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Focus on the Positive to Reduce Negative Behavior

Focus on the Positive to Reduce Negative Behavior

Mrs. Searcy, my eighth grade social studies teacher, was really mad at me.  The Madison Junior High School teacher was lecturing about writing on our desks, a significant problem at the time. Because students were writing on their desks, she was laying down the law.  I suppose the offense was right up there with cutting class, loitering in the halls and smoking in the bathroom. It was the 1970’s.

In response to her Do Not Write on the Desk lecture, I took my pencil and wrote on my desk, “Do not write on this desk!” – about 25 times.  I was just being funny.  However, when Mrs. Searcy strolled down my aisle she didn’t see the humor in my message.

Since I apparently enjoyed writing that phrase, Mrs. Searcy proceeded to assign homework as an object lesson.  That evening I was required to write “Do not write on this desk” 500 times and return the assignment the next day.  My writing hand felt like an out of shape and overweight middle aged man trying to play football: cramped, injured and lifeless.  I wrote that phrase 500 excruciating times while watching the Six Million Dollar Man and Charlie’s Angels.

Moral of the Story

What’s the moral of this story? When you focus on telling people what they can’t do, be prepared for the results: One or more individuals just might try it.

When human resource professionals develop policy manuals, the tendency is to focus on the negatives; what not to do. The human response is to test boundaries.  I have found discussing the positives of employment rather than the negatives to be much more effective in creating a great working environment.

Galveston’s Flagship Hotel

Consider the case of the Flagship Hotel in Galveston, Texas.  This pier based hotel, constructed in the 1960’s, stretches 1,000 feet out to sea, capturing a panoramic view.  Since the balconies were directly above the ocean, management decided to place signs in the room stating, “Do Not Fish on Balcony.”

flagship hotel

Flagship Hotel in Galveston, Texas

When the hotel was completed and ready to open, guess what started to happen?  Guests began to fish off their balconies.  Hotel guests would tie large lead weights to their fishing line to reach the ocean floor several stories below.  Some guests would cast their line and miss the ocean altogether and the line would swing back towards the hotel, along with the heavy lead weights.  Unfortunately, there were large picture windows on the first floor dining room and hotel management had to replace a number of broken windows. The crashing sound of windows breaking was a common occurrence to dining room guests.

The Solution

After evaluating their predicament, management wisely decided to remove all the “Do not fish on balcony” signs. This immediately resolved the problem of guests fishing on the balcony.  It turns out guests did not even think about fishing until they read the sign.

When developing or updating your company policies, consider this lesson.  Develop policies from a positive perspective and see if your negative workplace issues are self-induced.

Kevin Kennemer is founder of The People Group based in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Kevin is driven by his passion for company owners and their need to earn a profit, employees' desire for a positive and fulfilling work experience, and the community that benefits when both groups do well.

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