What are the triggers to motivate employees to comply?

In: Motivation
What's up, everybody! Let's explain the triggers that motivate employees and how can you leverage them for compliance.

How can you create a context with the right motivational triggers?

To explain the different triggers, we organize them along two axes:

  1. Formal-informal axe: Formal triggers are documented or consistently messaged via structured communication channels. Informal ones aren't communicated in a structured way, and they aren't documented.
  2. Internal-External axe: What is the 'source' of the trigger? Is it coming from an individual his/her heart or mind (internal)? Or is the source external from the individual?

And here we have visualized this with some examples:

An overview of all motivational triggers to make employees comply with laws & policies.

Let's dive into the three categories and their characteristics.

Formal motivators

The most used and known motivational triggers are the formal ones. They are created by the government or the company and are formalized in a document:

  1. Laws, regulations and decrees at the governmental level.
  2. Enforcement cases initiated by controlling authorities, and judged by courts.
  3. Codes and policies at the company level that describe the principles.
  4. Procedures that specify these principles in practices.
  5. And finally controls, which form the enforcement at the company level.

These are the traditional methods of compliance to motivate people.

They share one characteristic: it's based on the stick-and-carrot idea.

  • People will take rational choices if they consider all consequences.
  • And they can only take the right rational choice if we provide them with sufficient information.

Unfortunately, this is a broken method.

But why?

One crucial reason is that people see themselves as having - at least - a basic desire to maintain their integrity. If they are confronted with top-down documents and controls, they feel that the employer isn't trusting them.

Their potential reaction? They ignore the document, thinking it's not for them but for others.

Group motivators

An employee is, like most human beings, a social individual. We care about what the group thinks and we mirror the actions of the group.

It's simply a brain shortcut, a heuristic: we are mirroring the actions of others because our brain is wired to copy the behavior of others. Especially in situations where we don't know how to act.

Case in point: products on get +45% more views if it shows the badge "Best Seller". That's called social proof.

This is how social norms work. Social norms are collective beliefs about what kind of behaviors are expected (or appropriate) in a given situation.

Social norms will influence an individual's behavior if:

  • that individual sees others follow that rule;
  • the others expect that the individual will follow the rule.(5)
If you can help spread the word that colleagues are complying with the cybersecurity policy, like changing every month their password, then people will also do this more.

But here is the catch: these values do not necessarily match with the "formalized" company values as expressed in the code of ethics and policies. You cannot control these values immediately, unless with the right recruitment.

Group social norms can trigger prosocial behavior, which may not be in our self-interest, but also negative behavior like bribery. If it seems that bribing is common practice, the social barrier to bribe is low to non-existing.

In other words, social norms work both in positive as in negative sense.

Simply put: if people notice that the cybersecurity policies are totally ignored and everyone is very sloppy with the IT equipment, then they will adopt the same behavior.

Personal motivators

There is no stronger motivation for employees than an understanding that their work matters and is relevant to someone or something other than a financial statement.(4)

If you can identify what really matters to someone, you can create long-lasting behavior change.

For this, I recommend reading about the Self-Determination Theory, which I highlighted in a previous post.


You can use this template to map all motivational triggers.

That is, what different messages are sent to an employee that contains a compliance message?

The more granular you go per user persona, the better the result, but this takes time of course. So you can start very general: the average employee.

Example (+ template):

  • They have access to the code of conduct
  • They follow at least one compliance training per year
  • They read checklists and procedures while doing their job
  • Etc.

After the mapping, you can see where to change the mix of the three types of motivators: formalized, group, and individual motivators.


You may have issues when viewing the above Motivation Matrix on smartphone.

If you want to use the Motivation Matrix, go here: copy, edit and add your logo.


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