Motivational Interviewing Works Best for Executive Leaders when you use all 4 OARS

Why is it necessary to develop skills to lead people through change? Shouldn’t people naturally change on their own when they see change is needed?

Often, as leaders and managers, we will give advice expecting our colleagues to change. Yet, we can see that the prescriptive method doesn’t work that well.

Motivational interviewing is an effective way of talking to people about change. It is evidence-based and has been documented in hundreds of studies, has been used in many different settings and is successful in different cultures. People make changes at many stages of their lives. We decide on career paths, when to get married, how to raise a family, when to retire, and when to accept help due to health challenges.

This technique can be successful when helping people manage addictions, change health habits or study more effectively. I will be looking at Motivational Interviewing from an executive business perspective.

Challenges we face as leaders in the workplace could include:

  • Motivating an employee who is struggling with personal issues
  • Leading a team member who is skeptical of the company strategy
  • Managing performance of employees protected by unions or workplace regulations
  • Resolving conflict between two employees
  • Coaching better communication skills

As career professionals, we face other personal challenges. An executive business coach or mentor can use motivational interviewing to help us uncover the right answer when we are:

  • Deciding how to manage or terminate an affable but incompetent employee
  • Identifying who to lay off in a cost-constrained environment
  • Figuring out how to confront an aggressive or abusive coworker
  • Deciding whether to pursue a promotion internally or to seek a job at another company
  • Switching careers

Reflect on change

Let’s reflect for a second. How long does it usually take when you know you need to make a significant change in your life, and the time you actually make the change?

Often, the answer is at least six months.

So, if you are looking for an employee or colleague to make a significant change or looking to make a change in your career, give yourself some time. Exercise patience.

As a past Olympic rower and as an executive with personal standards and high drive, I like the idea of exercising patience. Patience is like a muscle that you can train.

When change is hard for us or the people we manage, it is often not because of a lack of information, laziness, an oppositional personality, denial or resistance. It can be because of ambivalence.

What is Ambivalence?

Ambivalence is both wanting and not wanting the change. It is also when we want two incompatible things at the same time. For example, we want late-night ice cream, but we want to lose weight. We want to listen to our manager and follow the company expense policy, but we want to do other work that feels more productive than entering numbers in a tracking program.

Ambivalence is often uncomfortable because it can lead to anxiety. We do not like living in states of fear or negative stress, so we will do whatever we can to release it. So, ambivalence leads to procrastination.

Instead of seeing yourself as resisting change, try to see yourself as ambivalent about changing. Can you see this trepidation in the people you lead?

The Spirit of Motivational Interviewing

Motivational interviewing embodies a spirit that helps bring certainty and remove anxiety. This spirit has four parts:

  1. Partnership – you are a collaborator and not an expert.
  2. Acceptance – you respect the autonomy, strengths and perspective of the colleague you are leading.
  3. Compassion – we keep our colleague’s best interests in mind.
  4. Evocation – the best ideas will come from the client.
Use the OARS acronym to improve your motivational interviewing skill
Use the OARS acronym to improve your motivational interviewing skill

Get your OARS in the Water

We summarize the core skills in motivational interviewing with the following acronym – OARS.

O – Open questions

A – Affirmations

R – Reflections

S – Summaries

These skills should not be new to you, and they are the fundamentals of good management.

Open Questions

Questions should elicit a conversational response and not a “yes” or “no” answer.

NOT: Are you happy with the outcome?

INSTEAD: How do you feel about the outcome?

NOT: Don’t you want to make more sales/widgets/KPIs?

INSTEAD: What are the advantages of hitting your target?

Some other examples:

  • Would you tell me more about ___?
  • Can you help me understand that a little better?
  • How does that process work now?
  • How do you see this happening?
  • What kind of challenges are you facing?
  • What’s the most important priority to you with this? Why?
  • What other issues are important to you?

Make sure to ask more open questions than closed questions. Be available to the agenda of the person you are leading.


When you reflect back on positive accomplishments, attempts, achievements or awards, you build a stronger rapport with the person you are leading and reinforce the idea that you are on the same team.

Some examples are:

  • You really care a lot about the customer.
  • This is hard work that you are doing.
  • You were successful in changing this in the past.
  • It took a lot of courage to admit your mistake and keep moving forward.

When appropriately used, affirmations create a sense of confidence and self-efficacy in the person you are leading.


Perhaps the most crucial part of motivational interviewing is the ability to understand what your colleague is thinking and feeling, then saying this back to the client.

For example:

“I don’t see what’s the big deal. I don’t have a communication problem.” 

And you respond, “You’re not sure why the team is upset about your communication methods.”


“I’ve been this way for so long. It’s just my personality.”

And you respond, “So, all of this seems normal to you.”


“I don’t like yelling at my team, but it’s the only way I’ve found to light a fire under them.”

And you respond, “You’d like to change your motivational methods if you can still get results.” 

We see that reflections are statements, not questions.


Summarizing is when we make an extended reflection of more than one client statement.

For example, when a team member needs to change roles during a restructuring but is ambivalent.  

They say, “I don’t want to change roles. I enjoyed the face-to-face client contact in my old role. Maybe the new remote role will give some of the same rewards. I’ll have a new manager where I don’t share rapport. It could be interesting to learn some new skills.”

Then you respond, “If I understand you correctly, you are reluctant to change roles because you enjoyed face-to-face contact with your old role, and you had a great rapport with your old manager. You’re uncertain about your new manager, but it could be interesting to learn some new skills, and you may get some of the same interpersonal rewards.”

Summaries are an opportunity for the manager or leader to selectively summarize their colleague’s contributions and guide their decision making.

The Four Processes

We need to move through several processes to motivate our interviewee successfully.

  1. Engage – Establish a trusting and mutually respectful relationship. Attune and align with the person you are leading to make them feel welcome, hopeful, understood. DO NOT assess too soon, prescribe, ask too many questions, tell too quickly, over-flex your power imbalance, label the problem too soon.
  2. Focus – An ongoing process of seeing and maintaining direction. Set a schedule with goals, priorities and a clear path. Use the OARS skills to help guide focus.
  3. Evoke – Pull out speech cues from your interviewee that favours movement in the direction of change. 
  4. Plan – Develop a specific plan that the person you are leading agrees to and is willing to implement. Make sure the goal is CLEAR – Collaborative, Limited, Emotional, Appreciable and Refineable.


Adam Kreek is on a mission to positively impact organizational cultures and leaders who make things happen.

Kreek is an Executive Business Coach who lives in the Pacific Northwest. He is an Olympic Gold Medalist, a storied adventurer and a father.

He authored the bestselling business book, The Responsibility Ethic: 12 Strategies Exceptional People Use to Do the Work and Make Success Happen

Check out other blogs:

How can personality indexing increase measurable results

How to set your personal vision and purpose

Resilient High Performance