Motivation is not the answer

Leaders commonly cite motivation as the main barrier for their team members to change. If people can be motivated somehow, it will fix all the problems. But this is a simplistic approach for a complex problem.

Research in human behavior has shown that there are other possible factors that can hinder the implementation of a new action. The COM-B model was developed by Susan Michie, Maartje van Stralen, and Robert West in 2011. Behavioral scientists widely use this model to diagnose the possible barriers to any action.

COM-B Model

The combination of the following 3 barriers can hinder any desired behavior:

1. Capabilities: A person’s physical or mental ability to perform the behavior.

2. Opportunities: Anything in the physical or social environment that may encourage or discourage a behavior.

3. Motivations: Refer to internal reflective and automatic mechanisms that activate or inhibit a behavior.  

Let’s take an example. With the new ways of working, managers are now expected to act like a coach. They are supposed to be servant leaders who trust and empower their team members and create a psychologically safe team environment. But if they cannot deliver on this expectation, is it that they are not “motivated” enough?

Capabilities or Opportunities?

Let’s review this expectation from the lens of the COM-B framework. 

Lack of capabilities? Do they know what specific actions they need to take as a coach? How is it different from acting like a manager, which they have been conditioned to do for decades?

Lack of opportunities? When should they demonstrate the new behaviors? Is it in team meetings, over emails, chats, or in 1-on-1 discussions? Are these managers occupied with their own project targets and don’t find time to coach team members?

Solution: Action Nudges

Action nudges can address the capability and opportunity barriers to a large extent. These nudges can convert a broad skill like being a coach into a set of micro-actions anybody can take. For example, simple micro-actions like “as a team lead, allow every team member to share their views in a team meeting” or “share your own failure with the team” can build a psychologically safe team environment. As these are small actions, they also seem more achievable. Similarly, using technology, these nudges can be sent at the time of decision-making, e.g. just before a team meeting to remind people of the upcoming opportunity to show the desired behavior. 

How can you identify the main barrier?

You can only discover the root cause when you see people in the flow of work. Focus group interviews can help but observing them in action will get you the most insights. Training programs will only provide the necessary knowledge but not bridge the knowing-doing gap. People should “feel” that they have the capability to show the desired behavior. Moreover, with their busy life and multiple expectations, they should not miss the opportunities to show these new behaviors. 


Before assuming lack of motivation is the main barrier to any behavior, check and rule out lack of capabilities and opportunities.

Image Credit:Photo by Fab Lentz on Unsplash


HR Specialist Gaurav Patel writes on Behavior Science, motivation and performanceGaurav Patel is an experienced Human Resources leader, having worked across four different industries. He began his career at Accenture before taking on leadership roles focused on culture transformations, mergers and acquisitions, and change management in multinational organizations like DBS Bank, Sony Pictures, and Roche Products. An alumnus of XLRI Jamshedpur, he has worked in India, Singapore, United Kingdom, and is currently based in London. He is deeply passionate about utilizing behavioral science to enhance workplace culture and performance.