How to Motivate Employees to Change by Edwina Pike

Do you ever feel that you, or your change is swimming through treacle? That the organisation is a super tanker that is not turning?

The inertia that forms in organisations can feel like this, especially at times of change.

A lot is written about common goals, having a purpose, doing good and incentives. All great things, but they are not the underlying need that drives us to make choices, as employees.

Knowing what motivates humans in organisations to change allows us to focus our team’s efforts on what works rather than spend time on what doesn’t. It is simple and comes down to just one thing.

Once you know, and can recognise how we make our choices, assessing the risk and building a change strategy or approach becomes easy.

Change is hard

We know humans don’t like change, and that change is ‘tough’. At least it feels tough to us as Change Leaders and Agents.

Yet, we all change constantly, adapting to our technologically enabled worlds. We would not dream of picking up a paper map to navigate or handwriting a letter. We think nothing of booking restaurants, checking the weather, our step counts or video chatting with distant friends on our smartphones.

If you have ever seen how quickly an organisation can adapt, or have seen a team achieve amazing goals, you will know that we have the ability to adapt, if we want to.

The trick is to work out how to motivate humans to overcome the inertia in organisations to change their behaviour.

The Theory

I remember learning the basic equation for motivation in change when I started out as a lowly change agent.

In simple terms, the pain of the current state, or the benefit of the future has to be greater than the effort to get there

If we perceive the effort to change is big, then we need big pain, or a bigger benefit before we will be motivated to change.

Humans hate change

We know from Humans are Predictable that we discount the benefit of bigger things in the future, with a preference for smaller things that we can achieve now.

We also know that humans are biased not to change, we prefer the status quo; think of the effort it takes to move a really heavy rock before it will start rolling.

Which means the current pain or the future benefit has to be pretty big to outweigh our bias to carry on as we are.

Where is the pain?

One of the things I look for in any change is ‘where is the pain’, like a fraud investigator following the money, current pain can be a great motivator to change.

Ask yourself; do you have enough pain or benefit to overcome the inertia of the status quo?

Overcoming the inertia is harder when one team needs to change to benefit another.

I often see this in process improvement projects; the teams that manage the back end of the process have pain and would like to improve what they do which needs consistency, timeliness and quality from another more front facing team. But the front facing team don’t see the pain or the benefit of changing. They believe what they are doing is working and have the performance outcomes to reinforce it.

An early warning sign in any change project is knowing which teams need to change and who sees the pain and/or benefit. If they are different the warning bells should start going off.

What motivates employees

So, why do humans choose to do things differently?

Let us focus on the trigger, the thing that causes the rock to leave its happy place and start moving somewhere new.

This is where one model stands out for me. It is the one that I have seen played out over and over again in the decades that I have been privileged to be a leader and change agent. It quickly gets to the point of inertia or lack of it.

From this model, all change (or not) in organisations suddenly makes sense. I would love to believe that we are looking for a higher purpose, but in reality, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is what I see time and time again.

Hierarchy of Needs

Our physical needs are pretty self-explanatory; Air, water, food and sleep. If these are threatened, then we cannot process to the next level; Safety.

Before civilisation, our biggest threat was predators. To keep ourselves and our families physically, emotionally and financially safe we formed tribes, we built fires and created weapons. Being accepted within the tribe was the price of safety.

Once our basic safety needs were met, we could focus on tribe harmony, success and belonging.

Esteem is our need for Ego and Status within our tribes, being respected and valued by our self and others

The top of the pyramid is the mythical ‘self actualisation’, best described as reaching your full, unconstrained potential. A powerful place.

The pyramid signifies that each layer is the foundation for the next one. If you do not feel safe, you will struggle with belonging, if your do not feel part of the tribe your ego and esteem will be challenged.

How does this apply in organisations?

In our modern world we no longer hunt, farm or build our own dwellings. We buy these. We use money to pay for our houses, our food, our school fees, medical bills and vacations with our families.

Very few of us are lucky enough to have a trust fund, we work to earn the money to keep our families safe.

Our jobs, and the income they bring us have become the crucial factor in our safety and survival.

Which makes change in organisations really simple, we make our first-round choices to ensure our own safety and survival. Threats to our safety become the ‘pain’ which overcomes the inertia of the status quo, triggering action.


How do we feel safe in an organisational context?

As tribal animals we are really good at knowing where we stand in the tribe. We learn this from a young age in our families.

We quickly establish whether it is possible to feel safe in an organisation and if so, who provides the safety for our tribe. This is typically the person with the hiring and firing rights and not necessarily the person who assigns the work.

