“Autonomy-Supportive Salad” Recipe

How recipes, imagining you’re a chameleon, and a little rocket science are the keys to true leadership.

Read time: 13 minutes (hope you make it)

Art by: Aryn Robidoux @art_by_aryn

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I’ve always liked when TV shows give you a quick recap before the new episode. It helps me immerse myself back into the story. If my last article were a TV show, I’d recap it by saying that autonomy is a human need for control. We need it to increase our chances of survival. There is an offence and a defence side to autonomy, the offence side being our desire to feel in control, and the defence side being our desire to not feel controlled. Autonomy is similar to a magnet. It can attract when our sense of control is in line with somebody else’s, or it can repel if the offence and defence sides oppose each other. We learned that the biggest trap that we can fall into as leaders is “sometimes in attempt to feel as though we’re in control of our own lives, we take away the feeling of control from somebody else’s life.” In this article, we’ll be focused on how to align our “autonomy magnets” with others in order to ensure attraction and productivity rather than repulsion and resentment. We all sometimes find “dealing with people” to be difficult. Luckily, we can learn to deal with people in a productive way that makes our lives easier in the long run.

If we all have a deep need for autonomy, it would make sense that in order to get along with people we would need to support their autonomy. You just can’t be the only one in the world feeling as though you’re in control. The reason we’re so far advanced in the animal kingdom is because we cooperate with each other. If rocket ships and the Appollo 11 mission were dreamed up by one man (President Kennedy,) the mission would have failed if he tried to control everything himself. It was only when he let go of complete control, and trusted others to control their own field of expertise, that everybody cooperated and landed that hunk of metal on the moon. If President Kennedy didn’t let go of control, I’m sure he would still be learning the math required to even start the project.

 As leaders, parents, teachers, or coaches, we have our own Apollo mission. Let’s call it “Mission Super-Possible.” A mission to motivate others. Usually, we think that in order to succeed in this mission, we need to tell people what to do. We burn ourselves out attmepting to know EVERYTHING going on at all times. We feel like if something is going on without our knowledge that it won’t be done properly. When really, if we were to have a trusting relationship with our team, we could save ourselves a lot of time, energy, and stress. The purpose of launching “Mission Super-Possible” is to create an atmoshphere for a team to thrive, and in order to do this, we must create an autonomy-supportive environment. But how?

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Autonomy-support is basically the opposite of control. It’s letting go of enough control in order to create an environment where the people you’re leading feel as though they’re also in control. Let’s bust out some rocket science that would simplify these dynamics between Boss and Staff.

Boss feeling in control + Staff feeling controlled = Fear, Resentment, Unmotivated 🙁

Boss feeling in control + Staff also feeling in control = Connection, Responsibility, Motivation 🙂

Now these math equations are easy to read and comprehend, but much more difficult to execute. There are a few things we can do to help create an autonomy-supportive environment, but the problem is that it’s a process of growth. Autonomy-support is not something that just magically happens when you understand the concepts. 

The process is kind of like making a garden fresh salad, an “Autonomy-Supportive Salad.” The main ingredient in this nutrient rich salad is TRUST. As with all salads, every ingredient must be present to be well-balanced and complete. A chicken salad isn’t JUST chicken, it’s just the main ingredient. And if you were to forget the salad-dressing on a salad, nobody is going to enjoy eating it.  The delicious ingredients to our “Autonomy-Supportive Salad” would be: 

-1 cup creating TRUST

-14 cups of being EMPATHETIC

-2 TBSP providing CHOICE

-5 grams of providing REASON


All of these organic ingredients must be in balance to create the perfect “Autonomy-Supportive Salad.” and just like real cooking, the ingredients list isn’t enough. Recipes give you the order and timing in which to cook the meal. 

In an actual garden fresh salad, we know where to buy the kale and tomatoes, and we can find recipes online for an “out of this world” raspberry vinaigrette. But how do we grow and cultivate trust, empathy, choice and reason? The only way we can grow the fresh ingredients for our autonomy-supportive salad is through every interaction you have with your team. Every single interaction you have is an opportunity to grow trust, empathy, choice, and reason. These interactions are opportunities to connect and will make your job easier in the future, they’re not speed bumps that slow down the pile of work you need to get done.

