A Friday thought on lawlessness. (Cert 12A moderate language with scenes of mild peril)

We all draw the line in a different place.

The other evening I went out for a run.  It was a beautiful summer evening and a lovely run.  Along dirt trails I ran through the countryside surrounded by nature, cattle and the classic English patchwork of different coloured fields.  Feeling slightly tired when I set off, I was energised by the joy of running and felt like I could run forever.  Then I saw something which energised me in a different way.  My joyous impetus was replaced by a simmering rage.  What sight could have changed my mood so violently?  The sight of a little plastic bag, the top tied into a knot and then discarded at the side of the path.  This started an argument in my head, an argument with a hypothetical dog owner that became quite heated.

In the UK it is illegal for a dog owner to allow their dog to foul a public place and then not clean up after it.  To litter is also illegal.  To assist dog owners, we have the occasional exercise area where dogs can do what they wish and people tend not to enter, or we have dog waste bins where owners can dispose of their dog’s waste in a little plastic bag.  Naturally, in the middle of the countryside along a public right of way, we have neither of these.  The expectation is that dog owners will clear up after their dog and take the resulting bag of waste home to deal with it accordingly.  However, a trend has developed where owners go to the trouble of buying the little plastic bags, they expend the effort of bending down to pick up their dog’s waste and seal it into a knotted bag, then for some reason they feel it acceptable to leave it at the side of the path, or worse still, hang it from the branch of a tree.  I mean, in what kind of human mind is it ok to put dog crap into a plastic bag and hang it from a tree at head height?  By what set of rules, moral or otherwise does this make sense?  As I ran, I started to have a rant about these sort of people.  These people who have no respect for the rule of law.  Not content with simply fouling the path with an unpleasant biodegradable turd, these people are now increasing the life cycle of this waste by encasing it in a plastic bag, then placing it at head height so we all get to see it slowly decompose as it heats up and cools down throughout the day, slowly separating into liquid and solid material until the bag eventually fails spewing a vile smelling decomposition over the path.  I began to postulate that these people are lawless, worthy of deportation.  They clearly contribute nothing to society and are like leaches, living off the hardworking people of Britain.

As the evening sun warmed my body and the country air filled my lungs, I soon began to calm down.  The calm me began to realise that the people who litter the path and countryside with bags of dog waste, are probably in the main law abiding citizens.  They probably pay their taxes, get a taxi home when they have been drinking and separate their household waste for recycling.  They may even look down on graffiti artists and people who vandalise property.  They may well even hold strong views about law breakers whilst considering themselves to be outside of this group.  It appears that we all draw the line of what is acceptable, a line which we will not cross, in a different place.  Some people would never throw an empty crisp packet into the street, but feel it is ok to stamp out a cigarette butt and leave it.  Both are against the law and both attract the same penalty, however, this is where their line has been drawn.  So what makes someone routinely break one law yet happily comply with others?  Furthermore, does this present a problem for us?

The reasons are plentiful: lack of consequence, tacit acceptance, inherited values, laziness, there are many reasons why people routinely participate in minor law breaking.  So let’s look at the effect of this.  I am pretty sure the person who left the bag of excrement hanging from a tree would say “What is the harm?” or “At least you can’t tread in it.”  They would see no real negative consequences of their actions, and would maybe blame the local authority for not providing a waste bin.  Our article on Broken Windows shows how minor infringements of the law can lead to more serious crime being committed.  This is because in an environment where a background level of lawlessness is accepted, a more serious crime is less of a leap.  If all the windows are broken and the walls are filled with graffiti, stepping through a broken window and helping yourself to something inside doesn’t seem as big a crime as opening a window of a well maintained building and stealing something from within.  However, it is the same crime.  This theory led to a policy of zero tolerance in certain US cities.  This approach saw a dramatic fall in crime levels.

In a way, we borrow our personality from those around us.

So let’s look at the behavioural angle.  Our personality is a result of the interpretation of our actions by others.  In a way, we borrow our personality from those around us.  As such, our behaviour is hugely influenced by the behaviour of others.  I refer to this as behavioural relativity.  The extremes of behaviour we are prepared to engage in are relative to the behaviour of those around us.  We have a calibrated gap between the baseline and what we are prepared to do that is above this baseline in terms of risk and acceptability.

Time to get down to work.  What does all this have to do with our workplace and human performance?  It is my contention that if you allow any minor infringement of rules and procedures at your place of work, then you are opening the gates to let in more serious breaches that may result in significant loss.  You may think that your team would not break serious rules; values are aligned and you trust them.  They may break the odd trivial rule, but none of your guys, you included, would allow a serious breach.  You have a strong set of values and no one can change them.

Your line can quite easily be moved by others and this happens more often than you think.

Please allow me to use a light hearted example of how our behavioural limits are influenced by the environment around us.  Imagine this; you are in your mid twenties, you have a partner, you are serious about this relationship.  You are at a time of life where settling down seems the next logical step and you realise this is happening now.  Your partner invites you to their parent’s house for Sunday lunch.  You haven’t met them before.  You arrive at a lovely middle class house, the garden is immaculate, the front door looks like it has just been painted, the entrance hall has a highly polished floor and the house smells clean and fragrant.  Your partner’s parents are smartly dressed.  The father is wearing a tie and the mother a lovely dress.  The table in the dining room has been laid out in advance.  Everything matches, the best glassware has been placed on the table in readiness for a no-doubt expensive bottle of wine.  After friendly introductions you all sit down in the living room and have a nice chat.  At this point you have an uncontrollable urge to break wind.  This isn’t one you can park for later.  You need to deal with this, you feel it moving around your digestive system looking for a way out.  If you don’t let it leave your system soon, your stomach will start making audible noises which will cause embarrassment to you, your partner and everyone present.  So what do you do?  You excuse yourself politely of course and go to the bathroom where you can take care of business.  This is how you deal with such things when in the house of strangers.  This is where your line is drawn.  Or is it?

