We’ve often written about the power of growth mindset in changing how people respond to challenges. When confronted by adversity and setbacks, people with a growth mindset rise to the occasion, seeing challenge as a valuable opportunity to learn and improve their skills. We’ve also written about the importance of autonomy — one of the five basic drivers of social threat and reward defined in NLI’s SCARF® Model.
But there’s a nuance to the science that sometimes gets lost: Growth mindset and autonomy aren’t independent. On the contrary, they interact and reinforce each other in a virtuous cycle that can benefit the entire company.
Growth mindset isn’t just the belief that you can grow and improve over time. It includes the belief that your ability to learn and grow is within your control — that you can get better through effort over time, practice, and perseverance. That’s why a growth mindset itself confers a sense of autonomy and control.
When employees feel a sense of autonomy, they’re happier, more engaged, and more productive. But here’s the thing: Autonomy doesn’t just mean having control over your life and choices — autonomy is the feeling of having control.
There’s a difference between the objective, quantifiable level of control employees have over when and how they work and the subjective feeling that they’re in charge of their own life. Call it the difference between objective autonomy and subjective autonomy.
The latter concept is called locus of control. Like a growth mindset, locus of control is the belief that you have the power to influence situations in your own life.
People with an external locus of control attribute their successes and failures to forces beyond their influence. Faced with disappointments, they’re more likely to give up because they don’t believe they have the power to effect change.
In contrast, people with an internal locus of control say outcomes in their lives are primarily the result of their own actions. Nelson Mandela, unjustly imprisoned for 27 years in South Africa, was known to recite the poem “Invictus,” which includes the following stanza:
“It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.”
That internal locus of control allows you to reject chance and circumstance and affirm that you’re the master of your own fate.
The power of subjective autonomy
The way managers communicate has a powerful effect on an employee’s feelings of subjective autonomy. It can be the difference between an employee who has autonomy but still feels trapped and one who’s happy and engaged because they feel like they’re in charge of their own life.
Managers can increase employees’ sense of subjective autonomy by praising them not for who they are but for the decisions they make and the actions they take.
The brain craves choices, and even the anticipation of getting to make a decision has been shown to activate the ventral striatum, a brain region associated with excitement. “You know when you’re stuck in traffic on the freeway and you see an exit approaching, and you want to take it even though you know it’ll probably take longer to get home?” explains neuroscientist Mauricio Delgado in Charles Duhigg’s book “Smarter Faster Better.” “That’s our brains getting excited by the possibility of taking control. You won’t get home any faster, but it feels better because you feel like you’re in charge.”
That’s why the United States Marines make a point to help new recruits get in the habit of taking responsibility for improving their own circumstances — developing what they call “a bias toward action” — by praising them for making decisions on their own, even trivial decisions such as where to put away the ketchup when cleaning up the kitchen.
To give feedback in a way that reinforces an employee’s sense of autonomy, shift the way you think about giving praise. When an employee performs well, it can be tempting to praise them in a holistic way, perhaps saying something like, “You’re a born leader” or “Your personality is well-suited for sales.”
Even though these are compliments, they can dampen an employee’s sense of subjective autonomy. The attribution of an employee’s success to factors outside their control — even factors that seem positive — reinforces the sentiment that employees aren’t responsible for their own outcomes. At the same time, you’re also reinforcing a fixed mindset: the belief that people are innately gifted in some ways but not in others.
So to amplify an employee’s sense of subjective autonomy, focus less on their innate qualities and more on their actions. Instead of saying, “You’re a naturally gifted public speaker,” try something like, “The personal story you told at the beginning really drew the audience in.” By spotlighting actions rather than attributes, you reinforce the sense that they’re in control and that their choices matter.
That’s the beauty of orienting your management approach around brain science: Powerful, evidence-based principles like growth mindset and autonomy come together to form a coherent whole. By taking care to communicate in a way that reinforces autonomy and growth mindset, you’ll build an environment where employees are engaged, productive, and motivated to excel and improve.
Author: Jay Dixit