The Void of Forced Change

August 21 2023
By: Shawn M. Galloway

Edicts, coercion, and discipline are one way to change group behavior, and taking this approach might change behavior, just not the behavior you want.

From January 1920 until December 1933, the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution made it illegal to manufacture, sell and transport intoxicating liquors in the United States. This was the age of prohibition. Firstly, this was a forced change that most citizens disliked and did not understand. Most importantly, the enforcement was rarely probable, timely, or consistent. As a result, the law of unintended consequences held true, and behaviors did indeed change.

During prohibition in the United States, there were an estimated 100,000+ speakeasies opened in New York City alone, significantly more locations than the number of legal bars existing before 1920. Some states refused to enforce prohibition. Many drug stores sold alcohol as "medicine." Political corruption and organized crime soared, the federal government lost $11 billion in tax revenue and spent over $300 million to enforce the law, and most tragically, thousands died from drinking tainted liquor.

A hand with an extended index finger above and to the left of a wooden artist model.

Punishment is a behavioral extinguishing tool designed to stop behavior. With that unbalanced consequence, there is no guarantee that the right behavior will fill the void created. Consider punishing an employee for not wearing their PPE. Does that result in an employee always wearing it, or might the new behavior created be warning others, "Here comes the boss, put on your PPE."

If you want to change the culture or a group's behavior, remember that change happens best from within when there is buy-in to the change, people want to participate willingly, and there is a sense of shared ownership within the group for what is needed to adopt or see through the change.

People do not naturally resist change. People and cultures change all the time when they understand the change and the reason for it and see its benefit, and the change isn't too terribly complicated to execute. People do not resist change; they resist the force of change, and I've never seen a group forced, coerced, or punished into excellence.

"Forced change is almost always temporary. When you and the force go away, so does the change." — Terry L. Mathis

"Every government intervention [in the marketplace] creates unintended consequences, which lead to calls for further government interventions." — Ludwig von Mises

"When dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudices and motivated by pride and vanity." — Dale Carnegie

Shawn M. Galloway

Shawn M. Galloway is CEO of the global consultancy ProAct Safety. He is a trusted advisor, professional keynote speaker, and author of several bestselling books on safety strategy, culture, leadership, and behavior-based safety. He is a monthly columnist for several magazines and one of the most prolific contributors in the industry, having also authored over 700 podcasts, 200 articles, and 100 videos. Shawn has received awards and recognition for his significant contributions from the American Society of Safety Professionals, National Safety Council's Top 40 Rising Stars and Top Ten Speakers, EHS Today Magazine's 50 People Who Most Influenced EHS, ISHN Magazine's POWER 101 - Leaders of the EHS World and their newest list: 50 Leaders for Today and Tomorrow, Pro-Sapien's list of The Top 11 Health and Safety Influencers and is an Avetta Distinguished Fellow.

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