Deci & Flaste report on a research study that Richard Ryan and Richard Koestner ran to determine the effect of using controlling language to set boundaries vs. setting context. Which would motivate better? The experiment was simple: get two groups of five- and six-year-olds to come in and do some painting. The goal was to see if they would keep the room clean. Kids painting normally gets messy. They used a controlling way to get them to be neat, and an autonomy-supportive way:
The controlling way was simple: use pressuring language (“be a good boy/girl and keep the materials neat” or “do as you should and don’t mix up the colors”)…. The autonomy-supportive way, which involves minimizing pressure by avoiding controlling language and allowing s much choice as possible, required more subtlety…. In the autonomy-supportive limits group, they said, “I know that sometimes it’s really fun to just slop the paint around, but here the materials and room need to be kept nice for the other children who will use them.”…
The children who sensed that the adults at least understood them were more intrinsically motivated and more enthusiastic than the children for whom the limit had been controlling.
[From Edward L. Deci, Why We Do What We Do, pp. 43]
This isn’t about not having limits. The kids obviously had limits for their work. Both sets were to keep the room as clean as possible, and both sets did it. But one set was more enthusiastic and personally motivated than the others.
Limit setting is extremely important for promoting responsibility, and the findings of this study are critical for how to do it. By setting limits in an autonomy-supportive way — in other words, by aligning yourself with the person being limited, recognizing that he or she is a proactive subject, rather than an object to be manipulated or controlled — it is possible to encourage responsibility without undermining authenticity. [pp. 43]
When younger, I ran a large Exchange rollout at a Chicago insurer. I had to manage a team of people who were not only mostly older than me, but who were also much more experienced and knowledgeable about the product. I recall thinking that the X.500 connector was a piece of hardware. My engineers allowed me to make this assumption in meetings with them until a week later when I finally got to read the Exchange installation book from Microsoft and discovered, lo and behold!, it’s just converting from one standard to another in software. So I had my job cut out for me. They were derisive at first of my lack of knowledge and experience, and developing trust was hard fought.
One of the more unpleasant parts of my job was to tell them that we weren’t going to be able to do it the way that it should be done, but because of a series of political decisions, we would have to do it suboptimally. The engineers didn’t take kindly at this and some meetings got loud. I explained to them that I recognized that they were the experts here on both Exchange and messaging in general, but that there were a variety of political decisions that forced our hand. I explained that I knew that the way we were being forced to do it wasn’t as good and would cause this problem and that problem, but that we would have to make do until we could make our case convincingly enough.
Oddly, this often got them okay with the work. All I did was acknowledge that they were the experts and that they had the right answer. I then set context for them about the limits that we were faced with. They felt seen for their expertise (very important to engineery types) and heard. The explanation helped, which went into a fair amount of detail, helped them see the politics involved. They didn’t like it, and I told them that I didn’t expect them to like (I didn’t either), but they trusted my judgment of the political situation.
It also helped to brag on them by name in meetings with other teams and the management team.
Ryan and Koestner’s experiment shows why this worked and how I could have done it more effectively. People like to see the context of their work, even when it means making them do something less optimal than they would like.
Image credit: Splash page from “Heavens to Betsy”, Club “16” Comics, Issue 1, page 1.