I once taught at Pacific Christian College (now Hope International University). I was home one evening grading papers. I read one and gave it a grade and then read the next one on the pile. It had the very same content – word for word. My first question was why would someone copy a paper and then put it right on top of the one they copied it from? 

Now, I didn’t know which person did the cheating. So I called both ladies into my office. I showed the papers and asked who wrote the original and who copied. They were silent and kept looking at each other. I waited. Finally, one said they copied if from another roommate. The other student had done the same. They both copied from a third person and didn’t know each other had the same idea. That’s why they both came in on top of each other. I warned them both about cheating and that if I caught them copying again, they could fail the class and even be dismissed from the college. 

A few weeks later, I caught one of them cheating again, this time on a test. I met with her and asked her why she would cheat again and take such a risk. What I was really trying to do was discover what would motivate such behavior that would cause her to cheat with such consequences. She said he was under great pressure from home to get straight A’s. She said she found college to be much harder than she expected and she could not go home failing or having poor grades. She lived in fear of her parents’ reaction. After a long discussion, I asked her to go home for the rest of the semester. I made sure she understood this was not punishment, but I urged her to work out her relationship with her parents through a counselor. She did just that and came back to school the next semester and eventually graduated from college. She also developed a great relationship with her parents. 

One of the greatest things I learned from my mentor in college was this simple life-changing principle: All behavior is motivated. He got it from the well-known author Larry Crabb. It’s simple and basic. I’ll bet it didn’t blow you away or knock you off your chair. But it’s so profound and so easily forgotten. Someone in your church, organization or even in your house attacks you or unfairly criticizes you and you react in a way that you later regret. People act the way they do for a reason. You react for a reason. The words and tone both you and your detractor used were motivated by something. 

I’ve come to realize in the last few years that there are many in my church who suffer from serious abuse issues that caused trauma. These folks are not just those who were in the military (there are many who suffer from PTSD for sure). So many folks have suffered emotional, verbal, physical, sexual and spiritual abuse from others. I’m amazed at how many people come to our church and later report the horrible abuse they experienced from spiritual leaders in their lives who used their power to control, shame, use, and abuse. I give out so many books on spiritual abuse because folks didn’t even know that such a thing exists. But they feel the effects of it. 

A person’s hang-ups, hurts, bad habits or addictions are often a way to cope with the trauma they experience or have experienced in the past. All behavior, good or bad, is motivated by something. We have to get past the behavior itself and understand what is deeper that drives the behavior.

Most of us look at this principle and can agree with it. It makes perfect sense. We become very utilitarian about it. We want to use it to help someone change their behavior and help them discover and address what causes or caused their actions. We use it to change the behavior of that critical person or even our spouse. 

We might even go one more step and look at ourselves and wonder why we did what we did or said what we said to try and discover our motivations. Good reflection can lead to self-awareness that can help us change our behavior.   

We use this principle to keep us from being and staying judgmental. Not that we excuse any bad behavior, but it helps us move from judgment to caring help when we understand or even seek to understand what motivates behavior. 

But we won’t get to these places of clarity until we consistently take the time to understand first. First, understand. That for me is the greatest application of the fact that all behavior is motivated. What a great aspiration. It’s an awareness. It’s a commitment. It’s a learned habit. First, understand before you respond or react. Ask genuine questions (not questions with a point). Seek to understand what motivates or motivated the behavior. That very effort can change how we see and respond to a person and has power to help that person.

I love how Stephen Covey in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People says it. He reminds us that we are at our best as a leader and as a person when we seek to “understand before being understood.” Our human pride that feeds our brokenness wants others to understand how we feel, why we did what we did or didn’t do first. But the key to great leaders is that they, out of humility, seek first to understand before being understood. Of course, there is nothing wrong with being understood, but when we set that on the shelf, then we can listen and try to understand the motivation that leads to the action. 

I know, this isn’t rocket science. So why is this not our first and natural response – first understand. It’s because of the power of pride in all of our lives. Humility is a choice. Out of humility, we can also decide to first understand. If we do it enough and often, it might even become a habit!

In reality, people will follow the clear message, or clear vision of a leader, even if they have doubts about his or her character. Why? An effective vision, mission, and purpose are all tied to clarity and people need clarity, not ambiguity. There’s too much noise and too many distractions in our world and anything short of being crystal clear won’t be heard. More than ever, folks want and need the clarity of a compelling vision, mission and purpose. And great leaders provide that.