Why, of course: How to influence employee behavior

Your phone chimes, alerting you to a new email. You quickly discover it’s from a former coworker and read the first few lines: “I am participating in a fundraiser for [insert cause]. Will you donate?” Though you don’t delete the email immediately, you close the message because you know its exact purpose: to get you to donate. You’ll think about it, or, more likely, you’ll start thinking of rational-sounding reasons not to contribute.

Imagine, instead, if you open the email and you’re greeted with the following introduction: “June 5th started off like any other day, but it ended with a life-changing diagnosis.” ‘Whoa, where is this going?’ you think. As you continue reading, you learn that your former coworker is fighting a serious illness and is raising money for the cause. You reach for your wallet, inspired to support an old colleague.

What exactly was the difference between the two messages?

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Let’s get scientific for a moment with some human biology (yes, biology, not psychology).

Our neocortex – the most evolved part of the brain – is the area responsible for language and rational thinking, like logic and reason.

Our limbic system – our monkey brain – is the part of our brain that’s responsible for our emotions, feelings, and instincts. It may not surprise you to learn that it’s also responsible for all human behavior and decision-making, but did you know that it also has no capacity for language?

In other words, the part of the brain that controls behavior and decision-making is not connected to the part of the brain that processes language. This is why pro/con lists don’t really help you make better decisions, why you get “gut feelings,” and why you can’t trust others (or yourself) to accurately describe the reason you do anything you do.

If you want to influence people or drive behavior, you need to speak directly to the limbic system.

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Let’s reflect back on the emails. The first example opened with what (donate), an ask processed by the neocortex. Alternatively, the second example started with why (someone needs you), triggering the decision-making limbic system. Author Simon Sinek discusses this concept in depth in his book, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. After studying innovative and influential leaders, Sinek determined the factor that set exceptional individuals apart from the rest: they started with why, a move that enabled them to influence people around them naturally – no manipulation required.

How can organizations use this concept to enhance the employer-employee relationship? To start,  when it comes to hiring, you can choose the employee whose goal is to make money (what: cha-ching $$$) or the employee who believes in your company’s mission (why: an alignment of purpose). Whats tend to remain on the surface, whereas whys go much deeper; they influence the things that shape human behavior. If a person supports your why, they’ll instinctually back your what.

Consider how this concept applies to employee conduct, especially your policies and procedures. The core purpose of these policies is to create a less litigious more compliant and harmonious workplace by influencing behavior. At a minimum, you want employees to sign their handbook acknowledgement form, but is that enough to truly accomplish your goal? Ideally, employees will actually read, understand, and act in accordance with your policies.

What if, rather than diving head-first into the pool of whats (rules, rules, and more rules), you started by emphasizing your why? This can be accomplished by sharing your mission, vision, values, and/or why your company was created in the first place. If employees are on board with your company’s why, the whats will fall into place. It doesn’t have to stop there! You should even start with why within each of your policies so employees don’t think you’re just telling them what they can and cannot do.

Let’s say your company’s paid time off policy doesn’t allow employees to roll time over from one year to the next. If you wanted to get right to it, you could write that PTO rollover is not permitted, end of story. However, why did your company determine this policy was best? Maybe, rather than risking burnout, you encourage employees to regularly take time off to do things they love because refreshed and balanced employees are happier, healthier people. If that part – why – is stated first, the policy transforms from these-are-the-rules-and-you-better-abide-by-them to oh-wow-they-care-about-my-wellbeing.

Wordsmithing isn’t your only option here; you can also use design to speak to the why part of the brain. The whole point of branding is to prime an audience to be more receptive to a message. Design is like a superpower that allows you to subconsciously generate specific desired emotions and feelings in readers by directly tapping into the why part of the brain.

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Ultimately, people act in ways that align with their beliefs – their personal whys. Humans like to make justifiable and rational choices; if someone agrees with your why, selling what becomes almost effortless. By emphasizing what you believe, and why others should care, you’ll attract people with similar viewpoints.   

You want your employee handbook to be informative while promoting compliance with company policies. If you start with what, your employees will be given the necessary information, but it won’t directly impact their choices. If, alternatively, you start with why, you’ll appeal to the part of the brain that drives behavior – your goal in the first place. Why wait?

Drew Dotson

Drew Dotson

Drew enjoys eating cheese, cuddling with dogs, doing puzzles, and watching sports. She is passionate about raising awareness (and funds) for cystic fibrosis.


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