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The Neurobiology of Coaching Motivation

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People watching is such fun, especially when someone’s behaviour doesn’t match their words. Have you ever been to a party and stood back to watch people? I do this all the time. Curiously, when I get the chance to share my observations with people, they often deny it. Their repeated turn of phrase ‘is nothing’. Their closed body language is refuted with, “That isn’t what I meant.” People often behave in ways that seem at odds with their cognitive position or their perception of a situation. This ‘at odds with self’ phenomena is a great example of the ways motivation can cause a person to be in conflict with themselves, resulting in procrastination, indifference, double mindedness or conflicting body language.

Motivation is worthy of our attention. In the book “Mastermind – how to think like Sherlock Holmes”, Maria Konnikova observes that motivation is one of those x-factors that affect everything positively. Motivation improves memory, concentration, brain receptivity, priming for learning and performance on any spectrum you’d like to measure. Understanding how motivation works will directly affect your success as a professional coach.

The research

The study of motivation started with physiology. Zoologists and biologists investigated it by watching mice negotiate a maze for food and water. Behavioural scientists and psychologists came next. They studied the social and emotional behaviour of gorillas (in the mist) and primates. Neuroscientists joined the cause most recently. They examined the cognitive functions of the human brain with expensive equipment that enabled them to gaze inside people’s skulls whilst they played card games, solved puzzles or looked at disturbing images.

Frederick Hertzberg was the first to apply motivational theory to a work setting in 1959. As coaches we are fortunate to have access to more than fifty years of organisational research on motivation that we can use in our practice.

One of the fundamental things this research has revealed is three basic systems that affect motivation: biological, emotional and cognitive. Neuroscientist Paul McLean described these three systems in “A Triune Concept of the Brain and Behavior”. The brain has three layers which McLean called the reptilian (brain stem), mammalian (limbic system) and neomammalian (neocortex) systems. I prefer to call them the lizard, monkey and human brain.

Lizards, monkeys and humans are all motivated by different things and this helps to explain how those dinner party contradictions happen. The lizard layer might really enjoy the meal, but monkey feels socially isolated. Human brain might be perfectly happy with the entertainment, but lizard wants to go home and rest. The competing desires of these three layers can be at odds because the individual layers of brain activity are pushing for different things. The lizard, monkey and human brain layers each have their own kinds of motivators (there are seven in all). As coaches, we can use our understanding of these motivators to assist our clients to get all three layers of brain working in the same direction.

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