The power of autonomy supportive leadership

The power of autonomy supportive leadership

As a principal, any conversation you have with staff about why they turn up to work will show that different teachers bring different motivations to work each day.

Some are just going through the motions and are completely indifferent about their work.

However, with reports showing a worrying decline in teacher retention, the responses of school staff to this question matter greatly. For instance, a principal can be forgiven for wondering whether a high staff turnover rate might have something to do with their own leadership.

The culture that a leader instils at a school can indeed have a tremendous impact on staff happiness, work satisfaction and retention, and academics worldwide have been dedicating years of research as to what makes an optimal workplace environment for staff, as well as leaders.

Dr Gavin Slemp, a Senior Lecturer at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education’s Centre for Positive Psychology, recently addressed this issue at the International Positive Psychology Association’s (IPPA) 6th World Congress on Positive Psychology in Melbourne.

Dr Slemp’s talk examined how “job crafting” and autonomy support are independent, yet mutually reinforcing predictors to autonomous work motives and employee mental health across cultures.  

Job crafting captures what employees do to redesign their own jobs in ways that can foster job satisfaction, as well as engagement, resilience, and thriving at work.

“There is research that links job crafting with less turnover and intention of staff to leave an organisation,” Dr Slemp told The Educator.

“There is also work that links different types of job crafting to work engagement. Generally, when people are more engaged in their work, they are less likely to leave.”

Dr Slemp said job crafting can be more difficult in rigid organisational contexts, such as those with strict workplace health and safety regulations.

“It’s important to look for changes that are possible within the context that you are implementing job crafting initiatives,” he said.

“Leaders can create the environment that can nurture employee autonomy within the boundaries of the occupation or the organisation.”

Are you an autonomy supportive leader?

Recently, Dr Slemp conducted a meta-analysis that examined all of the studies on the impact of ‘autonomy supportive leadership’ and found that this practice tends to nurture intrinsic motivation for the job.

“Autonomy supportive leadership is a leadership style that lets employees take ownership of their role rather than it being dictated to them,” he said.

“Autonomy supportive leaders are those who take steps to let people make their own choices at work when possible, and they will also generally help employees find enjoyment in their work as a way to motivate them, rather than trying to motivate them with contingency-based rewards or punishments.”

“When employees work for an autonomy supportive leader, they naturally feel more autonomous. Yet they also tend to behave in ways that support their competence and relatedness needs as well,”

For instance, in the presence of this type of leader the employee will have the autonomy to seek out new challenges and learning opportunities, or take steps to develop relationships with peers or colleagues. 

“Decades of research document the positive effects of satisfying these three needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness and autonomy supportive leadership is an important contributor to all of them,” Dr Slemp said.