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Everybody has what Carrie and Alton Barron in “The Creativity Cure” call a “True Self” and a “False self.” A True Self is when “you have a good sense of your identity and your real feelings…you know who you are and what you feel. Your True Self makes your everyday life enlivened, interesting, and meaningful.” Your False Self is described as inauthentic. “A False Self is a guarded, manufactured, people-pleasing self. A False Self prioritizes acceptance by others at the expense of authenticity.” (55) What we need to do as leaders is create an environment where our staff and children feel as though they can be their True Selves, and let go of their False Selves. We do this by creating trust, we create trust by being empathetic, we’re empathetic by providing choice, and giving reasons for what we’re asking our team to do. In order to succeed in “Mission Super-Possible,” we must first imagine what a trusting environment FEELS like.

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Imagine for a second that you’re a pet chameleon. You live comfortably in your beautiful, warm, transparent tank. This tank is what you know, it’s your home, it’s your “safe zone.” Here, you can be whoever you want to be with no judgement from others. As a chameleon, you have a unique power to control the color of every pore of skin you have. This helps you hide when you don’t feel like being seen, but more importantly this power helps you survive in your natural habitat because you can blend in and escape predators. If somebody had never seen a chameleon before, they would likely grab you out of your tank and put you on different colored objects in order to witness you changing your colors (cool video attached.) This stresses you out, because you want to showcase the beautiful colors you were born with. You don’t want to feel threatened and have to blend into your background. 

People are constantly changing colors in different situations in order to fit in as well. Only we don’t change the colors of our skin, we choose whether to showcase, or hide parts of our identity. If parts of our identity were our “true colors” we have a unique power to showcase and hide them just as a chameleon can change the color of their skin. We do this in order to “fit in.”

Our identity is basically the way we would describe our selves, how others would describe us, and how we want to be seen/potrayed. Our identity is how we know ourselves. It’s how we know what to spend time, effort and energy on. Our Identity is why people love us, and why we love others. It may be parts of ourselves that we’re proud of, it may be parts of ourselves that we’re ashamed of. Our identities are also why people judge us, and why we judge others. Our identity is made up of hundreds of different passions, behaviors, and choices we’ve made. We choose what identifies us based on how we want to be seen by others in order to “fit in.” What’s weird is our identity is formed over our entire lives and we barely stop to think about how or why certain parts developed and certain parts didn’t. I didn’t necessarily choose to be passionate about psychology (that’s why I don’t have a degree,) but over the course of my life, learning about psychology has helped me solve real life problems that I couldn’t solve on my own. Psychology has therefore slowly become an important part of who I am, and a part of my identity.  

I used to be 100% determined to be a proffesional hockey player, and I chose to identify as a hockey player. I would wear clothes that hockey players wore, and listen to music that hockey players would listen to. I slowly matured and realized that this was a “False Jeremy” and that I was identifying as a hockey player in order to fit in with who I thought was cool, and who I thought I needed to be to impress girls (didn’t work.) Now i’m reading and writing everyday about how our minds work and I feel as though this is a genuine “True Jeremy.” Because the people I love most, love this part of me, and there is no attempt to impress. (Hello, ladies…)

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If every part of our identity was a different “color on our skin” we would have VERY colorful skin. If you love the sport of basketball, there’s a section of orange on your skin, if you’re a skiier, some white. If you identify as somebody with a temper, maybe you’d have some red. If you consider yourself passionate about the ocean, maybe some deep blue. If you are very honest, I think the most honest of colors would be yellow (just a feeling.)

If our identity were our colors, every person would look quite unique, BUT ONLY IF they’re in the comfort of their own warm chameleon tank. As soon as we’re taken out of our “safe zone” we tend to change our colors in order to “fit in” in the way that we’re “supposed to.” Sometimes we can actually see peoples colors as the clothing and style that they choose. Based on the way somebody dresses, we think we can imagine what type of music they like, what type of sports they enjoy, if they’re honest or deceitful, happy or unhappy. But what we don’t realize is that they may be hiding some of their true colors. So, sometimes we misrepresent and misjudge them. Making decisions on who somebody is with too little information makes us the predator that the chameleon wants to hide from. 

