Why do people - like employees and children - decide to break the rules? Do it their way? Resist change? It doesn’t make any sense! Or does it? It can be frustrating and often perplexing when employees fail to adhere to company policies and procedures, especially when those policies and procedures are in the employees’ best interest. Filing a required document can legally protect managers, but they don’t file it. Locking out a machine that is being serviced can keep a technician safe from pain, injury and even death, but he regularly services the machine without locking it out. Your children “know” the rules, but sometimes break them anyway. There is a useful way to think about this issue: What employees and children do makes sense...to them.
We live, work, play and make decisions in complex environments. It helps to think of our environments as systems with overlapping and interacting components - including people, things, rules, values, knowledge, etc. - which are, in turn, complex sub-systems. One of the principles of complex systems is that the “people” component tends to be driven by the limited information that is available to and impressed upon those people within their local contexts. We make decisions based on our knowledge of what makes sense at the local level, at any given moment. We call this the principle of “local rationality.” In other words, our decisions are rational to us because they are based on the information available within the local context (which includes knowledge residing in our brains) at a particular point in time.
As supervisors and parents, we observe behavior that is driven by the principle of local rationality, but we only have limited information about what factors the individual is using to make their decision. Why did it make sense to the employee to do such a dangerous thing? Why did it make sense to the child to break the curfew rule? After all, they know the rules and we have rules to make it clear how they should behave, don’t we?
Rules are only one component of the complex environments that we live and work in. There are also pressures from other people - including superiors, peers and even you - to make a decision to act in a certain way. Knowledge of past successes and failures, availability of resources needed to be successful, time pressures, workplace layout and numerous other kinds of factors make it ‘make sense’ for the person. Consider for a moment the last thing you saw a person do that “irked” you. What kinds of factors could have led the person to do what he or she did? Why would it have made sense...or did you assume it was because the person was lazy, rude, selfish, or in some other way had poor personal motivation?
As humans, we have a tendency to assume that people do what they do because of personal motivation , and then we treat their “failures” as an opportunity to motivate them to change and make better decisions in the future. Research shows, however, that actions are often the result of the person’s evaluation of complex input from the environment and may have nothing to do with personal motivation. For example, we tell employees to work safely, but at the same time push them for productivity, sometimes beyond their ability. The trade-off for the employee is to “cut corners” to be productive because he thinks in the moment that safety is really not at risk and showing you how productive he can be is what is really important. Your teenager decides to come home late because her date had a couple of drinks and she didn’t trust him to drive safely...and her cell phone was dead, so she didn’t call. It makes sense in the moment, given the information that she had at her disposal. It doesn’t make sense to you while you sit at home worried sick and imagining all kinds of terrible things. It doesn’t make sense because you aren’t making decisions in her context!
As parents and supervisors, we need to ask a simple question before we punish undesired behavior: “Why did making that decision make sense to the person making it?” Why was the decision “locally rational”? If we find out it was motivation, then we can deal with that; but if it is some other factor or combination of factors, then simply motivating won’t work. Look for which contextual factors actually are at play in the decision before you try to change the person’s behavior, and you will be much more successful at creating sustained change.