Motivating Change At Work Using Observational Learning

Change at work is in the air. Perhaps you have a new employee, perhaps you are providing your sales team professional development training on how to use business stories with customers, or perhaps you want to keep your corporate values and vision top of mind by reintroducing them to your employees.

Supporting change is a significant investment, so how can you motivate change at work using observational learning to increase your return on investment (ROI)? This blog post looks at a few approaches that are valuable to consider.

Observational Learning ImageWhat Is Observational Learning?

Observational learning is an excellent way to change or reinforce behaviour.

Observational learning happens when a person watches (observes), the behaviour of another and as a result of that observation they adopt that behaviour. First identified as the primary way very young children learn, we now know observational learning is a very effective way to teach adults. This includes learning new behaviours or increasing / decreasing the frequency of existing behaviours.

While time to practice a new behaviour may be required, observational learning is very efficient. How long it takes to adopt the new behaviour depends on:

  • The observer being motivated to keep their attention on the task or educator
  • The observer having the awareness to identify and remember the behaviour
  • The observer having the physical and/or intellectual ability to adopt the behaviour or to learn how
  • Reinforcement (how appropriate it is and if it is positive vs. negative)

Lets take a closer look at Motivation and Reinforcement… two often overlooked steps in training.

Observational Learners Must Be Motivated

Motivation is key to learning.

The important thing to remember is that each of us – especially people from different generations will be motivated by different things at different times. For example, perhaps your organization is encouraging the use of business stories to express new corporate values. Your observer / learner will be more motivated to learn and change if they see this as an opportunity to:

  • Give them a unique opportunity like to work on a high-profile project. A millennial might connect well with this motivation.
  • Make them eligible for a financially rewarding promotion. A Boomer might connect well with this motivation.
  • Learn transferable skills… and give them more time for family. A Gen X might connect well with this motivation.

Another important motivator most of us can relate to is for the observer / learner to see the educator as an authority, to respect and/or to be inspired by them. As a general rule observers more quickly adopt the behaviour of someone who possesses one or more of the following characteristics:

  • Experience / expertise
  • Intelligence
  • Power
  • Popularity
  • Good looks

This is true whether the changed behaviour is to start doing something… or to stop doing something.

What Is Reinforcement?

An observer’s behaviour can be affected by either positive or negative reinforcement.

A technicality we should be clear on is that ‘Reinforcement’ is not the same as ‘Reward’. You reinforce behaviour by providing a reward… be it a positive reward or a negative reward. For example:

  • Adults are given negative rewards like speeding tickets to reinforce good behaviour and to stop bad behaviour.
  • Adults can be given positive rewards like a ‘free’ day off to reinforce going above and beyond expectations with a client.

Again, reinforcement is anything that increases the likelihood that a person will mirror an action and/or repeat a pervious action again… but it is not a reward.


Understanding motivators and reinforcement are key to observational learning success. Why? Because if you understand what a persons motivators are – you can design rewards that are tailored to provide the greatest reinforcement. This provides you maximum return on your training and reward investment.


  1. While it can take place at any point in life, observational learning tends to be the most common during childhood as children learn from the authority figures and peers in their lives.
  2. Observational learning is often linked to negative or undesirable behaviors, but it is also very powerful to inspire positive behaviors.
  3. Observational learning is also called social learning theory, shaping, modeling, and vicarious reinforcement.

Happy communicating, learning and changing.

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About Bruce Mayhew
Bruce Mayhew is a Leadership Coach, Keynote Speaker and Corporate Trainer who builds strong client and co-worker relationships that give clients a competitive advantage. Our training and development programs include: ■Generational Differences ■Effective Business Email Writing ■Email Etiquette ■Phone Etiquette ■Behaviour Event Interviewing (BEI) ■Mindfulness ■Using Linkedin to Build Client Relationships ■Objective Setting Made Easy

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