Skip to content
Blog and Insights, Chief Innovation Officer - Eric Zimmerman, MPH, MBA

Are We Getting Engagement and Behavior Change Right?

We get asked all the time.  How do you actually get people to engage?  How does purpose actually work?  Does all this really change behavior, and does it stick?

These questions aren’t just fascinating to me as someone who’s been at this for awhile – all the way back to my days as intern Wellness Coordinator at the Mattel Toy Company – they are part of who I am, and what makes me tick.  Growing up in a household led by an experimental psychologist (my dad who taught and led a research lab at Indiana University) and a clinical therapist (my mom, who worked on graduate degrees in psychology while I worked on getting through middle and high school, and became an MFT). It made for an interesting childhood. My sister and I were, literally, in an ongoing series of behavior modification experiments.

Let’s start with this question: what is engagement, anyway, and why do we care so much about it?  Is engagement what happens on the wellness portal, or is it what happens in my daily life and work? Am I gaining confidence, skills, and inspiration, or am I clicking for points? If I engage with wellbeing apps or resources for just a while, or once in a while, BUT I build new mindsets and habits, and stronger purpose and connection lasting a lifetime, is that a success, or a failure?

Our latest national research, conducted this year with Harris Poll on workers in companies of all types and sizes tells us this: people who feel supported in their purpose at work and who relate to the company as “we,” are far more likely to have healthy habits, plan to stick around, and feel mentally well. They are dramatically more engaged in their work, and life. As the subtitle of Vic Strecher’s book, Life on Purpose says, living for what matters most changes everything.

But why is this so?  And how does it fit with behavior? We know that sense of purpose sets the stage by fueling our intrinsic motivation. And, small steps deliver the confidence and competence to succeed (more on that later). Intrinsic motivation is what drives us. Think about what you find challenging, fulfilling, and even fun. Research dating back decades by Deci and Ryan (and many others) tells us that what really drives us are factors like: autonomy (I choose it, it’s not forced on me), mastery (I develop a satisfying sense of accomplishment, having worked for it), connectedness (I’m not alone, we’re in it together), and purpose (it ties to my deeper “why” and who I am / what I’m here to do in this life). These factors are often rolled up into something called Self-Determination Theory, and say a lot about what makes us all tick – what motivates our behavior.

But what about incentives? There is no question that they help get people to show up. See an employee wellness program with north of 50% workforce participation (I’m using that term instead of engagement for reasons noted above)? It mostly likely makes use of incentives. And there’s nothing wrong with an enticement to get people “in the tent.” But what happens once they’re in matters, a lot. If you and I open a new restaurant we’re likely to send out coupons for a free appetizer or dessert in order to get trial behavior. BUT, if the service is poor, and the food meh, I doubt our trial customers will come back or give us a 5-star rating on Yelp. It’s the same with a wellbeing program or app – you have to satisfy one or more intrinsic motivations.

And what about incentives and behavior? This is where the story gets complicated. Unless you’re asking people to do a mundane repetitive task, the behavior science tells a clear and cautionary tale: new behaviors are often more likely to extinguish (reduce, not persist) if they are induced via an incentive. Do you ever see participants “ghost” the wellness portal once their reward threshold is met?  Researchers find behavior more likely to persist when it’s done not for the incentive, but for other intrinsically motivating reasons like challenge and mastery, or purpose and connection. Remember the fence-painting scene in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer?  So there’s a trick: bridge to intrinsically motivating factors – tie the what to the why.

Lastly, how does a new behavior become a habit? It happens when you do it without thinking too much about it. It’s not awkward, it’s natural. You’re not doing it for the points, you’re doing it for the challenge, the fulfillment, the fun, or because it’s who you are. As mentor and friend BJ Fogg has taught us: B = MAP. Behavior happens when motivation, ability, and a prompt co-occur.  A notification pops up on your phone – it’s from someone you love, and you tap it to open.  Prompt meets motivation and ability. When prompts get internalized, habits form. I do my gratitude ritual as my morning coffee is brewing – I don’t need a reminder, or an incentive. That’s habit pairing (another great habit hack BJ Fogg reminds us about).  BJ and Vic are talking about the powerful behavior change alchemy of purpose and small steps at this month’s PurposeCast, in case you’re interested!

So, engagement is what happens in my life, and work, and new behaviors stick when they are driven by my intrinsic motivation. Habits form through purpose alignment, ease and simplicity at the start, prompted repetition, and internalization of prompts.

How can workforce wellbeing center on what matters most (and rely less on paying for clicks or taps)?  That’s what us industry veterans at Kumanu (who had a hand in many of the older platforms) are up to, and why we’re calling it Wellbeing 3.0.

P.S. Want a peek behind the curtain of what we do for our own workforce? Join us for a look Wednesday June 21st at 1 ET.

About the Author

Eric Zimmerman, MPH, MBA

Chief Innovation & Commercialization Officer

Eric has over two decades of global experience in design, launch, and commercialization of breakthrough solutions focused on population health, connectivity, community, and collaboration. He also brings insights and experience from designing and implementing employer based wellbeing strategies reaching hundreds of organizations globally.

Want to learn more about our Purpose-centered Wellbeing Platform?

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. By continuing to use our site, we assume you're OK with that.