The motivation mixing desk – some channels are dominant

A sound engineer blends science-based technical expertise with the art of a musical director and a keen listening ear. Similarly a manager thinking about motivation of people needs the insights of experimental psychological science, the art of leading people, and a keen listening ear. Continuing my reflection that human motivation is like a mixing desk with lots of channels, it seems to me that in different situations and with different personalities there will be a few motivation factors that are dominant.

When mixing sound for a band, I always find that a few of the instruments or voices are dominant and need to be sorted out first. Often it is drums, bass, keys or lead vocals, but clearly it’s different for a string quartet. Although a mixing desk looks incredibly complex with so many channels, in fact we adjust relatively few of the faders during a performance – usually the ones that dominate. And we only adjust them a little bit.

Gain and faders: people respond differently

To take the metaphor a bit further, I need to explain why a mixing desk has two volume controls on each channel: a gain knob at the top of each column (shown red) and a fader (the slider shown white). I sometimes describe gain as the “coarse” volume control and the fader slider as the “fine” control. But why two? It’s because different microphones and instruments produce radically different sizes of signals – a guitar can easily produce 100x bigger electrical waves than a microphone. When setting up I’ll usually adjust the gain so that if everyone was playing loudly, the faders would all be at the 0dB mark (two-thirds of the way up on the picture. Then during the set it is usually only minor tweaks to the faders, up and down a wee bit, to get an overall balance of sound. I rarely touch the gain controls during the performance, just the faders.

In my situation where we have different bands each week, but the same bands come back time after time, the digital mixing desk saves and restores the gain levels for each particular band. So long as they plug into the same channel numbers each time, setup is really quick and they can get on with last-minute rehearsals.

Most of the bands have drums, bass, acoustic guitar, keyboards and a couple of vocalists. So you’d think it would be the same for them all. But if I restore the settings for the wrong band, the result is nothing short of appalling. Some channels will have a nasty distorted noise because the gain is too high. On other channels I won’t be able to hear anything no matter how high I push up the faders, because the gain is too low. Instruments and singers vary quite dramatically.

Now think about the analogy of motivation. Each person has lots of channels of motivation, but the built-in hard-to-change
gain settings are slightly different in each person. In one person a particular motivator will have an undetectable effect (low gain) whereas in another person it will have such a strong effect it actually distorts the outcome (high gain). Just think what happens in a big company when people are set personal objectives. For some it has an undetectable effect. Others get such tunnel vision on the objectives that they lose sight of the big picture to the extent that some will studiously avoid helping colleagues if it doesn’t directly support their objectives.

So playing with motivation is prone to unexpected consequences, particularly if you are working with a large group of people who will each respond differently.

Howling: drowns out the other channels

You will perhaps have heard the loud howling/feedback sound that happens when a microphone catches the output of the main speakers. It drowns out every other channel and ruins the mix. Everyone winces or sticks their fingers in their ears. The sound engineer usually grabs the main output fader and gets the output level down to zero as soon as possible.

I wonder if our attempts to add motivation can sometimes be like adding an extra microphone in the wrong place. That extra channel can drown out the others, may not be pleasant, may even cause a wince reaction.

To give that idea a solid footing, there is some evidence from psychological research that payback as a motivator can evict intrinsic motivations. Once people get paid to do something, they are less likely to do it in future without being paid again. We may joke about being bribed to do things, but in fact the effect of “if..then” payments has a very similar effect to the patterns of bribery. There is a very short-term amplification of motivation followed by a longer-term reduction in motivation. That insight has a profound impact on the way we try to get people to engage in behaviours that we want them to sustain for the long term (such as knowledge management and collaboration behaviours). It is counter-productive to use personal objectives linked to bonus payments (am I being controversial yet?)

Can we control the level?

As managers trying to influence people’s motivation, we can’t change the gain controls in each of the individuals: we can only adjust a few of the faders, and only a little bit. Does that mean it is a waste of effort? Not at all. It just means that motivation is a more subtle art than we had perhaps thought. Just like a sound engineer is a vital part of the band, so also a motivational leader is a vital part of a business team. We need to learn skill and avoid clumsiness.


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