What’s Their Motivation? Making Sense of Workplace Behavior

Jeff Graddy

How many times a week do you ask the question, “Why do they keep doing that?” about someone else’s behavior at work?

We often find ourselves bewildered at other people’s insistence on behaving in a manner that has repeatedly led them to fail. Or at a minimum, they waste time and energy and annoy everyone around them.

Why do they keep acting that way? Why do they still approach it like that? Why can’t they see that it is still not going to work? Don’t they know that drives me nuts?

Sound familiar?

The reason people don’t change, even when it means repeated failure, is that something about the situation is actually WORKING for them. They keep acting that way because it accomplishes something for them, even if that “something” is not clear to you.

Without getting too Freudian – there are always multiple underlying motivations for any action – and although you might believe that they should be motivated by Thing 1, they may actually (and sometimes not very knowingly) be more motivated by Thing 2.

Put the shoe on the other foot for a minute: has anyone recently challenged you or your actions? If they did, I bet in your own head you had a perfectly reasonable explanation for why you did what you did. Your behavior probably made 100% sense to you, given your view of things.

And this is the same dynamic that occurs in the minds of those you work with who seem so good at frustrating you!

The reason people don’t change, even when it means repeated failure, is that something about the situation is actually WORKING for them. They keep acting that way because it accomplishes something for them, even if that “something” is not clear to you.

For example: your employee is known to make crude jokes and is regularly abrasive towards his coworkers. He does so even though he has been warned by HR to quit the tasteless comments and you have coached him to be more collaborative. Why would he keep doing such things even though his job may be in jeopardy (or at least his promotion chances are taking a nose dive)?

Maybe because being a jerk to people he works with makes him feel superior and aloof. And if he were seriously self-reflective for a few seconds he would have to admit his performance isn’t as good as it could be if he worked better with others.

Further, his abrasive approach to working with others isn’t helping their department be successful either (which he secretly enjoys, since by comparison his area looks to be doing “ok”).

It seems “obvious” to outsiders that his job security or career growth should be the big motivator to change his ways. Unfortunately, however, human nature is at work. For this guy, his need to feel superior and cover up his insecurity with boorish behavior is the more powerful underlying motivator, overpowering the rational idea that he should change his behavior before he gets fired.

So even though it might seem irrational or dumb to you, his behavior is serving a purpose!

It’s true that sometimes people know exactly what they’re doing when they act in a way that is not friendly, productive, or ideal. For example, some people will purposefully throw a colleague under the bus to look good in front of their boss. But just as often people are unaware of their own motivators, especially the ones deeply held and life-long in nature.

So before you write someone off as evil-hearted or political when they make you look bad in front of others, you might confront them in a genuine effort to raise their awareness about the impact of their behavior.

This approach may sound a little too “kumbaya” for you (“Seriously? He wants me to talk to them about their motivations, as if they’ll admit they’re insecure and didn’t mean to blurt out it was all my fault in front of the whole room!”). However, it’s worth a try before you permanently write someone off as your mortal enemy, and beget all of the unproductive activity that comes with those kinds of workplace relationships.

Next time someone acts inexplicably – think about what the underlying motivation might be for them and see if there is a way to tackle the real issue. Or at least perhaps you might help them see past the easy explanation to the more insightful (and useful) explanation. This usually isn’t easy or comfortable, but having deeper insight into motivations will certainly make you better at leading and influencing others.

Remember, just because a behavior doesn’t make sense or you can’t figure out why one acts a certain way, doesn’t mean there isn’t a reason. And that reason probably makes perfect sense if you looked at it from the other person’s worldview.



Art by: Des-Fan

Jeff Graddy, Ph.D. is an executive coach and leadership consultant who works with senior leaders and their teams enhance individual and organizational performance by focusing on psychology and human behavior. He began his career in clinical work, then migrated to sport psychology consulting, and eventually settled into corporate psychology, where for the last 10 years has been lucky enough to serve premiere clients across the globe helping them drive business results through better people strategies.

  • Jeff, a terrific book I recommend to everyone I meet is Chip & Dan Heath’s book Switch – gets to the heart of this and relationships in general

  • Jeff, this is outstanding advice. I think we’ve all gotten our dander up and wanted to write someone off as just evil, because of something they’ve done to us or something we’ve witnessed they’ve done to others. But you’re absolutely right: that way of thinking, even if we’re justified, is certainly not going to make our working lives better at all. And you’re also wise to point out that few people are actually evil, as we perceive them when they cross us. Most people who do bad things do them for reasons of their own – even if those reasons are, indeed, dysfunctional.

    Terrific post! Thanks for adding to the conversation.

  • Jeff, a colleague likes to say, be nice to others. You never know what they are dealing with in their world. It reminds me to do what you advocate and to seek to understand the other person’s world before judging. Great wisdom you share with us. Thank you.

  • Name

    great article, been feeling this for some time. The rub is, these people become leaders and influential people in the workplace and their behavior is sometimes abetted. I just wish for once that the company would ask the PEOPLE whether or not so-and-so would be a good crew leader before crowning them.

  • McPherson Consulting

    From an HR perspective, a part of the problem is that you can’t change behaviour with training programs that target behaviour. We’ve known this in educational psychology for a half a century. For some reason many HR-centric training programs haven’t graduated to the use of cognitive and constructivist training for changing behaviour. You’ve done a great job in this article hitting the critical point: changing behaviour has to start with incorporating new ideas into existing schema. It’s not enough to tell someone that they’ll lose their job if a particular behaviour doesn’t change; you have to train with attention to the thoughts, beliefs and feelings the employee possesses. In a more general way, I review the trouble with the HR approach, and the lessons to be learned from a century of ed psych research, here: http://mcphersonconsulting.ca/changing-behaviour-without-behaviourism/

  • Dear McPherson Con, I think I am dumb, but I just can’t understand your comment. You appearto be contradicting yourself at every line. …Phew..

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