Work Motivation and Behavior Modification: A Practical Guide

Some pictures illustrate actions where motivation is fairly obvious. But in this case, there are three very different motivations.

 By Murray Johannsen, September 15, 2014. Updated Oct 1, 2017. Feel free to connect with the author on LinkedinGoogle+ or by email.

There are many theories of human motivation but you really need to know just a few. Discover the most important one, the one you must know—behavior modification.

Behavioral Modification (psych speak for operant conditioning) is a psychological term signifying the association of a behavior with its consequences. Most people will be more familiar with the term behavior modification so that is what will be used here.

Why Learn Behavioral Modification

The beauty of the behavior modification lies in the following:

It’s Practical.  The theory can be applied in the real world.

It allows for Prediction. Based on a set of consequences, we can make a judgment call on

It’s Useful in Many Contexts. You are not only looking a theory that works in humans, it words in animals.

It Works. There have been thousands of studies on it. It not some flaky pop psych assessment or theory cooked up by someone trying to get rich by writing the book.

It’s Learnable. Yes, their is some jargon but most of the time you are using common English.

It’s Adaptable. While not something a strict behaviorist will endorse, you can modify operant condition to explain likely intrinsic  motivation.

There are many theories of motivation. Actually, it seems like very motivation psychologist wants to create another one. This lead to  moment of frustration a few years ago.
“I remember a many years ago sitting in a class on human motivation with a professor who forced us to read about every published theory on motivation published in the scholarly journals over the past 70 years. Finally, toward the end of the class one courageous (and desperate) student went ahead and asked him, “Of the many theories we have covered, which two or three are the most important to learn and to apply?” The professor gave an ambiguously ambiguous answer which went, “They are all important since each one has been thoroughly researched.” — Murray Johannsen, Personal story

This led to my search for a set of theories that one can learn and apply in the real world. And I’m glad to say that I found the answer. 

The ABC’s of Behavior Modification

This diagram summarizes the essence of operant conditioning from a practical standpoint. One would want to change either the antecedents or the consequences. Diagram by: Murray Johannsen


Many people have contributed to this theory, the best known being the Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner. Technically, the operant is the association between the behavior and it’s consequences. 

For Types of Antecedents Useful in Triggering Behavior

Antecedents serve as external stimuli that remind us to take action. For convenience they are lumped into four categories:

  • Prompts,
  • Goals,
  • Feedback and
  • Modeling.

Two Types of Work Behaviors To Be Concerned About 

To the behaviorist, behavior falls into two categories:

  • Desired or
  • Undesired.

In this case, perception is everything. A parent’s desired behavior of completing school homework is a child’s undesired behavior. Some people think there is third category called, “I don’t care.”

For example, we might see someone walking down the street who throws a cigarette on the ground. But since it’s a “I don’t care,” behavior, we do not act to modify that person’s behavior.

Money is known as a general reinforcer and one of the most powerful consequences we know about.

How Consequences Work

A consequence is the motivational energy that either positive or negative:

You might say that motivation fills the mind with energy, the same way gasoline powers a car. No gas, no go — no motivation, no behavior. A conditioning consequence provides that energy.

In the article called “Leveraging The Power of Thank You,” by Susan Meisinger presents a number of examples where executives missed opportunities to use a heart-felt thank you to positively reinforce the behavior that they want. It’s as if they were blind to the fact that all of us like to hear a kind word on occasion.

I remember a personal example of this. A medical director at a large medical group, once told me that he had a boss he never saw and rarely heard from. However, this person would call whenever this medical director screwed-up — and he very rarely made mistakes. So he rarely ever heard from him. I remember him telling me, “You know, the money hardly seems worth it when you never hear a kind word.” This suggests some executives don’t understand or don’t know how to use the power of positive reinforcement.

So remember this very simple heuristic, it works almost all the time (nothing ever works 100 percent of the time with humans). It goes, if you want to increase the likelihood or frequency of seeing a desired behavior occur again, positively reinforcement it. This is one of the five major consequences you can use to change behavior

And, if we know how to change antecedents and consequences, we can influence the ability to learn skills. It’s commonly used as part of a learning program to provide the motivation driving the learning of skills.


A lead hardware engineer, a lead software engineer, and their project manager are taking a walk outdoors during their lunch break when they come upon an old brass lamp. They pick it up and dust it off. Poof–out pops a genie. “Thank you for releasing me from my lamp-prison. I can grant you 3 wishes. Since there are 3 of you I will grant one wish to each of you.” The hardware engineer thinks a moment and says, “I’d like to be sailing a yacht across the Pacific, racing before the wind, with an all-girl crew.” “It is done,” said the Genie, and poof, the hardware engineer disappears. The software engineer thinks a moment and says, “I’d like to be riding my Harley with a gang of beautiful women throughout the American Southwest.” “It is done,” said the Genie, and poof, the software engineer disappears. The project manager looks at where the other two had been standing and rubs his chin in thought. Then he tells the Genie, “I’d like those two back in the office after lunch.”

In this joke, there is also consequences that drive behaviors. While it is clear what the employees wanted, can you identify the consequences that drove the manger’s behavior?



Take An Online Class To Learn the Practical Elements of Behavioral Medication

CLICK on the image above to find out more about a how one can get the theory of behavior modification by taking an online class. Clicking on this image will take you to the learning site called the Legacee Academy.

References on Operant Conditioning

Brown, Paul (1982). Managing Behavior on the Job. New York: John Wiley and Company.

Donaldson, Les (1980). Behavioral Supervision: Practical Ways to Change Unsatisfactory Behavior and Increase Productivity. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing.

Journal of Organizational Behavior Management. New York: The Haworth Press.

Kazdin, Alan (1989). Behavior Modification in Applied Settings, 4th Edition. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing.

Kopelman, R. E. (1986). Managing Productivity in Organizations: A Practical People Orientated Perspective. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Mager, R. F. & Pipe, P. (1984). Analyzing Performance Problems, 2nd Ed. Belmont, CA: Lake Publishers. 

Yukl, G. A. (1981). Leadership in Organizations. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall

Petri, Herbert and Govern, John (2013). Motivation: Theory, Research and Application, 6th Edition., Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

Schwartz, B. and Lacey, H. (1982). Behaviorism, Science and Human Nature. New York: Norton. 

Wikipedia, Operant Conditioning.

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