Why Employees Do What They Do

why employees do what they do

Managers, supervisors — leaders of all kinds worry over the same question: Why do my employees do what they do? Day after frustrating day, we grapple with different versions of the “why” question:

  • Why don’t they listen?
  • Why do they insist on doing it the hard way?
  • Why won’t they apply themselves?
  • Why don’t they ask questions?
  • Why do they resist help from others?

Wondering why employees do what they do can drive even the best leaders to scratch their heads in confusion. But here’s a bit of good news: there is a definitive answer to that mind-numbing “why” question.  The answer represents a universal truth that I explain in detail in Chapter 7 of Leaders Ought to Know: 11 Ground Rules for Common Sense Leadership. I call it the “cornerstone concept.”

The cornerstone concept says:  All human behavior is directed toward the satisfaction of needs.

If the cornerstone concept is a bit underwhelming to you, stop and reconsider: this concept applies to virtually every situation you and I as leaders will experience with our followers. When a leader understands that an employee’s behavior is an effort to satisfy a need, the leader can move on from the “why” question to the “what” question. “What” is the employee’s need and “what” can I do to help?

Addressing the unmet needs of followers is the shortest path to gaining their respect, support and ultimately, their productive effort.  It’s a simple equation really.

Identify the needs of your followers.

  • Ask about their dreams, goals and long-term aspirations.
  • Recognize their fears, anxieties and current limitations.
  • Remember needs may range from stability and consistent employment to a need for challenge and achievement.


Discuss with followers how their needs align with the organization’s goals.

  • Detail the follower’s primary role within the organization.
  • Brainstorm specific ways the follower can satisfy their needs through achievement of the organization’s goals.


Offer followers your support.

  • Provide for and encourage skills-based training and development options.
  • Identify and suggest practical opportunities for followers to practice their new skills.
  • Schedule time to evaluate the employee’s personal and organizational progress.

Now, I want to hear from you:

What are some ways you use to find out employee needs or to understand why your employees do what they do?

Join our LinkedIn Discussion to Get More Ideas on this Issue.

Phillip Van Hooser
Leadership Expert, Keynote Speaker
Author of Leaders Ought to Know: 11 Ground Rules for Common Sense Leadership

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Phillip Van Hooser

Phillip Van Hooser, CSP, CPAE is committed to helping organizations transform their business outcomes by building engaged employee relationships. He is an award-winning keynote speaker and author on engaged leadership and communication. His most recent book is “Earning The Right To Be Heard," a primer for creating greater influence and opportunities. Connect with Phil on LinkedIn and Facebook.

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