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How to be a better manager, parent and teacher

19 April 2022
Autonomy is key to successful leadership
A new study suggests that management, teaching, and parenting strategies that are "autonomy-supportive" rather than controlling unlock people's "good sides".

Autonomy support involves providing people with more freedom, choice, and flexibility, and it is going to be vital in homes, schools and workplaces as we head into a third year of the pandemic, said the authors of a new study. 

The study is published in the prestigious journal Psychological Bulletin. It is meta-analysis of 139 research studies on experiences of autonomy and control and prosocial and antisocial behaviour.

The results of the study have applications in work, school, and family settings.

Lead author Dr James Donald, who is an expert in positive psychology in the workplace, says managers need to help teams find their internal motivation and then give them lots of freedom to manage their own tasks.

For those working with children or parenting, Dr Donald advises helping children find their internal motivation, and then give them freedom, within safe parameters, to take responsibility and manage their own tasks.

“We found that consistently connecting people to the the “why” of their actions, providing choices in how tasks get done, and giving meaningful feedback results in people being more likely to share ideas and to be more collegiate,” said Dr Donald, Senior Lecturer in the University of Sydney Business School. “Managing people with controlling, carrot and stick strategies led to people being less likely to share, cooperate, or help others.”

Co-author Dr Emma Bradshaw, from Australian Catholic University is an expert in well-being and motivation and said: “The core insight is that, if you want honest, cooperative team members - and don’t we all - the promotion of their intrinsic motivation is best practice.”


Improving interpersonal and social cooperation is one of the most critical challenges of our time, the authors stated, particularly while we are living under pandemic stress.

The study found that when individuals experience autonomy, it increases prosocial behaviours and emotions, such as cooperation, helpfulness, and empathy. Leaders who default to using carrots and sticks to motivate their teams inadvertently promote less sharing, collaboration, and even prompt acts of aggression, such as undermining and bullying.

Dr Donald said prosocial behaviours can be encouraged by the right leadership style. “In a crisis, sticks and carrots work. But if you want to build and sustain a high performance culture, you need to move away from crisis-style management, and actively invest in your peoples’ intrinsic motivation. Building a clear sense of purpose and a culture of psychological safety are key building blocks if you want sustained success.”

Parents and teachers who default to using carrots and sticks to motivate children inadvertently promote less sharing, collaboration, and even prompt acts of aggression, such as undermining and bullying. “If you want to develop self-aware, responsible young people, you need to move away from command and control, and actively nurture children’s own interests, strengths, and innate sense of what is right,” said Dr Donald.

Crisis management

When challenges come up, there are a number of questions managers can ask themselves, the experts said.

  1. Is this really a crisis? Avoid eroding team morale by leaping to crisis-thinking by default.
  2. If it’s not a crisis, look for opportunities to seek feedback, engage your team in problem-solving, and give responsibility.
  3. Working virtually? Think carefully about the “levers” you can pull to enhance the feeling of autonomy and “ownership” among your team.

Managing a virtual team

If your team is working virtually, there are a number of autonomy-supportive methods you can use to promote prosocial behaviours:

  1. Keep coming back to your “why”. What is our team’s purpose? What is our end-game? Who are we serving? Virtual work can feel very ‘transactional’ and task-focused. Managers need to regularly nourish their teams’ sense of shared purpose if they want to build a highly collaborative, committed virtual team. 
  2. Provide regular positive feedback to staff that is authentic. Positive feedback and reinforcement needs to far outweigh negative feedback, and this is amplified in a virtual setting. Positive feedback needs to be genuinely given and regular. 
  3. If you want to build a collaborative, high-trust virtual team, minimise the use of carrots and sticks as a tool to motivate staff. Focus instead on promoting people’s initiative, effort, and ideas. You still need good governance, accountabilities, and remuneration structures. But know that these things will not provide the motivation to sustain a collaborative, highly committed team. 

Declaration: This study was funded by the University of Sydney Business School Freda and Len Lansbury Early Career Researcher Award.

Dr James Donald is a Senior Lecturer in the Discipline of Work & Organisational Studies at the University of Sydney Business School, with research expertise in management and leadership. Dr Donald regularly delivers leadership programs for businesses.

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