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How can organizations and government encourage people to do the right thing when no one is looking? More....

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After finding out that it would cost $15,000 to properly dispose of some unneeded chemicals, a University of Washington professor took an axe to the metal containers and poured the extremely dangerous contents down the drain.  (He is now facing criminal charges.)  As a custodian once told me during an environmental audit,  no matter how many rules and programs are put in place to prevent these kinds of actions, “in the end, it all comes down to what people do when no one is looking.”  

This begs the question as to how organizations and governments can increase the likelihood that people will do the right thing when no one is looking, especially when there is no direct benefit to the individuals.  I interviewed 40 people to see what approaches they thought worked best.

Most agreed the key is to make doing the right thing as easy and painless as possible.  Solicit input on how to make the desired result easier and more user friendly.  Use engineered controls if possible to make it harder to do the wrong thing. (Example: To prevent people from throwing trash into an aluminum recycling bin, cover it with a lid that has a round hole slightly larger than a can.) Put systems, tools, resources and people in place to enable and support the desired actions. 

Of course, rules should be workable.  People should not have to puzzle through what to do.  As one manager said, “Requiring someone to fill out 20 forms and stop work for two weeks is a great incentive to pursue workarounds that may not be environmentally responsible.”

Set an example for others though talk and actions. This is especially important for managers and people in authority.  People watch them and learn from their behaviors.  Managers can also hire and promote good people who are environmentally conscious, and cull those who are not.  Peer pressure can be very effective.  Establish good relationships and earn loyalty from people who have an innate desire to please.

Help folks understand what the right thing is, and the “why” (the benefits and value). Use simple, bright, and relevant communication that will help them visualize what should be done.  (Example: put a picture of a plastic bottle and the words “Plastic Bottles Only” on the opening of a recycling bin.) When providing training, include both positive and negative consequences. (Example: Inform people that if they pour chemicals down the drain, it could kill fish in the river. Remind people that double-siding copies can save a tree.)


Reward and support correct behaviors.  Be aware that forcing can generate cynicism and motivate rebels to spite the system.  

Just in case, monitor activities. (Example: A manager can walk around the shop at unexpected times.) People are more likely to behave if they feel they are being watched. One study (reported in Science 7 July 2006) found that even a photograph of eyes near a coffee kitty tripled donations (a judgemental male gaze was the most effective.)

Finally, you may need to punish the recalcitrant few who can not, under any circumstances, be bothered to do the right thing. Some people will respond to nothing else, and making an example of them may cause others to take heed. 

Originally published in the Villager newspapers on March 23, 2007

More Information and Resources:

  • Gag me with a green spoon, Our Better Nature
  • The following safety principles are relevant to this topic:
    • People are fallible, and even the best make mistakes.
    • Error-likely situations are predictable, manageable, and preventable.
    • Individual behavior is influenced by organizational processes and values.
    • People achieve high levels of performance based largely on the encouragement and reinforcement received from leaders, peers, and subordinates.
    • Events can be avoided by understanding the reasons mistakes occur and applying the lessons learned from past events.
  • Update: A 2007 national survey by the Ethics Resource Center, an independent business ethics think tank, found that a strong ethical culture - fostered by senior management and supervisor reinforcement- reduced misconduct by 75% compared with companies with weak ethical cultures. When leaders emphasize the 'why' behind the rules, employees and managers are more likely to develop shared commitment to doing the right thing. Levels of misconduct dropped to nearly zero at non-profits where ethical programs and cultures were in place. In those cases, reporting of misconduct – a key sign of an organization’s ethical health – was at 100 percent. More....

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Last updated October 25, 2016

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