You know when all that noise is interrupted by the clank of sound waves colliding? That happened to me recently when two experts in different fields confirmed that personal autonomy is the best way to motivate people.

Personal autonomy simply means letting the individual decide how to do something. The teacher or boss may set the objective, such as learning a formula or completing a task. But it’s up to the individual to decide how to get it done.

At a recent conference on teaching English as a second language, a professor surveyed lots of research demonstrating the kinds of motivation that work best for students.


For maximum engagement, she insisted, the best thing a teacher can do is give choices and let each student decide how they want to absorb knowledge.

Visuals cues, listening to audio tracks, assembling details, dissecting the big picture, online on their own, live in a group… ? Offer variety and let the individual choose.

At a seminar earlier this month, on how corporate trainers can motivate, a psychologist had said basically the same thing. Personal autonomy is the number one engager, she pointed out, the best way to encourage employees to give their best.

You decide what

Smart companies know this. They don’t set hours, as long as employees get the job done—well done of course. Instead of providing a script that customer reps they must stick to, smart companies encourage dialogue. Both the employees and customers feel better when they’re in control.

Last summer, I taught English as a Second Language (ESL) to international students and business writing to professional communicators. Because neither involved lengthy terms, I didn’t get to know individual students well enough to grasp their preferred learning style.

Although I had lessons plans to guide me, often I flew by the seat of my pants.

They decide how

For example, I spent a week trying to teach students with several different first languages the correct word order for asking questions. Many preferred to read the formula, each part of speech a different color on the board. Some liked to fill in the blanks in their exercise books. Others loved asking each other questions about how men and women behave differently in relationships.

With the professional communicators, I talked about the importance of planning what you’re going to write. I encouraged them to choose between academic-type outlines, visual mind maps or conversations, a technique my daughter and I often use before she starts an essay. Choosing how to plan is personal autonomy.

I encouraged the employees to use whatever method worked best for them—as long as they thought before they hit the keyboard. They’re now rambling less and saving time because they think first. Better still, they own it.

Correct to correct?

Last week, I attended a small yoga class. Because work was so busy over the summer, I’d gone to only weekend classes, too large for instructors to suggest individual corrections. Because there’s only one way to do each pose, I appreciated the instructor’s personal prompting.

Mostly. Sometimes I wanted to do it my way. For example, when I wobbled in a position she told me to support myself on one knee. But I knew I’d strengthen and balance faster if I allowed some wiggling. Plus I didn’t want to look like I couldn’t keep up with the rest of the class.

So even when there’s only one way to do something correctly, be it the word order of a question, the need to nail your main idea or a shaky yoga pose, learners should decide how they want to accomplish it.

Sure, many people are comfortable with detailed instructions, such as the people who study a manual in detail before they try something new. Others mess around, trial and error, until they figure it out, considering manuals a last resort. Many watch other people, then copy.

It matters not how they do it, but what they achieve.

So the next time you’re trying to explain how to accomplish something, do so in many different ways. Let individuals decide which one to choose.

Many better practices can be more engaging than one best practice.

On the other hand, that’s a lot of work. Don’t hold your breath while I turn this post into an infographic, video, manual…

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In praise of personal autonomy–or why you should let me do it my way
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