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Why people don’t always do what they’re told


Continuing an exclusive series of articles offering leadership lessons from everyday life, a phone bore on a train reminds Alan Ward of the patterns that influence our decision making - and the need to reinforce the consequences of desired behaviour.

I am a regular commuter into London by rail and have become immune to the crowded, sometimes noisy journeys, which are now my 'norm'. This week, however, I had the occasion to travel to Bristol by train and was delighted to discover the concept of the 'quiet carriage'. Coach A was designated as the place to "respect the wishes of other customers when using this carriage by not using mobile phones or audio equipment and keeping noise to a minimum". Absolute bliss. For about ten minutes...
Unable to contain himself any longer, I heard a voice from a few rows down asking what was going on and anything he should know about. This was not a whispering voice, wary of disturbing others. Nor was it an incoming call on a forgotten mobile. This was a typical phone bore, oblivious to the people around him. Not only had he chosen to sit in the only carriage where mobiles are unwelcome (there were plenty of seats on the rest of the train) but he was in fact sitting next to a window-wide banner proclaiming 'Quiet Carriage'.
In this case it is not clear why the fellow was in this particular carriage. It might have been the first one he came to; he might not have noticed the signs when he got on; he might have decided that he too wanted to have an undisturbed journey. Having settled in next to a big pink banner and heard the tannoy announcement about Coach A, he then had a choice of moving or staying. The option of going had the advantage of unrestricted phone use but disadvantages of noise from others, potentially losing a table seat, facing away from the engine, the inconvenience of gathering up his stuff, walking along the train, etc. In other words, the effort of decamping carried lots of immediate and certain negative consequences.
On the other hand, to stay meant that he was in a seat that was perfect, his bags and coffee and papers were sorted, the three other seats around him were empty, and it was nice and quiet. To stay carried lots of immediate and certain positive consequences. The only disadvantage was the restriction on mobile phones, but what would happen if he made the odd call? A grumpy passenger might make a comment? Although this consequence was negative, it was in the future and uncertain to happen anyway. I suspect his decision was a 'no-brainer'.
Why don't people always do what they are told? In his excellent book 'Bringing Out the Best in People', Aubrey C Daniels highlights the patterns that influence our decisions and resulting behaviours. He describes antecedents (what happens before a behaviour), the behaviour itself and consequences (resulting from the behaviour). This ABC Model is a simple way of understanding how behaviours get reinforced. People do what they do because of what happens when they do it.
So, with my fellow passenger, the antecedents might be that the quiet carriage has plenty of seats, it is nearer the front of the train, people are quiet, it is a good place to be. He can choose whether or not to use his mobile. If he is a regular commuter in Coach A, then these circumstances will become his norm or truth. Couple that with his experience of what happens or might happen if he breaks the rules by making calls, then the negative consequences are probably insignificant. People don't get expelled at the next station, fined £1,000 or have their mobiles confiscated.
So how does this manifest in the workplace? I can think of many instances where leaders have been frustrated by people not doing what they were told. For example, in the IT world, there is the perennial problem of completing documentation after a project has been implemented. The task of recording changes and detailed specifications gets lost in the rush and excitement of the next project until months or years later when a vital piece of knowledge is sought. The immediate and certain consequences of not documenting are generally positive (saves time, avoids boring work, you can get involved with new stuff), whereas the immediate and certain consequences of completing the documentation are generally negative (laborious, feels like a punishment, saps energy, rest of team moves on).
In the world of finance, a lender or trader might be rewarded in the short-term for turnover, book profit or one-time deals (immediate, certain and positive benefit) but the loan or trade could take months or often years to prove its worth or liability (future and uncertain negatives). If risk taking is not paired with its associated consequence, however long-term, then banking collapse is reinforced within the system. That is perhaps a much bigger topic but one needs that debating before we all forget the events of the last three years.
Closer to home, what is happening within your sphere of influence? Following the ABC Model, consider where important rules or processes get sidelined or ignored:
  • What are the beliefs and signals leading up to the problem behaviour?
  • Is there a clear rationale for doing things (or not doing them) in a particular way and is that well communicated and understood?
  • Is the behaviour recognised so that the performer and the organisation are both aware of problem versus preferred?
  • What are the consequences of problem behaviours and how are they reinforced?
  • What are the consequences of desired behaviours and how are they reinforced?
Later on the same journey, another phone bore shouted to an answering machine and left his mobile number as part of the voicemail. Seizing my chance, I sent him an SMS message politely reminding him he was in a quiet carriage and that the whole of the rest of train was available for his convenience (my phone on silent, of course). I heard the text beep in and within a few minutes he got up and left us all in peace. I sent him another one to say "Thanks".
Alan Ward is a director of Performance Consultants, the leadership development and coaching specialist. Drawing on its experiences in elite sport and business, the firm develops tailored programmes and events that enable leaders to enhance relationships, improve their effectiveness and achieve their goals. Alan can be contacted at

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