Of Hand washing, Cleaning up after Fido, Distancing and Organizational Change

Posted by jlubans on April 24, 2020

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What do these tiny tasks have to do with large or small organizational change?
As we know, new behavior can be coerced externally through the threat of punishment, in other words, a kick in the ass (KITA).
That kind of change is rarely permanent unless you live in a police state with an ever-vigilant police and compliant population.
The best change is internalized as a regular habit, one that we no longer rail or bristle at. We willingly wash our hands and we willingly pick up after our dogs. We willingly, if dolefully, shelter in place. We understand why we are
doing so, not just because we are told to do so.
But how do we get to that happier state?
Two recent articles suggest the challenges inherent in any behavioral change.
One of the two is about hand washing:
The reason why some people don't wash their hands: There are millions of non-hand-washers hiding among us. Why won’t they adopt this simple hygiene habit – and how can we change their minds?
The article suggests a multitude of reasons as to why people do not practice good hygiene. And, it suggests a variety of approaches that might encourage hand washing. The most favored are posters in toilets featuring feces on a bread roll!
In other words, using disgust to encourage hygiene. Is this not ye olde, ineffective external KITA wrapped up in a glossy ad?
Much like autopsy photos on European cigarette packs, the intent is to induce revulsion and to make us refrain from a particularly nasty habit.
But, do these methods work?
The proponents aver so, but there’s little evidence beyond wishful thinking.
The other article suggests a formula for successful change, large and small:
How to Change Anyone’s Mind: People instinctively resist being forced to do things differently. Instead of pushing, try removing the barriers that stand in their way.”
A change expert, Jonah Berger, offers five strategies:
Reduce Reactance
Ease Endowment
Shrink Distance
Alleviate uncertainty
Find Corroborating evidence.
I have written about one change effort here in Oregon – “Dog Poop and Problem Solving” - to influence dog owners to pick up after their dogs while out on walks in Oregon forests.
The foresters probably used every one of Berger’s five strategies and achieved improved trail conditions.
How lasting this improvement was I do not know, but I was taken with how well thought out the effort was and how it likely made a lasting difference for many regular users (human and canine) of the forest trails.
What is reactance and how it may result in our refusing to change a behavior?
Reactance theory has it that when people are restricted in some way – with few options - they feel a strong need to resist and fight back to gain their fundamental freedom.
In short, people who are told not to do something often feel an urge to do the very thing they're denied.
I posted a humorous item on this, “Getting Someone To Do What He Should Not Do
I see reactance playing out currently with the protests against state mandated shelter-in-place policies. While some see these protests as selfish and harmful to public health, those protesting are angry about what they believe is governmental overreach.
Most of them get the distancing notion but they are maddened by incongruity: if I can buy a can of paint in my city in Oregon why should not a citizen of a small town in Michigan be allowed to do so?
These are less protests about being cooped up forever; but more about irrational and inexplicable policies from leaders who do not listen.
In any case, there is a gap of understanding – all the noise aside – between what the protesters want and what the government wants. Berger’s steps “Ease Endowment”, “Shrink Distance”, and “Alleviate uncertainty” all could fill in that gap.
If the government were to offer corroborating evidence then some of the protesters would cease and desist. Without that evidence the gap remains.
It reminds me of a long ago time when food and drink were prohibited in academic libraries. Most students from past generations would never – out of learned respect - eat or drink in the library. That changed with the onset of the coffee culture and other evolving social norms.
Students now wanted to eat and drink while studying. Some bookstores were already featuring full size cafes with lattes to sip and sweets and savories to munch.
Offended librarians said “No way!” And offered highly unconvincing reasons why not, e. g. insects and other vermin were literally eating the books! Annually they’d mount an exhibit of the one library book half eaten by silver fish, (but maybe it was helped along by a borrower’s dog, we’re not sure).
Bizarrely, of course, when a student borrowed a book from the library for dorm use they could read it while munching a meatball sandwich, smoking a joint, or playing beer pong.
The librarians were wrong and wasted thousands of hours in enforcing unpopular rules, not to mention – but I will – gaining much ill will and reinforcing the fuddy-duddy stereotype of the librarian.
Years later, libraries surrendered to what people wanted and began to introduce coffee shops – very successfully - and stopped trying to control people’s study habits. There are far more books eaten by man’s best friend at home, than by cockroaches in the rare book room.
Still, we are left with the age-old question of how best to get people to do what is good for them?
In my career, a frequent blunder was failing to include the client in confirming a change was desired, a change that the client would regard as positive. Instead we knew best – like some in government – and proceeded with the change only to have it fail.
Had we consulted our constituents we’d have found whether the change was even necessary or if another idea would work better. Another plus, the client’s involvement would help the clients and their peers internalize the positive behavior.
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And, my book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle, is available at Amazon.

© Copyright John Lubans 2020

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