Employee Behavior Confusing? Asking This Helps

Every day, managers and leaders face the challenge of understanding the motives behind their employees’ actions. They desperately try to understand employee behavior and why they act the way they do. Most days, predicting and motivating their behavior to align with organizational goals seems like an impossible task.

The Cornerstone of Employee Behavior

When it comes to employee behavior and motivation, three fundamental puzzle pieces exist. But let’s concentrate on the foundational element, which I call the “cornerstone of employee behavior” or the “cornerstone concept.”

Cornerstone Concept: All human behavior is driven by the fulfillment of needs.

Now, take a moment to reflect on the ten-word phrase above and try to identify the single most significant word within it.

If you’re like most individuals I ask, you might believe the crucial words are “needs,” “satisfaction,” “behavior,” or “human,” in that order. 

However, I would tell you that all of those are incorrect. Using the process of elimination, you might hesitantly question whether “all” is the pivotal word. And in that moment, you would be correct!

A Small But Power Word

It may be hard to imagine that a tiny three-letter word anchors such an important concept as employee behavior and motivation, but it does. The foundational cornerstone statement does not suggest that “some” or “most” human behavior is directed toward fulfilling needs. It explicitly states that all human behavior is.

Now, that is powerful. Consider it for a moment. “All” encompasses everything we do, say, or think, and what we choose not to do, say, or think. And all of our behavior is driven by a conscious or subconscious attempt to satisfy some need, regardless of whether those needs are real or imagined. This means that literally everything you have done or will do today ultimately aims to fulfill some need.

Think About Your People

And the same is true for the people in your organization. 

Think about a single, common behavior demonstrated by those you lead… they show up for work (most days!)

This typical behavior reflects myriad needs your employees want to fulfill. Some show up for the challenge of their work. Others are there for a sense of belonging. Many are after the experience their position gives them. While others, it’s true, show up just for the money. 

Think about it: One simple behavior is the result of many different needs. 

By extension, common needs, like the need for money, may result in various behaviors. People may choose to work more hours, seek a higher-paying position, secure a line of credit, or possibly even steal to fulfill their need for money.

Are you beginning to see the implications of needs — fulfilled and unfulfilled — on your employees’ motives and actions? 

Now Ask What, Not Why

Managers and leaders who embrace the “cornerstone concept,” find much greater clarity into why their people act the way they do. This insight allows them to ask a better question. “What?” Not why.

“What is the need my employee is trying to fulfill?” “Which need would result in the behavior I’m witnessing?” “How can I do to help them fulfill this need?”

“Why” is a reactive question while “what” is a proactive question. We ask “why” after something happens, so we’re constantly playing defense when asking “why.” When we ask “what,” we’re on the offense, looking and working to make good things happen.

The differences between asking “what” versus “why” are stark. Some managers and leaders are content to ask “why” and then complain that the answers they get are beyond their control. Proactive leaders ask “what” and then move forward expectantly, working alongside their people to help them satisfy their needs. 

Motivating Employee Behavior IS Possible

The results when the cornerstone concept of employee behavior is used? To name just a few:

— employees feel more valued and understood;
— relationships are deeper and more authentic; trust is greater;
— the work environment becomes a win-win-win for employees, leaders, and the organization overall;
— then motivating people to work to achieve organizational goals becomes a very real possibility!

Give it a try! I would love to hear the results of your discovery!

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Photo by Sora Shimazaki

Phillip Van Hooser

Phillip Van Hooser, CSP, CPAE, Founder & Chair, Van Hooser Leadership. A seasoned leadership expert, keynote speaker, and author, Phillip Van Hooser is passionate about developing intentional leaders who can effectively engage and empower their employees to deliver powerful results. His most recent book is “Earning The Right To Be Heard," a primer for creating greater influence and opportunities. Connect with Phil on LinkedIn.


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