We have a special power where we can showcase only the colors we want portrayed. With this comes a trap we can fall into. This trap is called EGO. When we use our colors as a tool to measure if we’re “good enough” or not. Maybe we’re unhappy and we think that the only way to be seen as “worthy” is if we’re seen as wealthy by others. In this case, maybe we change our skin to be as gold as possible. If somebody who naturally has MORE gold skin walks by, it makes us feel less gold, and therefore the red frustration, and the blue/purple depressed tones come out in our skin automatically. When you measure your self-worth on something as fragile as wealth, you can be very easily challenged and your happiness and fullfilment will always be at risk by others. We must judge ourselves by the diversity of color on our skin, rather than the one or two colors that predators may judge us on. 

We also have the power to hide colors we don’t want to be seen yet. In certain situations, like a first date, you may hide colors from the beautiful person across the table from you. Maybe you enjoy toy trains so much that you have the biggest collection in North America, but on the past couple of dates, you were ditched when you came forward with this information. So you’ve learned that you must hide the “deep red color of a locamotive” on your first date until the the image they form of you is based on your yellow honesty patch, and your green environmental concern patches of skin.

Hiding your true colors in the short term can be healthy, as long as you’re on a path to showcasing your “True Self.” This is actually our TRUE power: being able to slowly reveal our true colors to those we trust. Because we need people to prove to us that their trustworthy before we reveal the colors that we’ve learned can be misinterpreted. The more trust you feel with the person across the table, the more colors you will slowly reveal. It’s only when we feel like we’re hiding our true colors in the long term that we start to feel repressed. Because we’re constantly hiding from predators. We see no path to showcasing our “True Self” and are caught being inauthentic. We’re exhausting ourselves by manufacturing a “False Self” so the predator approves that we’re worthy of being liked by them.  

If every chameleon chose the same color in order to fit in, the truly unique ones in the comfort of their own homes would be the ones that we’d see as beautiful. The same goes with humans, the more true colors you show, the more unique, happy, healthy and beautiful you are. 


Here lies the secret to true leadership. If we want to build trust, we need people to feel as though they can reveal their hidden true colors to us. We want them to feel as though they won’t be misrepresented, judged or abandoned. We want them to feel like they fit in no matter what. We do this by caring about who they are, how they feel, and immersing ourselves in conversation about topics THEY like. We do this by learning what they have to offer and allowing them to showcase it. Rule #9 in Jordan B. Peterson’s insanely popular book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, is “Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.”

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Essentially, this is what all people REALLY want and need. We want to be fully understood and accepted for who we are. To be your “True Self.” We want to work towards showing ALL of our colors, ALL of the time. We want to be accepted. Because when we feel accepted, we feel worthy. When we feel worthy, we feel a deep internal happiness (fulfilment.) This is our “self-worth.” The true genuine friendships I have are with people that fully support me when I can’t stop talking about the new psychology studies I’ve read. It’s only when I find myself in a situation where the person I’m talking to consistently loses interest and is quick to change the subject, that I feel they are not a true friend, because I have to change my behavior for them. It may not be true, but I FEEL this way.

It’s not about whether they’re into psychology or not, it’s about there being enough trust in our relationship that I feel like I can express myself and not be judged for it. Now I’m not quite sure what colour a passion for psychology would be, but I’ve learned that this color should always be on my skin. As soon as I attempt to hide it, I feel a deep sense of restraint, discomfort, and frustration. 

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As I mentioned earlier, we need to do everything we can to create an open and trusting enough environment where our staff, students, employees feel as though they can show their true colors all of the time. This is the foundation of cooking our “autonomy-supportive salad.” The way to grow trust is to be empathetic. To be empathetic, you must be able to imagine how the person you’re spending time with is feeling. When asking a person to do something, when attempting to motivate them to do something, we must imagine ourselves in their shoes and project how WE would feel if it were happening to US. When we do this well, we will naturally gravitate to giving them reasons as to why we’re asking them to do it, because we don’t want them to interpret our ask the wrong way. And this leads to the two most important ingredients for being empathetic: giving them REASON and giving them CHOICE. Let’s do some more “Mission Super-Possible Rocket Science” to simplify things and then dive a little bit deeper into the definitions.

