How your arousal level defines your motivation



IT’S not what you think. It’s not about the flesh, but a lesser known approach to motivating people to do their best in practically everything. Let me explain it with this example that I use in testing the interest level of my students. Imagine a 23-year old late-blooming male student who talks a lot and tends to initiate side conversations with friendly classmates seated next to him, during classes.

Pretend to ignore but quietly observe Mr. Talkative for about 10 minutes – the average attention span of people. You’ll notice that he’s animated and very confident when speaking directly to a classmate. Why not? It’s a fairly easy task. It can be done by anyone with a tongue, rather than focus on listening to a teacher who labored the night before to craft the best teaching methodology in this part of the world.

This inattentive student has something else in mind. Maybe, he wants to become an imbecile lawyer or a do-nothing politician in the future. But right now, he’s comfortable with a friend, who, in fairness, is balancing his time struggling to maintain a nervous eye-to-eye contact with his teacher, while nodding at times to some sentences uttered by his chatty seatmate.

After giving this motormouth 10 minutes of a chance to say his piece to a willing victim, I ask Mr. Talkative to stand, turn, and address the entire audience of 28 students who are preparing themselves as upcoming millennial workers – aggressive, conceited, fickle-minded, and highly oriented on the use of technology, except that they lack the goal-centric, mentally-focused and disciplined qualities of their baby-boomer parents. But that’s another story.

Going back to Mr. Talkative, who has been asked to share his thoughts with the other students – this time you find his arousal level receding as though doused with cold water. Now he’s tongue-tied, unable to compose himself as he appears like he is facing a blank wall. During that 30-second, eyeball-to-eyeball stand-off, all you hear is the sound of silence as all other students look at his direction, murmuring: “Beh, buti nga. [Now you get your comeuppance.]”

You’ll probably read an invisible thought balloon on top of his head that reads something like: “I’m such an idiot to ignore my genius teacher.” But that’s not the point. I’m serious, I wanted to find out what makes Mr. Talkative behave like a popular inspirational speaker to a friend, but would suddenly appear dumb when required to share his thoughts with a crowd.

This may be explained by the uncomfortably too high arousal level that is reached and inhibits effective performance when faced with the task of talking to a group of peers.

In psychology, the arousal theory is also known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law, which means that any performance of a person is related to his arousal level. A moderate level of arousal can lead to better performance, like someone talking to a friend.

A low level of arousal is manifested when Mr. Talkative plays with his 10-year old brother in the comfort of the family home. On the other hand, a high level of arousal is observed when the same person is required to share his thoughts in public, like inside a classroom full of other students in the company of a, well, not-so angry, objective teacher wearing a dog smile on his face.

Therefore, maintaining a moderate level of arousal is the key to an effective motivation. In the workplace, under-aroused workers are called a group of driftwood – because they go with the flow of management complacency.

However, if the workers are over-aroused, they tend to ask for challenging work assignments, secure commensurate pay and perks, and demand unbelievable work conditions. At times, over-aroused workers may try to pick up a fight with management to the extent of raising any imaginable labor issue, if not, bringing in a militant union for that extra excitement. At times, they’ll also bring down their bosses so they can replace them right away. Of if not, they will go elsewhere, bringing with them all the KASH (knowledge, attitude, skill and habit) that commands a better price in another workplace, leaving the company with a bagful of frustrations.

The arousal theory is one important approach in people management. To know the arousal level of people, you need to ask them what they want from the organization so that they can do a good job. The process must allow all employee-respondents to remain anonymous with their answers and guarantee objectivity.

This is the method used by blind auditions, such as “The Voice” franchise, where coaches judge the contestants on their singing ability, rather than their physical appearance or personal circumstances. The same thing is happening in the whistleblowers’ program of dynamic companies that are interested only in issues, not the character and personality of complainants, like what you get with retired, professional basketball and volleyball players performing like the sought-after experts at the Bureau of Customs.

Rey Elbo is a business consultant in human resources and total quality management as a fused interest. Send feedback to or follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter for his random management thoughts on Elbonomics.


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