Behaviour Change Lessons from Kitchen Cops

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office kitchen with dishes all over the benchtop obscuring a sign that says 'please put your dirty dishes in the dishwasher'

I had to laugh when I saw this recent piece on about the efforts to shape behaviour in workplace kitchens, which have many parallels with the efforts of sustainability change agents:

LARGE capital letters, bold fonts, underlined words and endless exclamation marks. These are just some of the tactics employed by our kitchen clean freaks to try to make us wash up.

But do they work? Take a look for yourself. No less than six posters line’s kitchen wall.

And with good reason. Dirty dishes are piled up. There’s spilt milk in the microwave. Those used coffee mugs were there before I went on holidays. And someone forgot to turn the dishwasher on. Again.

The poor control freak on our floor who typed up those posters must be having a minor meltdown. Actually, they’re probably working on a new sign.

Yeah, that’ll solve it.

What do kitchen cops have in common with many sustainability efforts?

– the begging and pleading – ‘PLEASE turn the lights off’; ‘IMPORTANT: put the right things in the right recycling bin’

– the repeated hammering home of more-of-the-same messages, with an escalating tone of threat, to no avail (the equivalent of shouting louder at someone who doesn’t speak your language)

– the complete incredulity and incomprehension of why people can’t or won’t do simple things that don’t seem an unreasonable request

One commenter on the article had what I consider to be the best insight to this behaviour:

My current workplace is the best I’ve ever worked with as far as cleaning the kitchen goes. We have no signs or cleaning roster whatsoever. People hate bitchy signs with capitals and exclamation marks, and human instinct is to defy them out of principle. And the cleaning roster culture makes people bitter about cleaning up after everyone else so they make a mess and don’t clean up when it’s not their turn. Get rid of those two things and your kitchen will stay cleaner.

Telling people what to do often reinforces the very behaviour you’re trying to shift. It’s ‘Teenage Bedroom Syndrome’ – they’ve got you over a barrel, because you care if they keep it nicely, but they do not.

In another interesting parallel, the work of late Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman, which influenced seven European cities to cut their traffic signs, suggests that the less signs there are telling people what to do, the more they will have to think for themselves.

The many rules strip us of the most important thing: the ability to be considerate. We’re losing our capacity for socially responsible behavior. The greater the number of prescriptions, the more people’s sense of personal responsibility dwindles.

The inner cities are crowded with a colorful thicket of metal signs. Don’t park over here, watch out for passing deer over there, make sure you don’t skid. The forest of signs is growing ever denser. Some 20 million traffic signs have already been set up all over the country.

Psychologists have long revealed the senselessness of such exaggerated regulation. About 70 percent of traffic signs are ignored by drivers. What’s more, the glut of prohibitions is tantamount to treating the driver like a child and it also foments resentment.

So no signs – then what? Didn’t the signs emerge because people weren’t treating the commons – be it the streets, the kitchen or the Earth – with a sense of responsibility to others?

Potential approaches to dealing with kitchen slobs suggested by commenters on the article included the absolutist:

Easy solution. Have a volunteer throw all dishes standing around at 5pm (or nominated time) in the bin. No exceptions. It won’t take long before people stop using the kitchen as a dumping ground.

…which doesn’t always work fairly:

I’ve used the chuck it in the bin method, but that can backfire when some schmuck decides to use your own personal mug and leaves it half full of coffee on the sink.

…to the more creative and beneficial:

I take anything left on the bench (without cleaning it) and put it in a box. If anyone wants their stuff back it will be a gold coin donation to our Christmas party fund. Anything left at the end of the week is washed and donated to charity.

…to the (hopefully) tongue-in-cheek comical:

In our office we secretly got together and decided to try a social experiment. We found out the most anal retentive person in the office excluded them from the meeting and decided to never ever wash dishes and see how long before they went postal.

Funny, right? But there are people who will deliberately sabotage your efforts, just to get a rise out of you.

I worked with someone once who was known as the office ‘eco-nazi’. One of our colleagues would deliberately put recyclable items in his bin specifically so she would find it and fly off the handle. Don’t be that person! Once the antagonist is not getting the payoff of a reaction, the behaviour will change – and even if it doesn’t, so what? Remember, the recalcitrants can chew up an disproportionate amount of your time and energy which could be better spent on helping shift a larger majority who are receptive to change, but just need better information, convenient systems, or a prompt.

Taking the approach of the article commenter who holds colleagues’ stuff to ransom – which is a game – why not introduce game dynamics to help create a shift?

screen shot of Chore Wars home page, with fantasy characters off on a quest (one holding a bag of recycling)

Chore Wars is an innovative ‘gamification’ approach for use in either a home or professional environment, where participants can use a free online account to earn points and rewards for doing tasks and chores. You can use it to see who is pulling their weight, to offer incentives/rewards.

Does it work? Here’s one testimonial on the site:

I sat down with the kids, showed them their characters and the adventures and they literally jumped up and ran off to complete their chosen tasks. I’ve never seen my 8 year old son make his bed!

There are microcosms of change that can serve as living laboratories for change agents operating in a range of contexts and scales. Kitchen politics is just one of them.

Observe, experiment and learn!

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