How can you support behaviour change in your team?

Hint, it’s the elephant in the room.
‘The Elephant and Rider’ analogy

Adopting new behaviours can be really tricky. Most people can recognise that the new behaviour is important and they may even know how to work towards it… but this isn’t always enough to stay motivated, keep practising and successfully change behaviour.

If you’re a leader, trainer or coach in your organisation, this means it can be difficult to support your team members to turn new skills into everyday behaviours. So, what can you do?

The Elephant and Rider

Think about this analogy, created by Psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book, The Happiness Hypothesis. 

You can think of the brain as a rider on an elephant. The rider is the rational and logical part of the brain, who has the ability to make deliberate decisions. The elephant is the automatic part of the brain, driven by emotions, intuitions and habits. These represent the two sides to behaviour change. 

It’s easy to think that the rider is in control; after all, they have the reins, they can see the path clearly, and they’re telling the elephant where to go. However, it’s the elephant that provides the power and movement. If the elephant doesn’t want to move, then the rider can’t do much about it. 

When you’re leading someone through change, or supporting them to learn a new skill, it’s very easy to appeal to their inner-rider by telling them what the end goal is and how to get there. In other words, you’re helping them to see the path clearly.

But what are you doing to motivate their elephant to move? And no, it’s not peanuts! The answer is; you need to tap into their emotions and remove as many obstacles or challenges as you can.

Tapping into emotion

When explaining to your team member why they should care about changing their behaviour, focus on the WIIFM; “What’s in it for me?”. Is it a skill that can help them advance in their career? Maybe it will help them enjoy their job more or feel more successful? 

Everyone has different personal motivations, so it’s important that you understand your team members and what they care about most. Then, explain the benefits of the behaviour change in a way that appeals to them. This will build motivation.

Remove obstacles

Every time your team member faces a challenge or roadblock, they have to re-motivate themself to overcome it and keep trying. This can be really tiring, and it’s a common reason why people give up on a new skill or behaviour. So, to make it easier for them to achieve and stay on track, it’s important that you remove as many of these roadblocks as possible. 

You might do this by offering your team member support and guidance along the way, or setting small goals that are easier to reach and celebrate often.

It also means you give your team member chances to practise new skills and get comfortable with them, before expecting them to do it on their own. Don’t just show them what to do—give them lots of opportunity to practise the new behaviour with you to build their confidence. This will make it easier for them to succeed and maintain their motivation.


Next time you’re coaching your team or training someone to change their behaviour, remember to direct their rider and motivate their elephant. By speaking to both sides, you can fully engage your team member and keep them on track for a successful behaviour change. 

Some quick FAQs

What is the rider and the elephant metaphor?

The rider and the elephant metaphor describes the two sides of the brain when facing behaviour change. The rider is the rational and logical side that can see the path ahead (the ‘how’). The elephant is the emotional side that provides the power and motivation for the journey (the ‘why’). 

Both sides are equally important to achieve successful behaviour change.

How can you use the elephant and the rider to motivate your team?

When motivating your team to work towards a goal and change their behaviour, you have to appeal to both their inner rider and elephant. 

To direct their rider, explain what they need to do and how to get there. And to motivate their elephant, they need to see why they should care. 

How to motivate the elephant to make sure your change is successful.

To motivate their elephant, you should tap into their emotion by explaining what’s in it for them. It’s easier to stay motivated when the end goal is desirable. But remember, not every team member cares about the same thing, so you’ll need to explain the benefits in a way that appeals to them.

You’ll also need to make it as easy as possible for them to achieve and stay on track, such as offering your support and setting achievable milestones. The easier the journey seems, the more the elephant will stay motivated.

What is the happiness hypothesis?

Jonathan Haidt introduced the elephant and rider metaphor in his book, “The Happiness Hypothesis”. The metaphor describes the relationship between our two selves; the rational rider and emotional elephant. When they work together, we find fulfilment and happiness. However, when they don’t, then it can lead to unhappiness and a lack of motivation. 

Haidt argues that the key to happiness and well-being is ensuring our elephant and rider are in sync and equally cared for. To do this, you must acknowledge your emotions and desires, and allow them to be guided (not controlled) by logic and understanding—one cannot overpower the other.

In conclusion, the happiness hypothesis elephant and rider metaphor provides a valuable lens through which to view the challenges of behaviour change discussed in this article. By embracing the interplay between the rational and emotional aspects, leaders, trainers, or coaches can foster successful behaviour change in their teams.

Published by:
Deanna Kelland
Instructional Designer
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