Scenario number 2.  Having enjoyed Sunday lunch at your potential in-law’s house, the following weekend you are going to visit your younger sibling at university.  They have a house which they share with their university friends.  You haven’t met any of these friends before and are looking forward to a weekend away.  You arrive at the house.  In the front garden there is a shopping trolley with several weeks of lawn growth poking through it.  The door and windows have flaking paint and glass that allows through light but not much else as they haven’t been cleaned for months.  You enter the house and notice a football in the hall, surrounded by piles of shoes and a pile of coats.  In the kitchen you can see at least a week’s worth of dishes in the sink, with leftover food on plates on the table.  The bathroom was last cleaned when a different prime minister was in charge, there are empty toilet roll centres everywhere and damp towels in piles on the floor.  You are ushered into the living room which is bestrewn with empty beer cans and takeaway containers.  Empty Lambrini bottles suggest a love of partying but on a strict student budget.  You clear some pizza boxes from the sofa and sit down.  The housemates immediately start to regale you with stories of your younger sibling and weekend antics at the student union bar.  Then you feel it, the urgent need to evacuate some gas from your digestive system.  Do you excuse yourself and make your way to the bathroom.  Or, do you proudly let rip and perhaps even dare to comment on the potency and perfect tone?

Maybe you would never, under any circumstances break wind in front of strangers and this example isn’t for you.  However, I assure you that a lot of people would.  A lot of people would follow the pattern outlined above.  So, I hope you accept that our behaviour can be moderated quite dramatically by the environment in which we are in.  We don’t have to be a rule breaker to start with.  Now we shall swap a few of the details and look at this phenomenon at work.

You set the baseline for acceptable behaviour the moment someone enters your place of work.

You are a site manager.  You have a factory employing 150 people.  You have a contractor visiting your site to perform some maintenance on equipment that their company originally provided.  This contractor has never been to your site before.  They arrive at site and sit your standard safety induction, which they pass.  They seem competent and willing to follow your rules.  On entering the site they are instructed as to where the maintenance office is and where the equipment requiring maintenance is located.  Walking through the plant the contractor notices a sign stating ‘Hearing protection must be worn’.  They also note that no-one is wearing hearing protection.  The noise level isn’t that high at the time as not much equipment is running.  They then walk alongside a site road, they notice a 10mph speed limit sign.  As they walk along the path, they see a number of vehicles drive by, they are driven by people wearing your company overalls, they are all travelling at 15-25 mph. On the way to the maintenance office, your contractor notices the equipment they need to maintain.  They decide to have a look at the equipment.  There is a sign that states ‘Warning, live electrical conductors inside’.  They know this, they supplied the equipment, their company made the sign.  Another sign states, ‘Warning, permit to work required’.  They know they need a permit to work, but they are just having a quick look so they can appear informed when they meet the maintenance team.  Anyway, they have seen that there are loads of signs on this site and people don’t pay much attention to them.  They open the door to the distribution board.  They open the main incoming breaker.  They know that this has isolated all parts of the equipment and everything downstream on the board is now dead.  They begin to poke around.  What the contractor didn’t know, is that your team have used this board as a convenient source for a temporary lighting circuit for use during power outages of another circuit.  The lighting circuit is currently powered from another source.  This modification is well documented in your files and well known by all your team.  The contractor is confident that their equipment is dead and they can touch any conductor they wish.  You think the signage you have posted will prevent such behaviour.  However, you have demonstrated via your team, that safety signs don’t always have to be obeyed.   The breaker to the lighting circuit is open as it is currently powered from elsewhere.  This looks wrong to your contractor, so they close it without thinking.  Now they have live conductors throughout the distribution board.  One check of a dodgy looking cable termination and your contractor suffers a large electric shock.  They haven’t even unpacked their tools or found out the nature of defect, yet they have become a potential fatality on your site.

Such an example may seem extreme.  However, it is perfectly feasible.  The root cause of the incident is not the contractor’s disregard for site rules, but the perception that the site rules are not important due to the conduct of the permanent staff.  Had the contractor arrived at a site where everyone complied with the rules and all safety instructions where followed, they would perhaps not have tampered with the equipment and would have obeyed the signage.  The contractor arrived at your site with a line in their mind, a line that they would not cross.  The actions of the team on site moved the contractor’s line.  In this regard the behaviour of the contractor is relative to the behaviour of others on your site.  Their baseline has been moved.  The gap they are prepared to leap has remained the same, but you have moved their start point.

The highest standard of behaviour you can expect from those on your site is the lowest standard that you demonstrate to them.

Rather than see this as a problem, you should view this as an opportunity.  We have seen how you can move the line that people are not prepared to cross.  So why not move this in favour of following the rules?  By making your site more like the house of the in-laws in scenario 1 above and less like the student house in scenario 2, you can encourage the behaviours you want on site.  By saving money on cutting the grass, cancelling the guy who cleans the windows and cutting costs by ignoring housekeeping maintenance tasks, you may be introducing far more risk into your business than you realise.  Furthermore, by turning a blind eye to routine minor rule breaking, you are conditioning behaviour on your site.  You and your team may not even realise that behaviour is changing; sadly the first indication that rule breaking is routine, is an incident and subsequent investigation.

By encouraging your team to see themselves as safety leaders and ambassadors of your safety rules, you can achieve  compliance with all your rules, starting with the seemingly minor ones.  If a rule doesn’t need to be followed, then remove it.  Those that remain must be adhered to at all times.  If you allow just one dog turd in a plastic bag to be hung from a branch,  this validates the behaviour of all those wondering if it is ok to leave their dog’s mess on the path.


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