Readjusting social norms

It’s a fact that people do things they wouldn’t normally do because of their environment.

Hence in the 90s, ‘Broken Windows Theory’, proposed by scientists James Wilson and George Kelling (1982), was adopted by government officials like the New York Mayor. The theory suggested that even small signs of disorder, like a broken window in a storefront that goes unfixed, or graffiti on public transport – could encourage more negative behavior in other domains, because seeing these signs normalises such behaviour, making it seem more acceptable.

Scientists like Robert Cialdini and Noah Goldstein have been spreading the word about social norms for some time, encouraging us to realise how powerful subtle environmental cues can be in terms of influencing people’s behaviour. For instance if you own a retail store, failure to get rid of a little bit of graffiti in the toilets could lead to an increase in shoplifting.

The media also need to be mindful. Reporting a high concentration of teen suicides in a region normalises this behaviour, leading to more suicides. Imagine the impact incessant reporting on binge drinking culture and teen pregnancy has on society.

Behavioral scientists Kees Keizer, Siegwart Lindenberg and Linda Steg (2008) conducted numerous experiments on social norms, such as placing a stamped and addressed envelope clearly containing some money halfway in a mailbox so that it was visible and accessible to passersby. When there was no litter around the mailbox, 13% stole the envelope and the money inside it. However, when the environment was littered, the theft rate nearly doubled, with 25% of people stealing the envelope.

All this evidence highlights the importance of being careful when we’re creating environments for our target audience.

Every workplace is full of subtle cues, from signs pinned to the fridge normalising milk theft (!), to policies that cause behaviour change in other areas.

Which environmental clues can you see in your workplace? What’s the impact on individuals and the business as a whole? Are there cues that cause people to act in an untrustworthy, dependent or childish way?

I’ve seen many seemingly inconsequential actions result in over-spilling negative behaviours – actions as simple as using too many capital letters in emails. Someone senior does it, their team starts doing it; and before you know it, a shouty, blame-ridden seed takes root.

If causal dress is the norm, might this imply that thinking and actions are more important than appearance?

Are there ways you could tweak the environment to instill more productive behaviours? What sort of cues would a Jedi workplace have?

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