How to Motivate at Work: Learn The Theory of Behavior Modification

Overview. There are many theories of human motivation. But to motivate and lead at work, there is one you must know. It’s called operant conditioning, commonly known as behavior modification.

By Murray Johannsen. Feel free to connect via LinkedIn or directly from this website.

Wish To Better Motivate Performance in Work Settings?

The engine which drives performance is motivation. It is the key to unlocking productivity gains, sparking quality improvements, generating continuous profits, and insuring customer service.

diagram of the major techniques of behavior modification (operant conditioning)
Over 4,000 studies have documented how to use this theory of performance management—half of them performed on animals. Also known as behavior modification, the course teaches you you have to use both antecedents and consequences to change behavior.

Learn A Powerful Theory To Change Behavior

This program on behavior modification in work settings is available for workgroups and as coaching.
Take a moment and learn about this.

This online leadership training package contains down to earth, practical techniques based on behavioral principles to extinguish problems or ignite topnotch performance.

Discover how to use 8 powerful levers that change behaviors of individuals and groups.

Why This Theory of Motivation at Work is Important

Motivation Quote: If I knew what brand of whisky he [General Ulysses Grant] drinks, I would send a barrel or so to some other generals," by Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln’s famous quote about motivation. The metaphor refers to the fact that many of his generals had a nasty habit of sitting in camp and drinking whiskey — not going on a campaign to gain more territory.

As I have gotten old(er), I realized it wasn’t always what I could see that I needed to understand, it was the unseen world that would not be seen.

When I was young, I always asked my Mom about what I would see. I would say, “Why is the sky blue?” and she would say, “Go ask your Dad.” I would ask, “Why do the birds sing?” And she would say, “Go ask your Dad.” I would ask, “Why does it rain?” and she would say, “Go ask your Dad.” Then I would go ask my Dad and he would say, “Go ask your Mom.” — Murray Johannsen, Personal Story

It Helps You Understand Human Behavior

I remember a few 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 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

It must be said, some theories work better than others. For example, on the behavioral side, one needs to know how to use operant conditioning. This page also provides a set of key theories from both management and psychology.

Motivation Helps You Influence Others

Most salesmen try to take the horse and make him drink. The real job is to make the horse thirsty.” — Gabnel Siegel, President, MediCab during a speech to sales reps

Unlike managers (who tend to rely on authority), the leader harnesses the power inherent in human motivation. Motivation is an inherent aspect of knowing how to use influence.

This Theory Helps You To Understand Your Own Behavior.

Think about it. the reason you engage in any action is hidden in your motivation(s). Just as the reasons you don’t do something (that you know you should do) are based on hidden motivations and motives.

You Can Predict Others Behavior By Knowing Motives

In police work, there’s the legal concept of motive, which implies some type of goal, a goal with enough motivational energy to cause a criminal action. We assume that motive is strong enough to run the risk of punishment associated with the crime. For example, would someone murder their spouse for a $500 insurance policy? Could the same thing be done due to anger or jealousy? You get the idea.

Learning the Theory 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 for desired or undesired behavior. Copyright © 2012 by Murray Johannsen

Can You Influence Behavior? The answer is yes But there is a catch. There is no algorithm for human behavior; nothing ever works 100 percent of the time with humans.

But the principles of behavior modification work most of the time, with most of the people in most situations. Here is one such rule. It goes, “To increase the likelihood the desired behavior occurs again, positively reinforcement it.” Such a simple rule. But one frequently forgot by managers.

Many people have contributed to the theory of operant conditioning, the best known being the Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner. And what is an operant? It’s the association between a behavior and its consequence(s). 

What is an Antecedent?

A stimulus from the environment occurring before the behavior.  These are also called an activator or trigger.

What is a Consequence?

What comes after the behavior influences the likelihood of it occurring again. Consequences increase or decrease the frequency of desired or undesired behavior.

Types of Antecedents Useful in Triggering Behavior

Colorful neon street signs in Kabukichō, Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan. Picture by: Basile Morin

Antecedents serve as external stimuli that remind us to take action. They typically occur before a behavior. It’s also important to understand that the motivational influence is weaker than the consequences. For convenience, they are lumped into four categories: prompts, goals, feedback, and modeling.


Signs and posters. Signs are an extremely effective (and cheap) method of behavior change. No smoking, speed limit, and out-of-order signs are a few examples. Display ads in magazines are another example.

This poster was done in 1938. It incorporates several subtle themes and symbols to influence.

Schedules. Try putting up a monthly schedule showing when important reports, memos, presentations, and meetings occur. Depending on the complexity of the operation, you may want a weekly one also.

Verbal instructions. Asking prompts action. It works especially well if the request is relatively minor or is perceived as legitimate.

Function of Goals

Image by: Cmglee

To State What’s expected. When people understand what’s expected, there is less conflict, less frustration, and anxiety. It generates a shared sense of purpose.

To get Commitment from Others. If done correctly, setting goals establishes a sense of ownership and commitment. In general, goals can foster a consensus on what’s important.

To Implement a Vision. Goals serve as a mechanism to translate a vision into reality. It’s the roadmap that guides the trip from start to completion.

To Generate Motivation. Goals serve as a powerful source of intrinsic motivation. They also function as a benchmark for justifying appropriate reinforcement.


Artist: Florent Joseph Marie Willems  (1823–1905) Woman With a Mirror

It Corrects Misconceptions. The feedback most of us get is too global and abstract. Consequently, most of us carry a distorted perception of our abilities — some overestimate competence, others underestimate. It must provide factual, observable, measurable information.

