How to stop annoying workplace habits

Tapping pens, jiggling legs, eating at desks and talking loudly on the phone are just the tip of the annoying workplace habits iceberg. If, like me, you would like to avoid confrontation and instead tackle work habits indirectly through a behavioural intervention, here are some ideas.

Get clear on the behaviour you want to change

Before you can look for a solution to a behavioural problem you need to be clear on what you want the outcome of your behavioural intervention to be. Start by asking four clarifying questions:

  1. 1. Who do I want to influence? Best to steer clear of naming individuals here, and instead think through your audience as a more general segment of your workplace population (for example, people who do not put their dirty dishes in the dishwasher);
  2. 2. What’s the context? Describe when and where the behaviour takes place (for example, after lunch in the tea room);
  3. 3. What’s the current behaviour? Describe what people are and are not doing (for example, leaving dirty dishes in the sink); and
  4. 4. What’s the desired behaviour? Describe what you would like to happen (for example, dirty dishes are washed and stored).

Then, in order to get people to change from their current to the desired behaviour you will typically have to overcome three behavioural barriers: apathy, paralysis and anxiety.

Addressing apathy

Apathy is at play when your audience simply can’t be bothered to do what you are asking — they are uninterested.

The easiest way to tackle apathy is though effort. Look for ways to:

  • • Make it easy to do the right thing; and/or
  • • Make it difficult to do the wrong thing.

An example of making is easy comes to us from the Borough of Hounslow in the UK. Tired of staff not returning cutlery to the canteen despite various pleas and threats, they simply placed a tub in every break room so people could drop their cutlery off without having to go all the way to the canteen. The result? A 1400% increase in cutlery being returned!

In our dishwasher example we could make it easier for workers to clean their dishes by:

  • • Filling the sink with sudsy, warm water;
  • • Leaving the detergent next to the tap;
  • • Having plenty of clean, dry tea towels or abundant drying racks;
  • • Positioning the sink next to a TV or screen that will amuse them while they wash;
  • • Connecting the sink to a sound track, so when the water is running a funny tune is pumping (QT hotels do this in their elevators to keep it interesting);
  • • Giving everyone a personalised plastic tub in which they can store their dirty dishes at and take to the tea room for cleaning at a time that is convenient; or
  • • Employing someone to do it.

We could make it more difficult to leave dirty dishes in the sink by:

  • • Banning all crockery;
  • • Requiring people use their own dishes and crockery from home; or
  • • Sounding an alarm if something is placed in the sink without the plug and water being used.

Addressing paralysis

Sometimes people might be interested in doing what you are suggesting, but when it comes to the crunch, they get confused about what they actually need to do. For example, people might intend to recycle but get confused about which bin to place what into.

This decision paralysis needs to be resolved through clarifying the required actions. Many bins, for example, now label the non-recycling option as “landfill” to remind people about their choice and its implications.

The easiest way to reduce paralysis is through clarity, and that means:

  • • Reducing the number of choices;
  • • Using defaults; and/or
  • • Communicating clear pros and cons when comparing one option to others.

For dirty dishes, people might be getting confused about where to stack their dishes in the dishwasher so instead leave it to others, or they might be confused about which cupboard they need to return clean dishes to, so instead leave them dirty.

To overcome paralysis:

  • • Make sure cupboards are clearly labelled;
  • • Colour code crockery so people know blue goes on the bottom, red on top; or
  • • Create a default rule that nothing must be left in the sink if the dishwasher is on.

Addressing anxiety

The silent killer of attempts to influence is anxiety; people might be interested in doing what you’re suggesting, and may be clear on what they do, but they are concerned about what happens if they commit.

When it comes to dishwashing, some people might think it beneath their status to do their own dirty work, while others may fear running late to a meeting.

The easiest way to resolve anxiety is:

  • • Give them nothing to fear; and/or
  • • Give them something to fear.

To give them nothing to fear we need to normalise the behaviour. That means getting your senior leadership to clean their own dishes and be seen doing it.

Giving them something to fear, on the other hand, means making not cleaning dishes seem worse. Naming and shaming is one technique, but can be risky and damage morale. Another is to use shocking images of how bacteria spread so that people take it more seriously. In fact this was how one hospital successfully influenced doctors to wash their hands.

But my favourite would be to take a leaf out of one organisation’s book, and paste a picture of eyes above the sink. In their case, people were more likely to contribute to the staffroom honesty box for their tea and coffee if they felt eyes were watching them. The same technique has been used in a dog park to encourage pooper scooping. Known as an ‘injunctive norm’, implied social pressure is a powerful way to increase adherence.

Pragmatic solutions

You’ll note that some of the suggestions I’ve made seem a little outlandish. In my experience we need to stretch our ideas about what’s possible in order to arrive at innovative and pragmatic solutions. Instead of relying on signs, policies and condescension, to really influence behaviour we need to design the decision-making environment.

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