The subject matter of the book is motivation and wellbeing. The theme is a new conceptualisation of autonomy that allows us harness its power to bring out the best of ourselves and others.

The book outlines a Needs Matrix formed by the interplay between the needs of Affiliation, Agency and Autonomy. Affiliation is the need to feel a sense of belonging. Agency is the need to feel in control and think that we can meet the demands of the situation. Affiliation and Agency set us two priorities that come into conflict. To help us fulfil our need for affiliation we have to cooperate, while for agency we have to compete. The paradox of human nature is that we are deeply cooperative yet just as deeply competitive. The tension between these two motives can be resolved by Autonomy, the power to shape our lives and affect the things in life that affect us. Autonomy is conceptualised as an arc, with two discrete wings, namely Associative and Assertive Autonomy.

Assertive autonomy drives us to promote our self interests and seek status. Itgenerates passionate self-determination. Associative autonomy drives us to promote the interests of others, to contribute to a shared purpose and gain approval. It generates compassionate cooperation. Status and peer approval are two of our most powerful motivators.

Agency and Affiliation without Autonomy have limitations. Skills are things we can do but not necessarily use; that depends on our assertive autonomy. We can fit in and have affiliation but if we don’t have associative autonomy we prioritise the social side of life rather than contribute to the group purpose.

Assertive autonomy grows out of and stretches our agency beyond current confidence levels to propel us to do better than we thought we could. Associative Autonomy embeds our affiliation within a network of coalitions that allow us to work together within a non-directed relationship.

The relationship between the autonomy wings constitutes an important individual difference. Peoples’ autonomy preferences give us clues as to how we can help them to achieve their potential. For example, people with a preference for associative autonomy will benefit from a focus on shared purpose and team work. Those with a preference for assertive autonomy will be energised by an audience, competition and risk.

The Energy for Learning Matrix maps out the energies that help us meet our needs.

  • Fitting in – getting along, to be accepted. (Affiliation/ Responsible Citizen)
  • Bettering ourselves – to try our best, to feel that we are in control of the task. (Agency/ Successful Learner)
  • Putting ourselves forward– to trust and assert ourselves, to make our mark, to be known as an individual (Assertive Autonomy/ Confident Individual)
  • Contributing – to feel part of and contribute to a greater purpose, to be valued. ( Associative Autonomy/ Effective Contributor)

Balanced Autonomy is the capacity to order our priorities and at the same time contribute to a purpose beyond ourselves.

The best leaders integrate assertion and association by treating assertion as a means to an end of their associative goals. They get to the top, but without exploiting or cutting others down. They recognise the potential in others and create opportunities for others to contribute. They realise there is plenty of credit for everyone – we shine if others are shining.

The autonomy twists provide a key to better understanding people’s problematic behaviour and the difficulties inherent in social dynamics.

Unfettered assertive autonomy, fuelled by high agency, if taken too far, and in the absence of a pro social purpose, can become corrupted autonomy, where we take advantage of others. Cockiness becomes arrogance. Assertive and corrupted autonomy are mirrored by healthy and unhealthy pride. Healthy pride shows us our worth and leads to pro social outcomes. Most religious traditions however warn against the dangers of pride. Hubris is the state ancient religions condemn as a character flaw. Hubris is pride in overdrive and is what corrupts our assertive autonomy.

There is also a dark side to associative autonomy, when our moral system goes into overdrive, leading to surrendered autonomy. Associative autonomy can get squashed through an overly dutiful attitude and if taken too far, can become submission, a passive giving way and avoidance of responsibility, leading to hiding. A reasonable level of compliance is essential for order but overly compliant people gratify others wishes rather than their own. When such self-sacrifice is done for the benefit of others, it can be heroic. Submissive self-sacrifice is for little benefit to anyone. It may be motivated by the ‘disease to please’.

Submission includes distrust of self, plus an excessive trust in others, leading to a gullible innocence. Being too trusting is a key reason that some people are susceptible to becoming doormats. This is the downfall of the naïve leader, who assumes everyone is as committed as they are.

Healthy altruism requires empathy, “feeling with” someone. It is such empathic concern that motivates altruism. Dispassionate compassion balances empathy to create a prudent altruism. When the moral system goes into overdrive, however, altruism can become the ‘back door to hell’. Empathy based guilt, when excessive can lead to unhealthy altruism, – a focus on others to the detriment of our own needs. This can happen when empathy generates personal distress, when we focus on our own pain.

Submissive people need help to take small steps to start making demands on others. Their greatest potential for growth is finding a sense of shared purpose. Coercive people need supported to take small steps to be more accommodating. Their greatest potential for growth is their pride that needs to be tempered with awareness of others.

Motivating teachers motivate from the inside through influencing how pupils motivate themselves by providing contexts that are in themselves motivating. They are ‘two–way energisers’ who use each of the Classroom Energisers, namely

Engagement nurtures Affiliation. The first goal of motivation is to build solidarity with pupils. The essence of motivating teaching is empathic communication with the group. Engagement communicates an understanding of pupils’ inner lives and of their lives outside school.

Encouragement generates Agency. Motivating teachers encourage a mastery attitude by emphasising an ‘improve yourself’ approach. Pupils are helped to recognise their own strengths and attribute success to their own effort.

Empowerment enables Assertive Autonomy. Pushing people to achieve personal success is ideal for individuals whose main autonomy preference is assertion and emotional base is pride. Giving choice, fostering relevance and allowing criticism are fundamental aspects of empowerment.

Attunement creates a sense of groupness and invites pupils to be part of something bigger than themselves. Through reflective listening and clarifying pupils’ interests, teachers evoke the pupil’s own motivation. Regularly showing curiosity about how pupils experience the classroom is an ideal way to develop two-way reciprocity. Attunement is finely illustrated by the skilful use of humour and banter.

Any discussion about motivation must consider the conditions that affect teachers’ own motivation. The less pressure teachers feel, the more they will be motivated and in turn, the more flexible their style will be. However the press for higher and higher standards carries the risk that teachers become controlled by rather than in control of the curriculum. The Quality Improvement agenda can undermine the natural will to improve.

Wellbeing can only flourish in an autonomy supportive culture. Unless teachers experience autonomy, they are unlikely to support its development in their pupils. If we don’t like to challenge ourselves, we will not challenge our pupils. A sense of autonomy is essential for leadership, yet the new ‘managerialism’ in local and national political control erodes head teachers’ autonomy

Motivation is a two-way process and pupils significantly impact on teacher morale. The teacher’s motivation is downloaded to pupils but pupil motivation is also uploaded to the teacher. Pupils have a crucial, but seldom acknowledged, role in creating the classroom climate and shaping teacher morale. Schools need to find ways to access pupils’ views about how they are finding the school.

We tend to define autonomy in terms of assertive autonomy. We neglect the power of associative autonomy, yet paradoxically it is the life-blood of excellent schools. Social capital is the key variable of a school that determines the impact of any innovation. In successful schools all teachers feel responsibility for what happens across the school and identify with all of the pupils in the school. An associative collegiality and assertive individuality go together to create a vibrant culture.

Alan McLean