuable information necessary for achieving agreed-upon outcomes, rather than sticks for applying pressure to perform
Example: Previous book publishers I worked with gave me hard deadlines for submitting my manuscript. As deadlines loomed, the pressure affected the quality of my work. Berrett-Koehler, the publisher of my last two books, also had hard deadlines.
But they took a radically different approach. They invited me to an “author’s day” to meet the people responsible for getting my book delivered to booksellers. Each team shared its timelines and expectations. Rather than feeling pressured, I was inspired to play my role in a collaborative effort.
3. Ask open-ended questions to promote mindfulness
When people are mindful, they become aware of options without emotional baggage clouding their choices. You can prompt mindful moments by asking questions like:
- Why is this goal important (or not) to you?
- When you think about your goal, what are three reasons to continue pursuing it?
- What are three reasons to abandon it?
- Which of your choices would bring the most meaning and opportunities for growth and learning?
4. Facilitate the generation of alternative implementation strategies
Example: A woman was in the emergency room for the third time for the same issue: failing to take her medication. According to her records, previous doctors had insisted she take the pill every morning. This time, the doctor explained that the woman had choices about taking the drug. They brainstormed options. It turned out the woman had a bedtime ritual of drinking a glass of warm milk. She enthusiastically agreed that it was a splendid time to take the medication. She never ended up in the ER again.
If you express demands without awareness of how you might trigger people’s loss of autonomy, you almost ensure their rejection. But leadership that provides direction with autonomy support can inspire people to make more thoughtful choices for themselves and others.
Susan Fowler co-authored “Achieve Leadership Genius,” outlining five leadership contexts and their requisite skills. In her latest book, “Master Your Motivation: Three Scientific Truths for Achieving Your Goals,” she presents an evolutionary idea: motivation is a skill. She is also the author of bylined articles, peer-reviewed research and eight books, including bestsellers “Self Leadership and The One Minute Manager” and “Leading at a Higher Level” with Ken Blanchard and “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing.” Tens of thousands of people worldwide have learned from her ideas through training programs. For more information and the free What’s Your MO? survey for exploring your motivational outlook, visit SusanFowler.com.
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