 Trust = Empathy

Empathy = Imagining how they feel + Giving Choice + Giving Reason

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Empathy

When trying to motivate somebody, it’s possible that you’re asking them to complete an undesirable task. In this case it is very important to be proactive and outline that you understand the feelings they may have about the task and provide an alternative way to look at it. If you KNOW or FEEL that the task may be undesirable, it’s time for a conversation. It’d be much easier to “pull rank” and order the task to be done, to avoid all “feelings.” But people see right through that and will think you’re an asshole. Pulling rank will flip your autonomy magnets against your teams and lead to resentment. Your side would be “in control” but your teams would flip to “feeling controlled.” 

Choice

Knowing that we usually try to control situations ourselves and give orders to our people, how do we get tasks done without ripping away their sense of control? How do we ensure our autonomy-magnets are aligned? As soon as you provide any sort of choice in the matter, they are delivered control on a silver platter. They can CHOOSE to do it. You can frame the choice in several diferent ways that you see fit, but involving them in the decision is critical. Even if you feel that the task may be undesirable, a great team member will still choose to do it. The likeliness that they think your an asshole goes WAY down as soon as they agree to do it.  The intention here is not to manipulate and use providing choice as a tactic, it only works if you’re empathetic and they trust you in the first place. Using choice as a tactic to manipulate would be predatory and explode our “Mission Super-Impossible” shuttle before it leaves the atmosphere.

Reason

In order for our team to constantly feel in control, they need to fully understand WHY they are doing something. They are sacrificing their time, energy, and effort to complete the task, so they need a target to aim for, they need purpose. When an undesirable task has meaning behind it, it all of a sudden isn’t the end of the world. Your brain can tolerate the suffering as a part of a bigger picture, it knows there will be an end date. Our job as leaders is to provide a clear sense of what this bigger picture is. The reason we all hated trigonometry and social studies as kids in school is probably because the teachers usually did a poor job explaining why it will eventually be important in our lives. It may only much later become apparent that there is some usefulness to math, science, language and history.

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If you were a boss, and asked one of your staff without providing choice or reason to make you a salad, they will likely think you’re an asshole. Imagine what you’d think if your boss just came out and asked “Hey Jeremy, can you make me a salad?” I’d probably initially laugh, then think to myself “Fuck you, man.” But, if you were to approach it like this: “Hey Maynard, I’ve got a super important meeting at 2PM that i’m running behind on preparation for, I know this may seem like a big ask, and a bit ridiculous, but if you have the time, could you grab me some food? Here’s some cash.” The odds of you getting your salad are quite a bit higher. You provided Maynard with a reason for your ask and also gave him a choice of whether he wanted to do it or not. Maynard will likely want to help if it seems genuine, but if there is any hint of manipulation, you’ll be seen as a predator and have to make your own salad, or starve.

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So as leaders, we must learn to whip up the perfect autonomy-supportive salad in order to motivate others. We must understand that motivation is not manipulation. It’s a process of growth, it is not instantaneous, there are no shortcuts. Dealing with people can be difficult, but when we take a step back and understand how people want to feel, we can make dealing with people fun. It’s helpful to look at ourselves and others as chameleons in order to understand empathy and grow the main ingredient to our autonomy-supportive salad: Trust. We must realize that everybody needs to be their True Selves around us before they trust us. We can grow this trust through every interaction we have, especially in critical situations where we need our staff, children, or team to do something undesirable. If we provide choice and reason to our asks, we will ensure that our autonomy magnets are in line with the other people. Choice and reason basically create the perfect salad dressing that ties the whole dish together. When served to the people around us, this autonomy-supportive salad will create the perfect atmosphere for “Mission Super-Possible” to be a success.

 Blastoff!!!

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