The Vital Role of Purpose and Accountability for Behavior Change at Work

September 5, 2019
6 min
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After my first book, the Science of Story, I interviewed over 500 business leaders and realized I was on to something. To quote Ken Ferrazzi, “power, today, comes from sharing information, not withholding it.” This is a major factor behind why I am constantly starting conversations with business leaders. Tapping into the collective wisdom of progressive and thoughtful business leaders is the key to understanding the trajectory of best practices in today’s dynamic global marketplace. 

Changing and sustaining behavior change among leaders is in desperate need for the insights of progressive leaders. According to gallup, about $3.4 billion is spent annually on leadership development — yet up to 60% of leaders are unsuccessful in executing the strategies they were hired for.

To gain greater insight into leadership development at work, we asked leaders what the single biggest obstacle to creating sustainable behavior change is for them. Here’s how they responded: 


The absence of psychic reward for the new behavior.  Most of our habitual behaviors are a result of the following:  we have a drive or a desire –to satisfy that drive, we act in a certain way and, that action produces a payoff.”

— Filomena Warihay, CEO of Take Charge Inc.


As a leadership coach (and speaking also for myself!), the single biggest barrier to sustained behavior change is that the individual commits to the change without fully mapping its implications — what this change will look like in daily life.  In short, the desire to make the change is there, but what is looks like in real terms is missing or only partially envisioned. When people take the time and allow space to adapt to the desired change, they can make real progress. With resilience and a willingness to “get back on the horse” after setbacks, they can sustain it.


— Kate, Founder, CEO & Leadership Coach at Nebo


It is the fundamental unwillingness to develop a new mindset.  That means not making the decision to fully adopt a new idea or concept and make it a habitual part of your behavior going forward. 

The  failure to adopt a new mindset means not practicing the new behavior until you know you are competent to do it, not using the behavior in enough different circumstances so that you are confident you can do it in any challenging situation, and not committing to making it a permanent part of your behavioral repertoire—-not making it a new habit.  

The necessary new mindset includes periodically seeking feedback from those about you to verify that you are not merely using the new behavior, but that you are continually seeking to improve how well you do it.


— Jack Zenger, CEO of Zenger Folkman 


I believe the biggest inhibitor to sustainable behavioral change within a company culture is an individual’s sense of belonging. Does he/she belong to the status quo – where there are individual power struggles that are real or does he/she belong to an emerging culture. That is why modeling from the top -> down is so vital. People’s need to belong is more primal than their need to do the right thing. As a leader — ensure that it is psychologically safe for people to belong to an emerging vision of the company or task.


— Jennifer Sertl, Founder & President of Agility3R


The biggest obstacle to creating sustainable behavioral changes:

  1. People need to understand their purpose and their “why” for doing something.  People are so focused on results that they forget the reason they are doing something in the first place.
  2. Leadership needs to stay consistent with delivering the vision and purpose so their staff can act consistently, hence creating sustainability.  By helping to keep people focused on an emotional outcome and purpose, you can help change behavioral patterns and sustain this.


Chris Allaire, President of Averity


One of the biggest obstacles to sustainable behavior change is the lack of reinforcement when it comes to progress towards goals and personal development. Lasting behavior change is dependent on frequent feedback between managers and employees around progress towards mutually agreed-upon goals. Unfortunately, in most organizations, the onus to make sure these conversations actually happen falls squarely on the managers, and HR is often left with no real way to know if they’ve occurred or not. This can be addressed by adopting technology that not only facilitates those conversations but records the results of them so that sustained improvement can be measured and necessary adjustments can be made.


— Doug Dennerline, CEO and Executive Chairman of Betterworks


One of the biggest single obstacles to creating sustainable behavior change (although there are more than one) is a lack of instantaneous repercussions. In a quick example, a need for sustainable behavior change is noticed and explained to the person needing the change. It is explained to them why the change is important and what the new behavior needs to be. A basic example would be showing up to work on time. The next time that person does not show up on time to their job, if there’s no instantaneous repercussions, then it is unlikely that the new behavior will ever be sustainable.


— Andrew Schrage, co-owner of Money Crashers Personal Finance


The biggest challenge is that we move through life so quickly that we don’t stop to question our actions, motivations, and the impact we have on others. We have to retrain ourselves to make decisions in light of our values. When you establish shared values, you become aligned with those that you’re working and living alongside, and you are better able to support one another in accomplishing your goals. You begin to build trust in leadership, and in the way that your values will show up in everything that you do.

— Kristy Wallace, CEO of Ellevate

The Takeaway

The common thread running through these responses is the vital role mindsets and the reinforcement play in producing desired behaviors. These answers point to the need for organizations to develop reinforcement systems grounded in an overarching ‘Why’. It is only after an organization defines its purpose that it can most effectively determine the best actions to take.

John Paul

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