That was the conclusion of a seminal 1976 study.
The director of a nursing home holds two community meetings to tell the residents about upcoming events. The 91 members were split into two groups, one provided with broader self-direction and other undermined self-direction. In the experimental group (we’ll call the “high autonomy” group), the participants were told they had a great deal of responsibility for their own lives, and as part of this, they had decisions to make. For one thing, a movie was showing the next week and they could choose which night they would watch it. Additionally, they were each given a plant for their rooms and needed to water and care for it.
In the other group (we’ll call this group “low autonomy”), the director gave another talk with no reference to decisions whatsoever. The facility would show a movie the following week and assigned “low autonomy” group members to a night. They were also given plants but were told the nursing team would care for them.
The residents took surveys on their well-being, mental status, physical health, and other factors three weeks into the project. They were tested again at 18 months with various outcomes reported. Sure enough, this tiny individuality-related intervention had outsized results. The “high autonomy” residents became happier and more active. More dramatically, they reduced their risk of dying. While 30% of the “low autonomy” patients died after 18 months, only 15% of the “high autonomy” group did. General cognitive and physical health were also higher in correlation with higher autonomy.
This research ties directly to what happens in our organizations. While global things like strategy or change are out of employees’ control, there are a myriad of ways to enhance autonomy within those decisions. Research shows that even small acts of self-direction improve overall well-being and engagement.
The study also unearths one aspect that makes change so hard. Inherent in shifts is the loss of individuality as decision rights are taken away and rarely replaced. As change happens in your organization (or family), we can expect that there is a loss of individuality. While this is natural, our focus on replacing that with other choices is not. This is one key to mitigating the sting of transition.
In closing, a few points to takeaway:
- While people can’t control or choose all outcomes, emphasizing individuality within a plan enhances well-being, buy-in, and engagement (also better health).
- Too many decisions result in the “paradox of choice” in which we become overwhelmed and take no action.
- Tying choice to what motivates people enhances the effect of individuality (e.g., the people-person being in charge of how to communicate will feel most engaged).