Tweak the environment

  • Business
  • Saturday, 06 Jul 2013

Changing habits can be as easy as changing the surroundings

LAST year, I started to get worried about my employees at Leaderonomics.

I noticed less of them interacting with each other with many opting to work from home instead of being in the office (we practice flexi-work policies). I recall on many occasions, late in evening, only Hui Ming (our co-founder) and I were seen in the office. Part of the problem was that we had grown so fast, doubling our number of employees in a few months causing significant space congestion.

But my bigger concern was similar to that shared by Google – a lot of the great ideas and initiatives is a direct result of casual discussions among employees. Google believed that casual employee conversations were responsible for innovations such as Gmail and Street View. Like me, they believed it was critical to ensure employees were at the office interacting together with each other daily. Working at home was great for work-life balance but did nothing to help ideation and creativity.

But I faced a significant problem. It had become habitual for people to work from home. I could mandate that people work from the office but this would have resulted in very unhappy employees (as evidenced from Yahoo where Marissa Meyer’s mandating all employees to be at the office created numerous issues and tension). So, knowing fully well that mandating a change would result in negativity, we decided to tweak the environment instead.

We built a new office that felt like home. Just like home, everyone had to remove their shoes before coming into the office. We even had grass in parts of the floor to ensure a homely feel.

The result – without any mandate, was that employees started making the office their home.

They stayed late, had numerous casual conversations with each other as if they were part of a family and frequently stayed overnight at the office interacting and ideating.

There was no policy change. Nor was there any mandate. Just a small tweaking of the environment which drove a change in behaviour. How is this possible?

I recently read a great book by brothers Chip and Dan Health entitled “Switch”. The brothers constantly heard people cry that “change is hard” and “people hate change.” But interestingly to them, if change was hard, they wondered why people joyously embrace change daily – like getting married, or having kids, or getting a new phone. On the other hand, they wondered why some trivial changes, like submitting an expense report on time, met fierce resistance.

Their research concluded that our brain has two “systems” – a rational and an emotional system. When these two systems are in alignment, change comes easily whilst not in alignment, change can be gruelling. So how does one reach this alignment? According to these brothers, one of the ways to achieve this alignment is to “shape a path”. They believed that if we change the environment so that a new path is created, most people will follow the new path.

For example, in their book, they provide an example of a history teacher (Bart Millar) who was frustrated by two students who frequently come late and were constantly disrupting the class.

Most teachers would have assumed that these two students were ‘bad apples’ and kicked them out of the class. But Bart assumed otherwise. He believed that the reason they were late and disruptive was due to the environment. Cool students sit at the back of the class. Cool students have a delusion that their disruptive behaviour makes them class “protagonists”.

\So, he decided to ‘tweak the environment’. He bought a cool couch and put it in the front of the classroom. The first students to the class daily could sit on the coach (and slouch!). Guess who immediately started coming early to class? His two disruptive students came early each day and ‘volunteered’ to sit in the front of the class.

People are not the problem

Research clearly shows that people are generally not the root of problems. Situations are. Most of the time we attack a problem by assuming it is a people problem. According to famous Stanford psychologist Lee Ross, people are frequently blinded to the power of situations and instead attribute what he terms “fundamental attribution error” to people. His research concludes that we tend to attribute people’s behaviour to “the way they are” instead of “the situation they are in”, which is the most probably issue.

A number of years ago, I was running an organisation which was a joint-venture between a global MNC and a local governmental company. The culture of the organisation was role modelled after the local organisation, where there was minimal growth, and the environment facilitated low productivity. Employees were constantly taking smoke breaks and were totally unmotivated to improve or support business growth. In fact, when we had new work come in, most of the employees got extremely upset.

As I walked into this new company, it would have been easy for me to look around and blame the people.

Being from a global MNC, it was clear that the quality of the people was the main cause of the poor performance of the company. But instead of taking out my “chopping block” and starting to “bring in better people”, we decided to ‘tweak the situation’. What if Lee Ross was right and the real issue was not the people but the situation?

We started our “transformation” programme by doing the oddest thing – we built a fence.

As this JV was situation in the midst of the local company’s operation, the culture of the lowproductivity local partner became the dominant culture of this new JV Company too. By building a fence we tweaked the environment in the hope of creating a new high performance culture. In a matter of weeks, we saw surprising results. Smoking breaks became less frequent as it became very inconvenient to smoke inside this new fenced entity. We started driving new initiatives and people seemed to respond. Within 2 years, we became one of the most productive organisations in the world in that industry. The fence had done wonders!

Tweaking the environment is about making the right behaviours a little bit easier and the wrong behaviours a little bit harder. Peter Gollwitzer argues that most people preload decisions with no conscious deliberation. When people pre-decide, they “pass the control of their behaviour on to the environment.”

So, how do leaders design an environment in which undesired behaviours are made not only harder but impossible?

In 1992, there were 2154 murders in New York City and 626,182 serious crimes committed there. Within five years, New York City murders had dropped almost 70% and serious crimes dropped by 50%. I happened to be working and living in the city at that period and witness the transformation from a dangerous city into one of the safest cities. How did crime just drop within a short period to an all-time low? The simple answer: Tweaking the environment.

The team at New York City focused only on eliminating petty crime and fixing all broken windows and graffiti in the city. They worked tirelessly to clean all graffiti in the subways. With the subways looking cleaner and petty crime reduced, it created an impression that crime was not part of the environment of the city. Soon, bigger crime disappeared.

Great leaders generally don’t immediately assert culpability of undesired behaviour to “bad people”. Instead of solely blaming their people, they think, “How can I set up a situation that brings out the good in these people? Remember, when the situation changes, the behaviour changes. So change the situation.

According to the Heath brothers “tweaking the environment” can be as simple as moving your alarm clock to the other side of your bed so that you won’t be able to hit the snooze button easily. To encourage yourself to exercise in the morning, instead of wishing to be healthy, try laying out your gym clothes at night so that it is the first thing you see when you get up. Simple tweaks may yield significant returns not only for business leaders but to individuals.

Final thoughts

Big problem, small solution. Big problems are rarely solved with complex solutions. More often, they are solved by a sequence of small solutions. Just like New York City solved its massive crime problems by smaller interventions, tweaking your environment may be a far superior solution than implementing big drastic change. The bigger question – can you design an environment in which all undesired behaviours are made harder, while desired behaviours

become the norm? If you do so, you are on to something great – driving change the easy way!

  • ROSHAN THIRAN is CEO of Leaderonomics, a social enterprise passionate about transforming the nation through leadership development. He believes that inside everyone is greatness waiting to be unleashed. For more information on how Leaderonomics can help your organisation unleash the potential in your employees, email or login to
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