Employee Behavior Confusing? Asking This Helps

This article first appeared as a blog post (vanhooser.com) by the author, who served as closing keynote at the 2023 PPSA Conference.

Every day, managers and leaders desperately try to understand employee behavior and why employees act the way they do. Most days, predicting and motivating their behavior to align with organizational goals (including safety goals) seems impossible.


Let’s concentrate on the foundational element of employee motivation, which I call the “cornerstone of employee behavior,” or the “cornerstone concept:”

Cornerstone Concept: All human behavior is driven by the fulfillment of needs.

Now, take a moment to reflect on this phrase and try to identify the single most significant word within it. If you’re like most individuals I ask, you might believe the crucial words are “needs,” “satisfaction,” “behavior,” or “human,” in that order. However, I would tell you that all of those are incorrect. Using the process of elimination, you might hesitantly question whether “all” is the pivotal word. And in that moment, you would be correct!


It may be hard to imagine that a tiny three-letter word anchors such an important concept as employee behavior and motivation, but it does. The foundational cornerstone statement does not suggest that “some” or “most” human behavior is directed toward fulfilling needs. It explicitly states that all human behavior is.

That is powerful. “All” encompasses everything we do, say, or think, and what we choose not to do, say, or think. And all our behavior is driven by a conscious or subconscious attempt to satisfy some need, regardless of whether those needs are real or imagined. Literally everything you have done or will do today ultimately aims to fulfill some need.

The same is true for the people in your organization. Think about a single, common behavior demonstrated by those you lead … they show up for work (most days)! This typical behavior reflects myriad needs your employees want to fulfill. Some show up for the challenge of their work. Others are there for a sense of belonging. Many are after the experience their position gives them. Others show up just for the money. One simple behavior is the result of many different needs.

By extension, common needs, like the need for money, may result in various behaviors. People may choose to work more hours, seek a higher-paying position, secure a line of credit, or possibly even steal to fulfill their need for money. Are you beginning to see the implications of needs—fulfilled and unfulfilled—on your employees’ motives and actions?


Managers, including safety managers, who embrace the “cornerstone concept” find much greater clarity into why their people act the way they do. This insight allows them to ask a better question: “What?” Not “why?”

What is the need my employee is trying to fulfill? How can I help them fulfill this need?”

“Why” is a reactive question while “what” is a proactive question. We ask “why” after something happens, so we’re constantly playing defense when asking “why.” When we ask “what,” we’re on the offense, looking and working to make good things happen.

The differences between asking “what” versus “why” are stark. Some managers and leaders are content to ask “why” and then complain that the answers they get are beyond their control. Proactive leaders ask “what” and then move forward expectantly, working alongside their people to help them satisfy their needs.

What are the results when the cornerstone concept of employee behavior is used? To name just a few:

  • employees feel more valued and understood;
  • relationships are deeper and more authentic;
  • trust is greater;
  • the work environment becomes a win-win-win for employees, leaders, and the organization overall;
  • motivating people to work to achieve organizational goals becomes a very real possibility.

Give it a try! I would love to hear the results of your discovery! In 2024, PPSA celebrates 80 years of bringing the best information and safety practices to members and the industry through its annual Safety & Health Conference. For a technical program packed with education, strategies, and critical updates, join them June 9-12, 2024 at the Vinoy Resort & Golf Club in St. Petersburg, FL. Register at ppsaconference.org.

A seasoned leadership expert, keynote speaker, and author, Phillip Van Hooser is CSP, CPAE, and founder, Van Hooser Leadership. Learn more at www.vanhooser.com.