Toast, Cats and Motivation

By Chris Crouch

Most people have no problem accepting that it’s possible to receive wireless signals with their computers. However, the fact that similar wireless-like communication occurs between human beings often seems mysterious to the same people. Interestingly, it is a proven fact that humans communicate with each other wirelessly all the time.

Sure, words, voice tone and body language (especially facial expressions) communicate much of the information that passes between us. However, our brains and nervous systems are also uniquely designed to communicate in many other ways. And this communication often occurs on an unconscious basis. With this in mind, let me tell you about an interesting article I recently read titled “Motivation is Contagious” (March/April 2013 issue of Psychology Today).

In a study conducted at the University of Rochester, researchers found that putting a highly motivated employee in a room can enhance the performance of other employees in the room. Apparently we are designed by nature to emulate the motivation and emotions of those around us. Of course, the opposite occurs if you place an unmotivated person in the room. They can potentially bring everyone down. Now this part of the article raised a big question in my mind. Who will win the influencing contest? The question is similar to the one raised by the “cat and buttered toast” dilemma.

If you drop a cat, even from a short distance above the ground, it will almost always land on its feet. And if you drop a piece of buttered toast, it will almost always land buttered-side down. So, if you strap a piece of buttered toast, buttered side out, to the back of a cat and drop them strapped together, how will the combined cat/toast entity land? Will it land feet first, or butter side down? Before I go any farther, let me assure you that no animals were harmed during the writing of this article. I neither have nor borrowed a cat.

I don’t know the answer to the dropped cat question, but I suspect a highly motivated person will usually regulate a less motivated person. If I wanted to try and create a more motivated workforce, I would go with this assumption.

Here’s another thing about the article I found quite interesting. When motivated and unmotivated employees were paired during the research, it did not matter if they verbally communicated with each other. Even when they avoided verbal communication and worked on completely different tasks, they still influenced each other.

If you take the time to learn about limbic resonance and something called mirror neurons, all this makes a lot of sense. But to me, here is the most usable insight in all of this. According to the article writer (also the researcher), “Hiring a single person whose motivation detracts from company culture can have a dramatic impact because of the way our minds are programmed.”

So, think about that, and buttered toast and cats, and where motivated people are at (sorry grammarians, but I liked the rhyme).

Chris Crouch is CEO of DME Training and Consulting and author of several books on improving productivity. Contact him through