It Creates Internal and External Motivation. Feedback can call attention to performance requiring improvement. When people find out how they rank against others, performance often shoots up. It creates desire–a hard to argue with fact demonstrating the need for change. Employees also want to avoid the consequences of poor performance but do expect rewards for better than average work.


Johannes Vermeer October 1632 – December 1675) The Allegory of Painting

Definition. Using another’s behavior as a guide to your own actions. Providing examples of what is required.

Types of Modeling  

Leading by Example. Employees always look to the boss and other peers to figure out what’s acceptable. It’s what you do that is important not what you say.  Employees sometimes imitate bosses the same way young children imitate their parents.

Providing Samples. Many firms have specific formats for memos and reports. Give these formats to others as an example. The same goes for presentations, budgets, and proposals.

Two Types of Behaviors You Can Change

Money is a powerful consequence that motivates the behavior of all most everyone.
Money is known as a general reinforcer. It’s one of the most powerful consequences we know.

To the behaviorist, behavior falls into two categories:

  • Desired or
  • Undesired.

In one respect, this dichotomy makes everything easier. It’s good or it’s bad. This means (assuming our judgment is correct) that we need to decide if the behavior needs to be increased or decreased and the best way to do so. Remember, some behaviors will continue to run on their own since they are intrinsically motivated.

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 a 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.

How Consequences Work

The three major elements of the behavior modification model: antecedents, behaviors, and consequences.

consequence is motivational energy associated with the behavior. Because of this association, it influences the probability of that behavior occurring again.

Keep in Mind

Dante (He Hath Seen Hell): Jean-Léon Gérôme (11 May 1824 – 10 January 1904)

Some Consequences are Imaginary. Most people pay the parking meter even if only staying for five minutes since they see a ticket on the car if they don’t. 

Consequences can occur at any time. There is no statute of limitations on murder. In 1991, police caught a man who murdered his family 20 years ago who is now serving a life sentence.

Mixed Consequences can Follow a Behavior

This story goes that Midas as a boon from the Gods (in this case Bacchus) that he be able to touch any object and it would turn to gold, including humans. King Midas with his daughter, from A Wonder Book for Boys and Girls by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Types of Consequences

Poverty and Wealth: William Powell Frith  (1819–1909). Consequences are of two types: the positive which we seek and the negative to avoid.

There are but only two that will be discussed here. They are positive reinforcement and punishment.

Positive Reinforcement
The Reward: Pierre Olivier Joseph Coomans  (1816–1889)

Definition: This form of power depends primarily on the use of positive reinforcement. Sometimes it’s based on the expectation of future gain such as an end-of-year bonus.

This consequence increases the likelihood of a behavior occurring again. At its core, there is an emotion, state of mind, or object associated with pleasure. Obviously, the greater the pleasure experienced, the tougher it is to change. At the core of all addictions, the is or are pleasurable consequences.

Guidelines for Use
Thomas Cole (1841-1848): The Architect’s Dream

Provide After Desired Behavior. People tend not to strive as hard for rewards received before performing.

Reinforce Quickly. The longer you wait before reinforcing a behavior, the weaker the impact that the reinforcer has.

Provide Appropriate Consequences. Rewarding top performers the same as low performers produce a phenomenon known as regression toward the mean. Smart managers also tailor reinforcement to the person. A trip might be a royal pain to a single-family parent but coveted by a single person. 

Tie Consequences to Objectives. Too many people don’t understand what their bosses want. Reinforcement tied to mysterious goals is worthless. Employees only strive toward rewards when performance outcomes are defined.

Use it to increase Desired Behavior

A Practical Example of a Positive Consequence
Thomas Cole (1841-1848): The Architect’s Dream

In the article called “Leveraging The Power of Thank You,” Susan Meisinger presents several examples where executives missed opportunities to use a heartfelt 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.

Dante and Virgil Visit Hell, Painting by: William Bouguereau  (1825-1905)

Definition. Punishment can be delivered in two ways; either take away existing rewards or inflict psychological and/or physical pain. Punishment should only be used on undesired behaviors.

These act to reduce the desired or undesired behavior. Obviously, you would like people and systems would use negative consequences on undesired behaviors but that is not always the case. 

Keep in Mind It 
Dante and Virgil, 1855, painting by Rafael Flores (1832-1886).

Sometimes Reverses Positive Reinforcement. One “aw shoot” is worth 1000 “attapersons.” 

“Sticks” To The Administrator. Punishment gets associated with the one who dishes it out. It’s possible to have unhappy, rebellious workers whose chief goal in life is to remove the “difficult” boss.

Generates Emotional Baggage. It can arouse frustration, anxiety, stress, and anger.

Usually Ensures Public Compliance Only. When you’re not looking, the old behavior comes back.

Use Guidelines
Paul Doré (1832 – 23 January 1883[: Donte and Virgil)

Make It Intense But Short. Keeping up even mild punishment for a period of time causes resentment.

Punishment Should Be Certain And Consistent For Certain Behaviors. Random, intermittent, or sporadic use diminishes effectiveness. Further, people will perceive you as unfair–one who has favorites.

Use As A Last Resort. After all, other options have failed, consider negative reinforcement. It should never be used as a first option.

Use it to Decrease Undesired Behavior

Consequences in a Joke

In this joke, some consequences drive behaviors.

Elihu Vedder  (1836–1923): Fisherman and the Genie

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.”

While it is clear what the employees wanted, can you identify the consequences that drove the manager’s 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.


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.

Want Results More Quickly?

Get an Edge

Access Free Information

First published on September 15, 2014. Updated July 10, 2023. 

Work Skills For the 21st Century