Understanding the fundamentals of behaviour change

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Recent research in psychology, behavioural economics and even psychotherapy is all pointing towards one fundamental rule of behaviour change - context matters. Organisational psychologists have found that contextual factors (what happens in the workplace outside the training or coaching room) are actually more important in ensuring development happens than the quality of the training, workshop or coaching. 

Governments have caught on too. By changing the information presented to people, making indirect suggestions, and even using incentives, governments have found that they can influence people’s choices without coercing them. The US and UK governments now have dedicated departments that successfully use the behavioural economics theory of nudging to encourage people to engage in behaviours such as pay their taxes, eat healthy, and donate their organs.

So for organisations trying to change people’s behaviour and improve their performance, context is an important factor and a potentially powerful lever for change. But the challenge for organisations and leaders is that context can include many things: from office design to someone’s internal blockers and drivers, numerous factors can affect development and behaviour change. The mere range of factors can seem overwhelming for leaders without any rules or framework to hold on to.

Through our research across academic fields, however, my co-author of the book Changing Employee Behaviour Nik Kinley and I have found four key factors which can be easily influenced, give rise to specific rules and techniques, and have been shown significantly to affect someone’s chance of changing their behaviour successfully. Understanding them allows you to adapt and fine tune the context of behaviour change that is so important in determining the success of development. The four factors of the MAPS model are MOTIVATION, ABILITY, PSYCHOLOGICAL CAPITAL and SUPPORTING ENVIRONMENT.

1. Motivation

Motivation is an often discussed topic when it comes to people’s behaviour and justifiably so - generally, research is unanimous that if people do not want to change, then the chances are they won’t. Motivation comes from two sources: our internal feelings that something is fulfilling or enjoyable (intrinsic motivation) or external factors such as rewards, praise, recognition or the threat of punishment (extrinsic motivation). 

In recent years we have seen a spate of popular books and TED talks on intrinsic motivation. And with good reason – there is no end to the psychological research highlighting its importance. But extrinsic motivators, though often criticised, can be powerful tools for change too, especially when intrinsic motivation is lacking. 

2. Ability 

Ability is a fundamental consideration in behaviour change. People need to know what they have to do, how to do it, and be able perform the behaviour. It may seem basic and straight forward but a behaviour change will hardly come off the ground if it were to be disregarded. Research and common sense dictates that three things have to be in place for this MAPS factor:

  • Opportunity – whether someone’s role provides the opportunity to perform the new, desired behaviour.
  • Capability – whether someone has the necessary skills and knowledge to perform the behaviour.
  • Resources – whether someone has the physical resources required to learn and perform the new behaviour – any equipment, time and money they may need.

3. Psychological capital 

The third element – psychological capital – has been studied by psychologists for over a decade. It is critical for sustaining behaviour change and fortunately it is developable, especially with the help of a manager. It consists of two key inner resources: believing you can succeed (having self confidence and optimism) and having the inner strength to see things through (having willpower and resilience). So it is all about whether people have the self belief they need to take on the challenge of developing themselves. It is about whether individuals will persevere, put in the necessary effort and, when necessary, adapt their approach in order to succeed. And it is about whether people have the resilience required to cope with the inevitable setbacks and challenges. 

4. Supporting environment 

The final element in our model is the external supporting environment – the things outside of an individual. This can include many different things from team dynamics to how things are going at home. There are, however, three particular external factors that can both have a big influence on people’s ability to develop and that can easily be improved or changed by a manager and an individual:

  • The power of the social - research from dieting to gamification has taught us that if a behaviour change is tackled social support should always be in place (peers, manager, buddy systems) and social pressures (e.g. competition, recognition, social norms) need to be conducive to the desired change. 
  • Choice architecture - using the power of nudging allows us to use features of the environment to influences peoples’ choices without coercing them – this is true not only for governments but also business leaders and managers. 
  • Habits - a lot of our behaviours are routine ways of behaving, depending on triggers and reinforcers. Using research on habits, we can understand the basic rules of habits which form the backbone of behaviour change and use this in our favour.


Ultimately, the fundamental rule of behaviour change – that context matters – is often overlooked. But acknowledging it offers a whole host of solutions and techniques for developing people more effectively that are often not used in people development in businesses. The MAPS model is a framework that lives and breathes this fundamental rule and it identifies the crucial factors research has shown are essential and which we can influence using practical techniques. 

Professor Shlomo Ben-Hur and Nik Kinley are the co-authors of Changing Employee Behaviour: A Practical Guide for Managers.


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