Using behavioural science to deal with a dirty protest

I’ve experienced a wide range of work environments, some great, some not so great, but thankfully workers choosing to make a dirty protest has been one of the rather more unusual cases that we’ve been asked to advise on. It is none the less an interesting example of how the deliberate use of consequences can influence even the most extreme of behaviours. When we were first asked to look at this issue, the toilets were being deliberately left in somewhat of a mess on a regular basis. As always the starting point is to analyse the current environment to understand what might be prompting and encouraging the behaviour. The trigger appeared to be any time site management communicated unwanted news. So what could the person be getting out of this rather effortful and messy behaviour? It turned out that after each event the site management would gather all of the workers together and tell them that the behaviour was unacceptable and that if it continued the toilets would be taken away. Now obviously for the 199 workers who had done nothing wrong, this was pretty frustrating and would escalate tensions between the workers and the supervision. For the 1 person who wanted to make an objection, their behaviour was getting a masses of attention and causing all kinds of disruption on site. So could it be that the site management were unintentionally encouraging the behaviour? We set out to test the theory. Working with the site cleaners we devised a plan based on withholding reinforcement for the unwanted behaviour. The new strategy was to clean, clean, clean and make no further mention of the dirty protest. Within 2 weeks the unwanted behaviour had stopped just as quickly as it had started.


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