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How to make people follow the rules

When you see a sign that reads “keep off the grass” do you find your inner child willing you to jump on it with both feet? Or are you the type of person who thinks rules are there for a good reason and people should follow them like you do?

In psychology, social influence and conformity are widely-researched subjects that try to explain why some people follow rules whereas others seem dead set on bending them until they break. For some people, conforming to formal and informal rules gives them a feeling of security and belonging that they can trust, knowing others will behave in a certain expected way – and it’s usually enforced by some threat of disciplinary action (or eternal damnation; depending on your code of conduct).
Two groups of red and blue chess pieces
This, by and large, has been a successful way of developing community spirit and cohesiveness between people for millennia, one which led to our collective survival. However, things go awry when something new appears to compete about, like food or status. Then “love thy neighbour” goes out of the window, and a more egocentric culture prevails.

Involvement is the secret to success

Sometimes in the workplace you find teams who have their own set of expected behaviours which override anything the health and safety team put out. This works for them because they feel a sense of ownership over their own code of conduct, even if those behaviours don’t fit in with the new method statement. Worse still, they won’t change their work practises and put a lot of energy into defending them too.

This happens because when we have a stake in how we’re supposed to approach the world around us, we feel a sense of social belonging and alignment with the people who share that world-view. So it’s very hard to change the attitudes, values and beliefs which uphold that world-view. We’ll even say one thing and do another to maintain this position!

So you must understand this concept of ingroups and outgroups whenever you create overarching rules or instructions where social influence is prevalent. By all means, have a set of clear expected behaviours, cardinal rules or key safe behaviours because people need them to understand those values and change their behaviour to be congruent with them.

However, take care to involve more people in the decisions which affect rules or codes of conduct from the start, that way you encourage a larger number of engaged advocates to back your cause. Otherwise those you don’t include or listen to may feel alienated, and adopt a code of conduct which better fits their own values and beliefs yet doesn’t mean safer behaviour.

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