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30 years ago, I was a young student who had just begun playing the bass guitar.  Recently, I completed my musical autobiography in a 4-minute original rock n’ roll song.  What motivated the musician in me to keep going after having left my full-time music career two decades earlier?

Although an internal motivation for music might be suspected, when we resist our natural bias to ascribe motivation to internal causes and appeal to evidence-based explanations, a different picture emerges.  This is a valuable lesson for anyone responsible for motivating others.

To the beginner musician, there is nothing inherently rewarding about performing repetitive exercises to learn a technique that produce sounds unlike any music that has ever been heard before. Thus, motivation is not a natural by-product of the task (in this case, performing repetitive exercises) itself.  It must be arranged.  Praise for good performance and correction for poor performance become critical.  However, instruction must also allow the student to self-assess when feedback from others is not available.  And this must be done in a manner that can sustain performance without outside intervention.

The learning arrangement I experienced as a musician required showing up (prepared) to one 50-minute lesson per week.  Failure to do so would result in being dropped from the instructor’s roster – the consequence for failing to achieve minimum expected performance.  During lessons, good performance was immediately praised and poor performance corrected.   At home, I was encouraged to use book practice only as a “warm-up” and to learn primarily from songs that I was listening to for fun on the radio. Thus, practicing was naturally rewarded by hearing my personal performances start to resemble the very songs that had inspired me to learn the instrument (a naturally positive consequence of good performance).  Finally, developing a repertoire of songs in this manner ultimately led to the opportunity to join forces with a band of other musicians who had learned the same songs.  Live performance with this band was the vision set up by the instructor at the onset of instruction.

With an evidence-based analysis, we need not explain motivation as something inherent (or not) to the individual.  We need only to know that, like Darwin’s theory of evolution, behavior is naturally selected by its consequences.  Specifically, behaviors that produce desired outcomes will be repeated and maintained.  Behaviors that do not produce desired outcomes will not be repeated and will be ultimately replaced by other behaviors that do.  We can apply the same type of analysis to business.

To create an environment that motivates, you must:

  • Create a vision that is relevant to those whose behavior you are trying to motivate
  • Know and monitor which behaviors are necessary to move closer to that vision
  • Provide immediate positive feedback for good performance and immediate correction for poor performance
  • Create an environment where the performer can self-assess and receive feedback on their own (simply as a routine consequence of performing)

The key to motivating others is to be open to their perception of reality and, ultimately, to ensure that the behavior you want from them produces a greater immediate benefit to them than behaviors that could otherwise be performed.  Evidence-based practices not only make this possible, they make it likely.  If the behaviors you motivate are consistent with your vision, then your use of these practices will be reinforced and the successes of others will coincide with your own success.