Why can’t we get people to do simple things?

  • behaviorHave you ever wondered why some people don’t seem to be motivated to take action, even when what you are asking them to do is clearly the “right thing” ?
  • Have you noticed that some desirable habits are relatively easy to develop, while you struggle to make other habits a part of your routine?
  • Have you become frustrated when someone repeats a poor habit or behavior, in spite of a recent detailed coaching conversation?

Dr. BJ Fogg of Stanford University developed a behavior model that helps us to understand how to influence someone.  The Fogg Behavior Model shows that three elements must converge at the same moment for a behavior to occur: Motivation, Ability, and Trigger.  When a behavior does not occur, at least one of those three elements is missing or insufficient.  His model is depicted in the graphic below.

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Let’s walk through an example of how to apply this model to influence someone. Imagine that we want a supervisor to conduct a safety coaching conversation with at least one crew member each day.  If we are the supervisor’s manager, our natural inclination is to think about how to “motivate” him to take this action.  However, Fogg claims that we should think about the trigger first.  He outlines the preferred sequence as follows:

  1. Start by altering the Trigger (this is the simplest change, and might be all that is needed)
  2. Then, understand and alter Ability
  3. Last, address Motivation

A trigger is anything that prompts a person to “do this action now”. It could be a note, a text message, a sound, a routine, etc.  Notice in the model that triggers are only effective if they take place above the “Activation Threshold”.  This means that the person has to have a minimum level of motivation and ability in order for the trigger to be effective.

For our supervisor, some potential triggers might include:

  • Set up an automated email that is sent to the supervisor as a reminder
  • Place a recurring event on their Outlook calendar
  • After conducting the shift crew meeting, have the conversation
  • After having lunch, have the conversation
  • After hearing a programmed cell phone ring tone, have the conversation
  • The Area Manager asks each supervisor at the morning meeting who they are going to talk to today and when they will have the conversation

If a trigger does not activate the desired behavior, the task might be too hard to do (the person does not have ability to perform the task).  If we don’t get the desired response, we should increase the person’s ability to perform the behavior.

Fogg characterizes Ability into six factors.  These are defined below.

  • Time: Does the behavior take a long time?
  • Money: Does the behavior require a lot of money?
  • Physical Effort: Does the behavior require significant physical effort?
  • Brain Cycles: Does the behavior require significant mental effort?
  • Social Deviance: Is the behavior strange, out of the norm?
  • Non‐routine: Is the behavior something the person is not used to doing?

The challenge is to determine which ability factors are weakest – and then figure out a way to strengthen them.  We do this by completing a Simplicity Analysis.  This tool helps us to determine which factors we need to address to strengthen the person’s ability to perform the targeted task.  We ask, “What is the likelihood of the person providing the required resource?”  The factors with the lowest likelihood are the ones that we need to strengthen.  A Simplicity Analysis template is given below.

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In our example, imagine that we determine the supervisor has a low likelihood of providing the required Time AND that this behavior is perceived as requiring a lot of Social Deviance.  Some possible actions we could take to strengthen these respective ability factors might be:

Time: make the task easier by reducing the time required:

  • Relieve the supervisor of a non-valued added activity
  • Revise the initial behavior to 3x per week (versus daily)

Social Deviance: make the task easier by reducing the perception that it is out of the norm:

  • Set the expectation that all supervisors will be having daily coaching conversations
  • Require the site manager and his direct reports to also conduct daily coaching conversations

If the trigger does not activate the desired behavior, yet the task is reasonably easy to do, your final option is to alter a “core motivator”.  Fogg outlines three core motivators, each with two facets.  These are:

  • Sensation (Pleasure vs Pain)
  • Anticipation (Hope vs Fear)
  • Belonging (Acceptance vs Rejection)

By altering one or more of these core motivators, you may be able to induce the desired behavior. Your intent is not to inflict the threat of pain, fear, or rejection to achieve a behavior.  Rather, you want to look for ways to increase motivation by decreasing any potential pain,fear, or rejection that is associated with the behavior, while increasing the opposite facet at the same time.

How can we alter one or more core motivators for our supervisor?  Here are a few suggestions.

Motivator: Pleasure

  • The Area Manager acknowledges the supervisor’s efforts in conducting coaching conversations through positive words (or perhaps an occasional day off).

Motivator: Acceptance

  • A number of supervisors who are having coaching conversations are asked to share their experiences.

Motivator: Increase Hope / Decrease Fear

  • You arrange for others who have held coaching conversations to talk about their experience and answer any questions from those who have not done this yet.


•The Fogg Behavior Model shows that three elements must converge at the same moment for a behavior to occur:

    • Motivation
    • Ability
    • Trigger
•Triggers are only successful if they occur above the “activation threshold”
•The preferred sequence (for which element to alter) is:  (1) trigger (2) ability (3) motivation.
•There are six ability factors and three core motivators which can be altered to achieve the desired behavior.
•A well designed behavioral change plan considers all three elements.


If you have an effective trigger placed in front of someone who has the ability to take action and they are motivated, it is very likely they will exhibit the desired behavior.  The next time you are considering how you can persuade or influence someone, consider using the Fogg Behavior Model to design an effective action plan!



Image credit: http://pixabay.com/static/uploads/photo/2013/11/20/09/35/question-mark-213671_640.jpg


About David Galloway

Dave Galloway is Founder and Principal of Continuous MILE Consulting, LLC. He blogs about leadership, continuous improvement, safety, and innovation. Dave enjoys coaching others to higher levels of performance.

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