Survival, Inertia and Apathy: Motivation in Times of Change


What is motivation, and what happens to it during a business transformation?

MOTIVE noun ˈmō-tiv : something (as a need or desire) that causes a person to act

Motivation is simply the drive that moves us to take an action. These drives might be physical (to have a drink of water when we are thirsty); intellectual (to read a book when we are bored); or emotional (to call a friend when we’re feeling sad). As humans, we’re motivated to do what we believe is in our best interests. Sometimes that results in positive achievements; sometimes in (retrospectively) stupid mistakes.

Our beliefs about what our best interests really are can make motivation during times of change particularly challenging for an organization. When a new direction is announced, and involves potentially painful changes like reorganizations, staffing changes or business process restructurings, a quite complex web of motivations can arise:

Employees may feel their ‘best interest’ is simply to survive the change

Department managers may feel their ‘best interest’ is to keep delivering results at any cost – and to survive the change

Senior leadership may feel that their ‘best interest’ is to avoid being blamed if the promised results don’t happen – and to survive the change

But how do you keep an organization moving forward when motivations are evolving, and so many people are going into ‘survival’ mode?

Establishing new direction

As a leader during a business transformation effort, establishing a new direction doesn’t mean simply announcing a new strategy and then walking away as if the business will just continue as usual and the changes will magically appear. It means putting a process in place which encourages and supports each individual as they define what the new business direction means to them.

This isn’t ‘touchy-feely, sing kumbaya’ stuff. It’s about helping employees understand their role in the transformation, how it will affect them, and what they can do to move forward – because it’s only by helping them understand these things that the business change will achieve the ROI that it should. After all, it’s the people in the equation who make or break a transformation.

Removing barriers

The number of barriers the organization faces depends on the nature of the business change. Barriers to change can be as simple as ensuring everyone in a specific department has adequate education in a new technology, or as complex as inspiring an entire organization buys into a whole new strategic vision and approach to the marketplace. Either way, they need to be taken seriously.

Engaging the individuals who are involved in or creating the barriers is the first step to easing them. You can motivate a department to become engaged in new technology by helping them understand how it will make their work lives easier; you can motivate an organization to become engaged in a new strategic vision by helping them understand how it will drive their long-term career goals and security.

Providing support

A key role for change leaders is to provide support to the team as they change the way they operate on a day-to-day basis. Supporting individuals means listening, empathizing, and concentrating on their progress through a change. By providing assistance, feedback and counsel, you’re helping them to see that their ‘best interests’ really do involve moving forward with the changes – and that helps keep them motivated to continue.

Remember: Support may also involve reiterating why a change is being implemented, what the goals of the change are, and why the timing of the change is important. This will help drive motivation.

Good leadership = Good motivation

Except that ‘announcing’ a change isn’t the same as ‘leading’ one. Leadership during a change requires a leader who is actively and visibly engaged during the entire process; someone who is seen to be removing barriers, providing support, and communicating the process in a credible way. When leaders do this, individuals become more and more motivated to work towards a goal which doesn’t just benefit ‘management’ or ‘the company’, but their own best interests as well.


Beth Banks Cohn
Beth Banks Cohn
BETH is dedicated to helping individuals and companies implement business changes that actually work. Beth believes in the ripple effect – that change handled well benefits everyone in an organization, over and over again. As a recognized expert in change as well as corporate culture, Beth consults domestically and internationally with a wide range of disciplines and businesses. Beth is the author of two books: ChangeSmart™: Implementing Change Without Lowering your Bottom Line and Taking the Leap: Managing Your Career in Turbulent Times…and Beyond (with Roz Usheroff).

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  1. Why are we motivated to brush are teeth? Is it because it is in our best interest to not have tooth decay?


    Because it’s a habit we do every day, a habit that makes us feel we’re doing good when we do it? After all, aren’t those people on TV in the toothpaste commercials really attractive and sexy? Don’t we brush our teeth so we can be beautiful too?