The motivation mixing desk: lots of channels

On one of my non-work Fridays recently, I helped install and set up a new 32-channel digital mixing desk (as you can see in the photo). Today it struck me that a sound-desk is a good analogy for the science of human motivation. In motivation we could say there are lots of ‘channels’ and lots of knobs and sliders that affect each channel. Each person’s overall output is affected in slightly different ways, just like in any venue each band needs its own setup even though the instruments may be the same. Everyone plays differently.

So in this post I’ll take a look at the science of motivation, to identify the channels on the mixing desk. The trouble is, each of the theorists has a slightly different model of what channels are important. How can they be reconciled?

I think the mixing desk metaphor is original to me, but it was sparked by a New Scientist article describing some current neuroscience research along those lines. They are trying to puzzle over why we make different decisions depending on how they are framed. Which is pretty close to understanding motivation.

Lots of channels of motivation

Some years ago Dan Pink’s 2009 TED talk inspired me to read his book “Drive”, and I was completely convinced by his argument that there are three basic strands of human motivation: autonomy, mastery and purpose. It is backed by the evidence of experimental psychology and it resonates with my own experience. So in my mental model, the mixing desk of motivation had three channels. Here’s the 18-min video, it is well worth watching.

Then I came across self-determination theory, which at first glance said the same thing – three strands of motivation: autonomy, competence and relatedness. Hold on a minute, competence=mastery but purpose is not quite the same as relatedness. Relatedness is quite different, quite important, also backed by experimental psychology, also resonates with my own observations. People are very motivated by working in team. A fourth channel for the mixer.

Around BT you will often hear talk of SMART objectives. Why do we set objectives? It is because of goal-setting theory. We get pleasant feelings of accomplishment simply by achieving steps we have planned in advance, so that can be motivating. Setting objectives creates a form of tunnel vision, intense focus on that one thing. Sometimes that is what the business needs.

Recently there’s been a lot of research into gamification. Gameplay motivation theory identifies strands of motivation in cooperation, competition, immersion and achievement. Immersion is that sense of “flow” researched by the unpronounceable Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (CHEEK-sent-me-HY-ee).

Avoidance motivation theory says that we are more driven to avoid a failure or loss than to get a benefit. Similarly Herzberg’s 2-factor theory says we need to think about hygiene factors (demotivators) which are quite different from actual motivators. Other researchers tell us we are motivated to reduce cognitive dissonance. Attribution theory says our motivation flips depending on who we think is responsible for the problem – one of the problems with blame culture. A video by David Rock is doing the rounds in BT at the moment, and he says our threat response is 5 times stronger than our reward response. I saw the video last week in the BT Tower. Really good. In 5 mins he picks out five motivators under the acronym SCARF: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness.


Most of the motivations so far are centred on self, but there are some other-centred values and ethics that shape our motivation, whether to boost it (things like equality, justice, and freedom for others, compassion or the service ethic) or to reduce it (e.g. when challenged on honesty, fair play or territorial politics)

Most people have heard of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, usually drawn as a triangle with five levels. In his theory we have basic drives to meet needs like hunger and thirst before we would be interested in higher levels like belonging, achievement and self-actualisation. In fact it turned out that Maslow’s theory isn’t a very good predictor of behaviour. Nevertheless Steven Reiss looked deeper and found sixteen basic desires. I won’t list them, you can google it.

Overwhelmed by all these different models of motivation? I am.

Every time I think I have understood something about motivation, I realise there is more. Motivation is like a large mixing desk with lots of channel sliders representing the strands of motivation, and we keep discovering more banks of channels.

So here are some questions for you. Which “channels” of motivation are most significant for you personally? Have you found any of these models USEFUL as you try to understand and influence other people?  Which are most relevant for knowledge management and collaboration? (see more of my blog posts on motivation)

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