Even geniuses have trouble getting up in the morning. Just ask Mrs Mozart. Something had to be done to get her errant son out of bed, a foolproof way of changing young Wolfgang Amadeus’s behaviour. Music was always going to play a part, of course. She knew he wouldn’t be able to resist something so close to his heart.

Mrs M decided to sing the first seven notes of a musical scale (there are 8 in total) and stop. Her sleepy son could not resist awakening to complete the sequence on the piano.  It was an itch he just had to scratch!

Unresolved suspension

This phenomenon is familiar to musical students and is called an unresolved suspension. Being tone deaf, it conjures up for me images of half-built bridges or lumpy custard from a carton that hadn’t first been shaken.

Yet, there is something more profound about the happy resolution to this musical tale. What if we could apply the principle to more meaningful situations in the workplace today? What note do people want to sing or play because it’s an automatic response or a genuine preference to which they are attracted? What tunes could leaders and managers play to encourage people to act through creating a relevant Pavlovian response? What consequent reward would people get from scratching their itches?

Are you scratching that itch?

scratchAn itch is an irritation that we feel compelled to act upon because it’s mildly uncomfortable and stops us from concentrating on our primary focus. It’s a siren call to which we are irrevocably drawn. We have the ability to do it (scratch = complete the scale), the resources (fingers = physical flexibility) and freedom to choose whether we act or not. Are these conditions in place in your team?

Canadian business coach, author and stand-up comedian, Shelle Rose Charvet, (a consultant with a sense of humour!) says that it takes six months to really change a habit.  She suggests you place the new behaviour inside your existing ritual as a way of consistently encouraging you to practise until the change is second nature. It’s like artificially creating your own itch which you then have to scratch.

An example might be someone who wants to reflect more so they give a more emotionally intelligent response than they do habitually. A simple way of helping to achieve the behaviour change could be to wear or carry about them a physical item with reflective qualities, like a silver pendant or small mirror. Every time they find themselves in a situation where the impulse is to respond in their usual way, a quick rub or feel of their reflector would be a way of reminding them to pause and think before answering.

Try it!

What ways can you think of to prompt a desired new behaviour? We already have these types of concepts in our lives such as pop-ups on computer screens and opt-out agreements.

If you want to help nudge people to change their behaviour or simply change your own habits, sample a bar or two from Mrs Mozart and:

  • Identify the itch and do something to pull people or yourself towards it so they want to scratch
  • Ensure capability, capacity and resources are in place to support them or you
  • Allow people the freedom to choose

To do the above involves knowing people or yourself well enough, tapping into preference and desire with genuinely positive intent rather than manipulation. Perhaps for this to work, like Mozart, people need to be driven in the first place and it’s about channelling that driving force in a mutually beneficial direction.

Even if you are tone deaf, be a great coach and unleash the musical talent in others!