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The Neurobiology of Coaching Motivation

8 min read


Think about most of the behaviour management systems in our community.
Work hard and receive a bonus (a banana)… speed on the roads and receive a fine (a smack). These appeal to the emotional monkey brain.


Motivator 3 – Reward: measurement increases motivation
Jack Stack at Western Electric coined the term the ‘Hawthorne Effect’, after productivity in their Hawthorne manufacturing plant improved when they increased lighting, put new glass in the offices upstairs and lowered lights closer to the benches… the employees worked harder because they thought they were being observed and measured.

Motivator 4 – Punishment: make it a competition
The emotional brain is especially motivated by social comparison. Engaging in competition creates a tangible risk of public failure, and monkey brain hates that. Dailyburn.com has half a million users tracking health, exercise and weight. Those in peer challenges lose an average of 3kg more than those who enter individually.

Layer three: human help with autonomy, mastery and purpose

The third or cognitive layer (the neocortex) is the Human brain. It governs rational thinking: planning, prediction, pattern recognition, spirituality, belief and processing the five senses. Daniel Pink lays out the inner workings of motivating the human brain in his book “Drive – the surprising truth about what motivates us”. According to Pink, our higher selves require:
• self direction (autonomy);
• self improvement (mastery); and
• transcendent reason (purpose).
Tasks which are complex or which require us to work unsupervised are best motivated when we can improve ourselves, direct our own tasks and serve something bigger than ourselves. It is very useful for medium to long term goals.


Put well paid, unmotivated people in a Results Only Work Place (ROWE) and they thrive. At Gore-Tex you can show up when you want or work from home so long as you get your work done. How you achieve that is up to you. People are motivated by having specific goals, projects and timeframes to finish them.


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