Focus on Behavior

For this step you will need:


Social change usually starts with someone doing something differently.

In your theory of change you identified the behaviors—somebody taking actions—required for your solution to work. Here we’ll dig deeper and explore how your activities can provide the right conditions and motivations to drive those behaviors, and to sustain them over time.

Watch this video to learn key concepts about driving behaviors that lead to social impact.

Focusing on Behavior

To achieve social impact, your activities will need to motivate and enable actions by essential actors—the subset of stakeholders whose behaviors are essential for your solution.

This graphic shows motivation and ability on a spectrum. A person may be unwilling to take action, willing to take action, or somewhere in the middle. Similarly, a person may be unable to take action, able to take action, or somewhere in the middle.


Motivation Continuum


Your task as a social entrepreneur or policymaker is to move essential actors from where they are today to the end of this behavior spectrum where they’re excited to take action and it’s easy for them to do it.


Motivation typically affects the decision to take action. It is the result of emotion and calculation: how we feel and how we think. Emotion is by far the more important driver.

One major source of emotions is that humans are social creatures. We want to belong to a group. We want to do what people who are like us do. We feel discomfort, guilt, and shame when we’re out of line. We want status, and look to higher status people for direction. We want to be liked and we practice reciprocity.

Other major sources of emotion are the need for safety and the fear of loss. We seek social, financial, and cultural safety as well as physical safety. The pain from a loss is more intense and lingers longer than pleasure from a gain.

Calculation—the rational consideration of costs versus benefits—matters too. But our calculations are affected by emotions. We need the tools and time to think rationally. And even when we have them, we use emotionally-driven shortcuts that the pioneering psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman described as cognitive biases and heuristics.

That is, motivation is also driven by how we think, which includes unconscious cognition as well as conscious reflection.

As with feelings, many factors affect our thinking. For example:

How we think affects the actions we take in many ways. If you don’t notice something, you can’t take actions based on it. If you’re overwhelmed by many decisions, you might avoid doing anything.

Considering these factors together means that actors who are essential for the success of your strategy may face a number of barriers to deciding to act. Reflect on whether any of these have ever applied to your own decisions:


Ability is about making it mentally and physically easy for your essential actors to take action. Even someone who is motivated and eager to act may find their actions inhibited by friction or barriers. These may include:

Driving Behavior

What does all of this mean for your strategy as a social entrepreneur or policymaker? Let’s use the action of getting an annual flu shot as an example.

How to Motivate Decisions

Here are some ways that healthcare providers and public officials can increase people’s willingness and motivation to get an annual flu shot.








How to Enable Behaviors

Here are some ways to eliminate friction and barriers, and to make the action of getting a flu shot easy.





Jordan's Journey

Let’s check in with Jordan and see what she finds while considering what behaviors by the beneficiaries of her diabetes prevention program are necessary for the program to succeed.

Lessons in Change

All social entrepreneurs and policymakers must meet the challenge of motivating and enabling action. Solving a problem requires immersing yourself in how other people think, feel, and live. Learning more about your essential actors—their values and goals, what motivates them, and the barriers they face—can help you develop solutions that will lead to social change.

Beyond the specific techniques discussed above, it’s helpful to walk in the shoes of the people whose behavior you’re trying to influence. Understand their cultural and social norms and the context in which they are deciding or acting—their physical environment, their emotions, and how choices are presented to them. Respond to the way they feel and think, and connect with their needs and aspirations.

See examples of how to motivate behavior


Understanding and motivating people’s behavior is central to your work as a social entrepreneur or policymaker. Your solution simply will not work without others doing what is needed to solve the problem—every step of the way until your ultimate outcome is achieved.

Before moving on, be sure that you have a good understanding of:

Over time, as you implement a program, you may have to redesign your activities or adjust your intermediate outcomes to motivate and sustain behaviors necessary to solve the problem.

For Further Reading

This section draws on some key insights from the important literature of psychology and behavioral economics, but it is no way comprehensive. If you would like to learn more about understanding and influencing behaviors, we recommend: