Self-Improvement Breakthrough or Category Error: Silent Co-Running

As he so often does, Dan Rockwell spiked my interest with a recent article about motivation and enhancing performance. His article – which you can read at his Leadership Freak blog – was inspiring by the research work of Brandon Irwin, assistant professor of kinesiology at Kansas State University. Irwin was researching the motivation impact of working/practising a skill alongside a more skilled practitioner-partner, and discovered that a silent ‘mentor’ achieved significantly better results than one who punctuated their endeavours with ‘things like “Come on,” “You can do it,” and “You got this.” ‘.

Irwin’s research is based in the gym and in physical activity, but he was more than willing to defend his research in a Harvard Business Magazine article:

Having a partner who was better than you appeared to be incredibly motivating, however—a 33% improvement in performance is huge—as long as that person didn’t try to motivate you.”

Intrigued and reading on – including a Kansas State University Press Release on another aspect of Irwin’s research – I did initially wonder if Dan Rockwell might be guilty of a category error in terms of the transferability of these findings. Office life might often be gruelling and exhausting, but it’s not actually a gym workout – the sweat we might break is, after all, mostly only metaphorical. But three things keep chipping away at my doubts on this thought.

The first of these is the work and writings of others whose first discipline was the sporting world – including Matthew Syed (whose Bounce remains one of the most accessible books I’ve encountered about improving performance and learning transfer) and Ed Smith, cricketer-turned columnist. We can outline many important differences – and have done in the past – but sport is still a human activity, and one in which both individual performance and contribution to team performance are both important and closely measured. The setting might be different, but it’s still the human animal that we’re discussing.

The second occurred to me serendipitously, clicking on links and landing on Brandon Irwin’s YouTube channel, which includes a clip of our gallant researcher playing an instrumental arrangement of Lady Gaga’s Just Dance for solo acoustic guitar. As a guitar-player of long-standing, my own experience of developing my capability as a musician may be anecdotal rather than empirical, but playing alongside those more capable than me was certainly a powerful learning approach and vehicle for rapid improvement.

It also bears out many of the points that he makes in response to the comments on his HBR article: the learner wishes to be better for their own satisfaction, but also to a) feel like they don’t pale as totally as previously in comparison to their temporary colleague(s) and b) feel like they are not letting down the team (or, in this analogy, band). My earlier experience of playing the violin was very similar: once I’d progressed past the stage of sonic cat-strangling, playing in a school orchestra improved by playing – and my motivation to improve – considerably faster than my violin teacher had done previously.

The third, although Irwin recognises and admits that this research has many avenues left to explore, was hinted at in his ‘interview answers’, when he said:

Our results don’t really suggest that all encouragement is bad. It just doesn’t seem to be as good as leading by quiet example. Until we know more about the mechanism behind this mitigating effect, our advice would be for coaches to be specific—to not only use people’s names but address their needs directly.”

This not only presumably comes as reassurance to those coaches who are still reading despite getting the impression that someone, somewhere is telling them to pipe down a bit, but also chimes with personal experience. A running commentary on what you are still at the stage of perceiving as a personal inadequacy might well not be as endearing, let alone encouraging, as the well-meaning coach/mentor/partner might hope: indeed, it might well be actively – and I could have used a far less gentlemanly and unsporting adverb – irritating.

While developmental relationships may well include elements where the wiser, more skilful and experienced individual points out specific failings or ‘bad habits’ from a position of experience, part of their effectiveness surely comes from encouraging the learner to keep practising. Practice may not always make perfect, but lack of practice will always come a very pale second.

It’s this relationship aspect that intrigues me here, if we’re going to – as Dan Rockwell implicitly suggests we might – apply Brandon’s thinking to the workplace. I can see that where a relationship involves observation and comment – whether we call it mentoring or coaching – then the nature of the relationship, and the ‘senior’ partner’s willingness to explore and understand what motivates a particular individual, are critical to its success. (Hence our insistence on best matching and chemistry calls before engaging in 1:1 coaching provision.)

What’s interesting is the – so far, not explicitly explored – contrast with ‘silent coaching’, which draws on our willingness and desire to improve and our natural tendency to compare ourselves with others. And beyond that, establishing evidence as to when active encouragement works best, and when there is a more powerful effect to be achieved by quietly setting a good example. (Although we do, of course, hasten to add that setting a bad example is never helpful, no matter how few or how many decibels you deploy at the time.)

If Brandon is reading, we’d be fascinated to know more.

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