The 5 Pillars of Employee Behavior Change: Pillar #1

October 5, 2017

You have high hopes for your employee wellbeing program—you’re going to motivate and inspire your employees to eat healthier, exercise more, quit smoking… well, the list goes on and on. And while you may have good intentions, if you’re like the majority of HR and benefits leaders, you’ve probably seen a bit of a gap between your hopes and reality. It can be hard to get the numbers you’d like to see for enrollment and participation—not to mention lasting engagement and long-term behavior change.

Part of the problem is that many programs neglect the science of behavior change, which minimizes their chances of long-term success.

In this series, we’ll explore the five pillars of behavior change that will help you design an effective employee wellbeing program.

The first pillar focuses on the topic of motivation: How do you inspire employees to take a particular action, both at the outset and then on an ongoing basis?

Pillar #1: Focus on the right kind of motivation

Offering rewards or challenges in exchange for employees doing certain behaviors is a common feature of employee wellbeing platforms, e.g. giving a gift card to any employee who participates in a biometric screening. These tactics can be a great way to inspire employees to take part in healthy behaviors like walking, running, or drinking water instead of soda, and they can of course improve the employee experience and bring employees together. They won’t, however, help you support long-term behavior change or build a sustained culture of wellbeing. That may sound counterintuitive, so let’s explore this.

The first thing to consider is that social challenges and competitions are rooted in extrinsic types of motivation, rather than personal or intrinsic types of motivation. The Self-Determination model of motivation or SDT, is the single most researched and cited model for motivation in the social sciences and public health, and it breaks down motivation into six distinct types and shows how each relates to the likelihood of sustained behavior change. Check out the chart below.


As you can see, competitions fall within the third type of motivation, “introjected regulation,” which means that employees are basically doing the behavior primarily because of a social goal—to beat other people, or simply for the approval of being part of the group.

The problem with this type of motivation isn’t its ability to be a hook to get employees involved in a wellbeing behavior—it does—it’s that it doesn’t naturally lead to the more effective 4th, 5th, and 6th types of motivation which are more personal and lasting. On the right side of the spectrum employees care about the changed behavior themselves because they associate it with their identity, and it becomes an intrinsic motivator, which means they do it because it feels good to do it, not because someone is giving them something for doing it.

When a person starts walking 10,000 steps or eating healthy to lose weight as part of a very public challenge or competition, and they notice they aren’t part of the top 10% or 20%, they often end up judging themselves for not being “as good as” others in the program, or they try to “game the system,” completely forgetting the original goal of improving health. So, either they “fail” or don’t join the program to begin with. Where does that leave you? Your healthiest or most social 10% to 20% of employees stick with the program, while the rest drop out or never join in the first place.

Second, even for those that stick with the challenge or competition for the entire time, research shows that the likelihood employees will stay with those behaviors that were part of the program after it’s over is quite low, for one simple but powerful reason—the challenge or competition was an artificially created reality—and it, too, is over. Most employees go back to their default setting, because the program was never about weaving a new behavior into their personal lives for years to come, it was about who could play the game the best, or win within the given conditions you set up. Once the challenge ends, so does the motivation for doing that behavior.

The best thing you can do is to develop personalized, authentic, intrinsically focused programs that support employees in building healthy habits that will stick with them for life. Give employees the tools and room to change their behavior for reasons they choose. The ideal program is one where an employee chooses a single habit to focus on, and they are obsessively working toward fitting it into their complex lives.

Want to read about all five pillars of employee behavior change in one place? Be sure to download a copy of The 5 Pillars of Employee Behavior Change white paper. Grab your copy here!

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