Originally published on Forbes.com.
“I love you Lady Gaga,” choked a trembling little monster at Lady Gaga’s Monster Ball show I attended in Chicago on February 29, 2011. The spotlight was on the ecstatic winner of the Virgin Mobile promotion, in which a fan has the opportunity to speak to Mother Monster.
“I love you too,” replied Lady Gaga with the familiarity and conviction of a mother dropping off her daughter at ballet class. It was the obvious answer. Lady Gaga’s unusually strong bond with her fans is one of the reasons she is the highest-ranked musician in Forbes’ list of most powerful celebrities.
But a hip injury and surgery recently forced Lady Gaga out of the spotlight for almost 6 months. During this period, she told ABC’s Good Morning America, “It was challenging to stop performing. That was the hardest part, not seeing the fans.”
We know how much we need to love our cultural heroes. But they need us too, as many musicians have found out when they’ve lost face-to-face contact with their audiences. Take the Beatles. In 1966 they stopped performing live, thinking it would be great to explore sounds in the studio that they could not recreate live. They were sick of not being able to hear themselves play and took the presence of the screaming fans for granted. The Beatles made wonderful music in the studio, but they lost the energizing connection with their audience.
In the summer of 1968, film producer Dennis O’Dell suggested to the Beatles that they perform live in front of a small invited audience for the “Hey Jude” promotional clip. O’Dell told writer Steve Matteo he had thought, “If I could only get these guys together with an audience, to do it would be wonderful.” He was right. O’Dell recalled, “Collectively they said, ‘Denis this was a great evening. Now we must talk about doing a big show together.’” The experience of performing live in front of an audience reenergized the Beatles for a bit, though perhaps too late to make a difference in their ultimate demise.
In Lady Gaga’s case, she sustained her motivation while recovering from her surgery by thinking about her fans. “I thought about nothing but my fans every minute since that [Born This Way Ball] tour ended,” she told ABC. The single she released last week, “Applause,” corroborates her account and serves as a tribute to the power of being loved. In it, she sings “I live for the way that you cheer and scream for me / The applause, applause, applause.”
Research on other occupations tells us that musicians are not alone in experiencing a motivational boost from interaction with those who benefit from their work. A series of studies conducted by Wharton professor Adam Grant, author of Give and Take, sheds light on why contact with audience is so important to musicians. In settings that range from call centers and mail-order pharmacies to swimming pool lifeguard squads, Grant and his colleagues showed that direct interaction with the people who benefit from their work increases employee’s productivity and helps sustain their motivation.
In one study, a mere five-minute interaction with a scholarship recipient who benefited from their work increased the number of calls made by university fund raisers, doubled the amount of time they spent on each call, and tripled the amount of money they raised. The results were surprisingly strong. A month following the interaction, callers spent more than two times as many minutes on the phone and brought in vastly more money: a weekly average of $503.22, up from $185.94 before the intervention.
In another study, Grant found that life guards were more motivated by reading accounts of how their work saves lives than of how being a life guard is personally beneficial, as measured by number of hours worked.
According to Grant, contact with people who benefit from their work makes people feel that their work has a higher level of significance. People often wonder whether artists at Lady Gaga’s level of fame and fortune do what they do for the money. What they overlook is the importance of doing it for the love. As Keith Richards wrote, no matter how difficult things get in The Rolling Stones, performing live is what keeps him going, “The real release is getting on stage. Once we’re up there doing it, it’s sheer fun and joy.”
I believe Lady Gaga when she says her fans sustain her motivation. “The monsters are my medicine,” she said in an interview. “They heal me, physically and emotionally, every night at the show.”
And I see an important lesson for any kind of organization. Enabling workers to experience the positive impact they have on others can help sustain their enthusiasm and drive for work. That’s why organizations should make sure that their employees have the experience of applause. They should interact with or read testimonials from the people who benefit from their companies’ products and services.