I vividly remember the first time that I spoke about the theory of planned behaviour (TPB) in the context of organisational transformation. It was almost two decades ago at a conference for communications professionals. The room was packed, and as I explained the theory and how it could be used, I could almost physically see lightbulbs going on in hundreds of pairs of eyes. For anyone with a background in communication, it is immediately obvious that it is a powerfully simple way to understand and influence performance and motivation.

Half a century of thought

The Theory of Reasoned Action (TRA) was first proposed by psychologists Martin Fishbein and Icek Ajzen back in the 1970’s. In the following decade they extended the theory into the Theory of Planned Behaviour (TPB), by including perceived behaviour control as an essential factor. It suggests that behaviour is influenced by a person’s intention to perform the behaviour, which is in turn influenced by their attitudes and subjective norms.  It remains one of the most powerful models for understanding and predicting human actions.

Imagine it as a compass, guiding individuals and organisations towards their goals by helping them navigate the complex landscape of beliefs, attitudes, and intentions that influence behaviour. By understanding the principles of TPB, organisations can unlock their employees’ potential and drive positive change.

The three aspects

At the core of the theory of planned behaviour are three key elements that shape an individual’s intentions and ultimately their actions:

  • Attitude towards the behaviour
  • Subjective norms
  • Perceived behavioural control

In this context, attitudes refer to a person’s positive or negative feelings about a behaviour. If a person has a positive attitude towards a behaviour, they are more likely to intend to engage in it. Conversely, if they have a negative attitude towards it, they are less likely to intend to engage in it.

Subjective norms refer to a person’s perception of what others think they should do. If a person perceives that others expect them to engage in a particular behaviour, they are more likely to intend to. Conversely if they perceive that people view engaging in the behaviour in a negative way, they are less likely to intend to.

Finally, perceived behavioural control refers to a person’s perception of their ability to perform a behaviour. If a person feels they have the resources, skills, and opportunities to perform a behaviour, they are more likely to act on their intention. This is about the individual’s belief in their ability to succeed, and it is a strong gating factor. It can also put the process into reverse: if an individual perceives that they have been successful in their activity, their attitude to the behaviour becomes significantly more positive.

An individual theory among many

A common misconception about TPB is that it oversimplifies the complexity of human behaviour. Some would argue that it doesn’t account for emotions, past experiences, or other variables that can influence an individual’s actions. That has spawned a range of other theories, but most of these actually have the concepts of TPB at their core, and TPB itself has been supported by extensive research which has shown its predictive power to be robust across a range of different domains. If you have an appetite for something more complex, then the Burke-Litwin Model might be something to sink your teeth into. The Burke-Litwin Model is an organisational change model, while TPB is focused on individual behaviour prediction.

Putting the theory into action

In an organisational context, the theory of planned behaviour can be used to design effective interventions, policies, and strategies. By developing targeted surveys that measure employees’ attitudes, the subjective norms of the organisation, and individuals perceived control, organisations can identify the factors that promote or inhibit specific behaviours.

Taking a real-world example: if an organisation wants to implement a new software system, the TPB could be used to understand employee attitudes, subjective norms, and perceived behavioural control towards the new system. Or think of an organisation aiming to improve employee collaboration. A TPB-based survey can be used to explore employees’ attitudes towards teamwork, their perception of how important collaboration is to their colleagues, managers and leaders, and their belief in their own ability to effectively collaborate within the environment. The results would provide insights that can be used to develop strategies to foster a more collaborative work environment, as well building an understanding of the barriers to that shift. In a recent project with an organisation that wanted to implement a new flexible work arrangement, a TPB-based survey enabled the design of a set of interventions that addressed the factors most likely to affect employee behaviour, and lead to a successful transition.

The theory of planned behaviour offers a valuable framework for understanding and influencing employee performance and motivation. It is highly ‘operationalisable’, in that it can be used to create targeted interventions, policies, and strategies. Use the compass of the theory to guide your organisation around barriers to change, towards a brighter future with a motivated, engaged, and high-performing workforce. What challenges has your organisation faced when trying to implement new policies or initiatives? Share your experiences in the comments below, and let’s start a conversation on how TPB can help businesses overcome these obstacles