In the case of union environments or those with collective bargaining, these groups may provide the sense of safety, and become the credible leader for the group.

The Leader < > Follower contract

In the organisational context a simple psychological contract exists between leaders and followers at all levels;

As followers we work to ensure that our boss is successful. In return our leaders ensure our safety, especially in times of change or reorganisations.

We work to please our bosses. To do this we quickly establish what is important to them and focus on that.

We watch six things that leaders do which impact our safety and we interpret what they mean to us.

If a change is important to our boss, we will know and we will adopt the change too. If they are not adopting the change yet, we know, and we won’t risk our safety by getting ahead of them.

When you see resistance in a team, often it is not the team, the leader (us!) is not actively adopting the change, their team know it and do not want to displease them.

Once you see this pattern in your organisation you can quickly assess the root causes of inertia.

The biggest constraint

Ironically, our leadership capacity becomes the biggest constraint to overcoming the inertia to change in any organisation.

As leaders we can only acheive as much as we have the capacity and conviction to authentically lead.

What get prioritised (and measured) gets done

A simple step is to map out what is happening within a leader’s team, what they are prioritising, in name and action.

Map the priorities onto the grid below.

As humans we have a bias towards doing things that are causing us current pain over future opportunities. Where does your change fit on the leader’s grid?

Yes, but!

Surely there must be more to motivation, what about purpose or common goals?

Once safety has been established, a team can achieve great things through a common goal or purpose. A purpose strongly led by their credible leader.

If you have ever seen how quickly a team adapts to a new leader, or the passion of an existing leader you will have seen this in action.

Teams will not take the risk of making a stand if it will be viewed badly by their credible leader. If you have a weak leader, the team will look elsewhere for their safety needs, track these influencers in your stakeholder map.

The credible leader is not supporting the change, what do I do?

The Leader <> Follower contract is still in place. Where does your leader look for their safety needs from? Even a CEO often has a board that they report to, and who have the hiring and/or firing rights.

Help! I have a matrix structure, what do I do?

If one function is looking to bring about change in another function or division, they need to persuade the leader of that function or division to prioritise and actively lead the change. Tough to do with peer to peer influence.

In many organisations the CEO sits at the top of the tree, across all functions. The question becomes, how much does the CEO want the change enough to happen, enough for the head of the function or division that needs to change to know that it is non-negotiable?

I keep being asked to use my ‘influence’ to bring about change in other divisions, can this ever work?

Rarely. The only circumstances are where the leader of the other division is passive or neutral, the team can see their individual benefit and lack of risk.

In today’s world of shrinking organisations and lots of demands, it is becoming harder to find the mental capacity for teams to take on any changes which are not a priority of their boss. Safety rules.

What about incentives?

I don’t like (financial) incentives. Yes I have said it.

One of the most powerful biases is our bias of reciprocity and helping others. Dan Airely points out that you are likely to help a friend or colleague if they ask a favour *but* the minute they offer money for that help, it becomes transactional and you look at the request through very different eyes. One that suggests a financial value to your time. You can never go back to reciprocity as a new baseline has been created, one that implies you only work if paid.

Our human need to be a valued part of a tribe means we give a lot of ourselves without an explicit expectation of financial reward. This is evidenced by the millions who volunteer, run clubs for others, coach football teams, mentor those less fortunate. For free.

One of the simplest and most effective incentives is one we learn as a child; pleasing our parents. It works organisationaly too. Assuming we are feeling psychologically safe, a ‘well done’ from our boss goes a long way to raising our esteem and self-worth, we feel valued. It costs nothing.


  • In times of change, our safety is the first factor in motivation and risk taking.

  • Organisational safety is provided by those who have the hiring and firing rights over us, our credible leader.

  • We work to please our credible leader.

  • If it is our leaders priority, it becomes ours.

  • Your change will be successful if it is the credible leaders priority


We have analytical tools to help you assess the scale of the challenges you face.

Our Humans Are Predictable tool (pdf, excel) looks at both the leader behaviour and target adoption. Use it to predict your chances of success

Use the Six things tool (pdf) to measure what leaders are doing now, and what they need to do in the future. Use it to change the conversation with your credible leaders.


Edwina Pike has spent over two decades successfully designing, leading and implementing complex transformations in a FTSE10 organisation. Her passions for understanding why humans change, how to deliver value through behaviour change and the impact of leadership, have led to insights which are useful to us all. Now sought after as a leadership coach and transformation adviser Edwina can be found at her advisory business Pike Squared or writing for her coaching business The Change Wizard.