Motivating for Behaviour Change

This article was originally written and posted in January 2008. It is still just as relevant today in 2012 as it was in 2008.


Presenting a full-day strategic program to business people and executives in northern Queensland, a very fine person, who had immersed himself thoroughly in the learning throughout the day, asked: “It’s the end of the month, sales are below budget and we have a week to kick it along. How can I motivate my sales force to get the orders needed to make budget?”

My response was blunt, “If the business has not met its sales targets this month, then the problem lay with the activity, or inactivity, that occurred three to six months ago. Anything you do today, in the short-term, will produce minimal results, be short-lived and fallowed.”

But his question was nothing new. I repeatedly am asked to consult to organisations to improve ‘motivation’. Motivation is a driving force! It is driving management to seek more new effective ways of coercing people to meet the output considered necessary for the organisation to meet its corporate objectives. It is driving HR managers to seek new diagnostics or psychometric tests that may provide the holy grail of perfecting recruitment and retention.

And, if you want to label me a ‘strong D’ or a ‘green’ or an ‘INTJ on the cusp of Capricorn’, you had better do it with a running head start! To be valid, a behavioural or psychological test must have demonstrated construct, content and concurrent validity, the proof of which must have been published in scientific, refereed journals. Most of the popular tests on the market do not pass those criteria and a clinical psychologist wouldn’t dare to offer them.

Motivation is also driving an entire industry of business coaches, authors, speakers and training companies to sell the latest fad, convinced that it will bring ‘superman’ results to the client organisation whilst making gold for these providers.

  • “How can I motivate my staff to make more sales?”
  • “What do we do with employees who have lost motivation?”
  • “How do you motivate the older staff to adopt new technology?”


These questions are premised in the context of how they are framed; that people can be externally motivated by extrinsic forces. Motivation can be extrinsic or intrinsic and the effects can be long-term, short-term and anywhere in-between.

There are three assumptions that nearly everyone (mistakenly) makes about motivation.

1. All employees are alike.

That is, people are motivated by money (or other economic gains), pleasant environment, and aspire to be self-actualising.

2. All situations are alike.

That all managerial situations are the same, the ‘quantitative cure-all’ course of action for motivation will be applicable to all situations, and all employee behaviour once diagnosed can be compartmentalised into neat boxes and labelled.

3. There is one best way.

From the two previous assumptions there emerges a basic tenet that there is ‘one best way’ to motivate employees. Ask any sporting coach, if she uses just one methodology to motivate each and every team member? I don’t think so.


So what does influence behavioural change in an organisation? Behaviour is determined by a combination of driving forces in the individual and in the environment! Three considerations that must be recognised and clearly understood to achieve positive outcomes in behavioural change are these:

  1. People make decisions about their own behavior in organisations.
  2. Different people have different types of needs, desires and goals.
  3. People make decisions among alternative plans of behaviour based on their perceptions and expectancies of the degree to which a given behaviour will lead to desired outcomes.


So the shock of it is, as if we didn’t already know, that people make their own decisions about how they themselves will act to achieve their personal objectives based upon what they believe will be the best way to get results for themselves in what they think is the most effective manner to them.

What are the implications for managers of people? When the manager, team leader or supervisor has determined what kinds of behaviour is desired, there are three steps to proceed forward in ‘motivating’ behavioural change in organisations:

  1. Establish what outcomes each employee values.
  2. Ensure desired levels of performance are reachable.
  3. Link desired outcomes to desired performances


Many managers are misled about the behaviour of their staff because they rely on their own perceptions of the situation and forget to find out what the employees feel. And there is only one remedy: Ask!

Money does not motivate, the lack of money is a de-motivator, but money in itself is not a motivating force. If you have unhappy, poorly trained, unskilled employees, giving them a pay rise will not change their behaviour. You will just have ‘higher-paid’ unhappy, poorly trained, unskilled employees.

Fred would value one Friday afternoon each month as free-time to attend his daughters’ school sports days. Jennifer would value the company purchasing a ‘raspberry e-mail phone apparatus’ to allow her to be more efficient with customer orders and delivery logistics without habitually returning to her office. While Neville would value being able to attend external training programs to improve his potential success for future promotion.

In general, the motivation to attempt to behave in a certain way is greatest when:

  1. The individual believes that the behavior will lead to outcomes.
  2. The individual believes that these outcomes have a positive value for her.
  3. The individual believes that she is able to perform at the desired level


If you want to change the course of a cruise ship, you don’t get off and start pushing. You must allow enough space to compensate for the current momentum, and then simply adjust a few controls on the bridge. It’s the people at the controls who are the key. Understanding people is the key to motivating behavioural change.


© Ric Willmot 2008 All rights reserved.

Views: 2013

Comment by Karen Schmidt on May 25, 2012 at 9:43

yes, the frustration of every consultant is the client who thinks we can fix in 1 day what they have spent months or years doing wrong. 

Comment by Jonathon Woolfrey on May 25, 2012 at 11:41
Focus on the individual as everyone is not the same! Sounds simple enough, but amazingly hard for people to apply in the workplace.

Enjoyed the post Ric, thanks for your insights.

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