Provision #610: Autonomy Needs

Laser Provision

Autonomy needs probably have a lot of emotional resonance for you. That’s because autonomy, when it gets compromised, can drive us crazy. Understanding that makes two things clear: one, it’s important to not tolerate those compromises for very long, and two, it’s important to respect the autonomy needs of others. Most bad behavior can be traced back to problems with autonomy. This Provision makes those dynamics clear and calls us to act accordingly.

LifeTrek Provision


Since the dawn of time, animals have had to cope with and express our needs for autonomy. With significantly higher degrees of mobility and sentience than plants, animals have sought to exercise control over our environments and destinies. We seek to assert ourselves when we perceive that it would be in our best interest, both individual and collective. Humans, of course, have proven to be the most controlling and assertive of all animals, such that we are now having to cope with the global effects of how we have chosen to express our needs for autonomy.

Early on, there was not much concern about understanding autonomy in terms of domination. You are, perhaps, familiar with the ancient command from God to the first humans in the Jewish scriptures: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:28). In a precarious world, domination was often better than the alternative: annihilation. Domination met many needs, including safety, subsistence, challenge, work, and rest.

Yet undergirding all of the above is a more fundamental need: the need for control. Human beings do not like the feelings associated with being out of control. Those feelings range from anxiety to anger, from depression to despair, from confusion to contempt. We may eschew the politics of domination, but we all have a tolerance level below which we cannot abide when it comes to our needs for control. Your level may be different than mine, but the needs for autonomy, including independence, freedom, choice, control, individuality, self-efficacy, and power, are universal.

These needs come into play at virtually every moment. Whether we experience a perceived lack of internal or external control, we end up with many of the same feelings. We suffer many unhappy feelings, for example, when we are sick and unable to control our physical well-being. We suffer the same feelings when our relationships with other people or the environment are unpredictable, troublesome, and toxic.

I know, because I’ve just gone through a significant computer problem (all you Mac people can start laughing right now • although my Mac friends tell me their experience is not exactly 100% trouble free). Now I pride myself on having excellent PC skills. When it comes to both software and hardware problems, I can usually troubleshoot the situation in fairly short order. But for the past several months, my primary PC has been increasingly unstable. It would just die, at random moments, as though someone had pulled the plug out of the machine. There wasn’t even the dreaded blue screen of death.

This was definitely a hardware problem, and my needs for autonomy and control were definitely not being met here. So I would muscle my way through another repair scenario, on occasion buying a new piece of hardware, only to have it happen again an hour, a day, or a week later. Just when I would think I had the problem solved, giving me the greatest of satisfactions, it would return with a vengeance. In the end, rather than tolerating the situation any longer, I bought myself a new computer and have met my needs for control by getting it all set up just the way I prefer. Had I taken that action several months earlier, I would have saved money (by not buying the unnecessary parts) and prevented a lot of frustration.

That, of course, is a coaching lesson. I work with my clients all the time on eliminating tolerations. I, like many others, put up with them far longer than I should. There were redeeming aspects to my 3-month-long ordeal, including no loss of data (thanks to multiple redundancy systems), new technical understandings (thanks to some great technical support resources), and the satisfaction of ending up with a great new computer (with a deep discount thanks to the economy and shrewd bargaining). But if I knew then what I know now, I would have bought a new computer three months ago.

When I think about the redeeming aspects versus the frustrating dynamics of my experience, they all have to do with issues related to autonomy. I frequently and vocally celebrated the systems that I had set up to protect my data. The systems worked great; the fact that I was the one who had set them up and that they actually performed as intended was even greater. The new technical understandings were also great, since I now have a greater sense autonomy than ever before. When it comes to some things, I won’t be calling Microsoft for advice. And the deep discount? I certainly lucked into some things, but my approach got me a greater discount than I would have otherwise received apart from speaking up.

The frustrating dynamics were not only my lack of success with the repairs; they were also the erratic nature of the environment in which I was working. I had become habituated to saving my work every few seconds, since I never knew when the computer was likely to die. If autonomy is about “the quality or state of being self-governing,” then this was clearly a case of a sick computer eroding that quality. It was obviously my choice to keep the repair project going for as long as I did, but it was not my choice as to if and when my work and productivity would be interrupted by a fatal error.

Has something like that ever happened to you? Has your quality of life ever suffered from a loss of autonomy? I’m sure it has. Two factors enter into the equation: control and choice. When either or both are compromised, our autonomy and our quality of life suffer.

That’s why we push back so vigorously when we perceive that one or the other is being threatened. When we lose control, we can do all sorts of strange things to get that control back. Hence the growth of much that goes on in the world of alternative therapies. When people are desperate, they will try just about anything to get their control back. Now I’m not saying that alternative therapies are a sham. I take as many vitamins and supplements as anyone I know! But I am saying that the demand for alternative therapies is related to our needs for autonomy.

Especially when our doctor, our boss, or some other professional gives us an ultimatum: do this or else; change or die. Oh, how we squirm when our autonomy is denied! “You insist, I resist” is a basic truism. In any field of human endeavor, the surest way to provoke resistance is to deny autonomy. When people lose control, choice, or both, they become self-protective and tend to act in tragic ways.

I use the word tragic not as a moral judgment but in practical terms. When our autonomy is disrupted or denied, we often act in ways that make it less rather than more likely that our needs for autonomy will be met. We pursue therapies, for example, often at great expense, that have no hope of working. We dig in our heels, for example, often at great expense, that make matters worse rather than better. All conflicts, in the end, involve matters of autonomy. And some have gone on for centuries or even millennia as people fight over their needs for autonomy.

Understanding that autonomy is a universal human need is the mark of true leadership. Leaders know how to invite cooperation rather than to force participation. Force may work in the short run, if success is understood as compliance. But it often doesn’t work in the short run and it never works in the long run. People can suspend their needs for autonomy • or any of the other universal needs • for only so long. In the end, because we’re talking about needs rather than wants, they demand attention and require satisfaction.

Would that we could all approach life with such emotional intelligence! It would make our conversations so much more productive and satisfying. We could have open and thoughtful conversations about those alternative therapies rather than defensive and protective ones. We could have rational and reasonable conversations about those computer problems rather than stubborn and toleration-justifying ones. We could have respectful and understanding conversations about those long-standing conflicts rather than explosive and violent ones.

That is my hope for this Provision and for our world. The more we appreciate autonomy as a universal human need, the more willing we become to make sure that need is being met in all our deliberations and interactions. Whether it comes to internal or external dynamics, the needs for autonomy are the same. We live in a life-giving world of possibility when we recognize and respect those needs; we live in a life-alienating world of inevitability when we deny and disrespect those needs. The more I understand about the contrast, the more I seek to choose life0

Coaching Inquiries: What about you? Where are the places in your life where you could do a better job at respecting both your own and other people’s needs for autonomy? How could you communicate that respect? What light can be shed on situations once they are viewed through the lens of autonomy? Who could you talk with about these dynamics?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form to arrange a complimentary conversation. To learn more about LifeTrek Coaching programs, Click Here.

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob..


Your series on needs continues to open my eyes to new ways of understanding and responding to others. Thanks for all that you do to make them so clear! 



May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching Internationalwww.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformationwww.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coachingwww.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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