Why changing a policy won’t change human behavior

First you have to understand why people do what they do.

Bruce and Marie are hourly workers on the late shift at a university. Their schedules are planned a few weeks in advance by their employer, a sub-contractor. When next month’s schedule is posted, they decide to swap a shift with each other.

When Bruce shows up for Marie’s shift and clocks in with his employee ID, the system alerts the manager that Marie hasn’t shown up for work and that Bruce is working a shift he wasn’t scheduled for. The manager then has to scramble to update the schedule in the timekeeping system.

Why did all this happen? Because the employees didn’t notify their manager of the schedule change.

And why didn’t they notify their manager? Well, that’s where it gets interesting.


My client, the contractor that employs Bruce and Marie, confirmed that this same scene plays out tens of thousands of times per month and is responsible for a mountain of phone calls at all hours, non-billable overtime, corrections to billing and payroll, and unpaid invoices. Their response to hearing that employees decide to swap shifts without notifying their manager?

“That’s not how it’s supposed to work. We need to rewrite the policy to prevent that from happening.”

We assume most business processes are pretty simple. You show up for work; you get paid. We also assume that the policies we put in place govern how well those processes work. So if the process isn’t working, the policy must be at fault. Change the policy and you’ll change the behavior, right?

Well, no. Because policies don’t take into account the people involved or the context in which they work. And you need to understand both if you want to change behavior.

My team conducted field interviews with the contractor’s employees so we could learn what they do and why they do it. Here’s what we found out:

  • Employees at remote locations are expected to handle most problems without involving a manager.
  • While the workers are employees of the contractor, they think of themselves as employees of the location where they work.
  • Those working at remote locations may not know who the account manager is or how to contact them.
  • Many did not know they were supposed to get manager approval to swap shifts.

Let that sink in for a moment. Employees aren’t notifying their manager of scheduling changes because they don’t know they’re supposed to and they don’t know who that person is anyway.

Rewriting a policy won’t fix the lack of awareness that the policy exists in the first place. It won’t magically solve the problem of not knowing who the manager is or how to contact him.

But now that we know why people are doing what they’re doing, we can make choices that will address those issues directly. In this case, we suggested allowing workers the ability to change shifts in the system without having to go through a manager. Having a manager visit the site more frequently, reinforcing that it’s okay to ask for help, informing employees of the current policy and providing clear documentation of the chain of command wouldn’t hurt either.

Why won’t changing a policy change human behavior? Because it doesn’t acknowledge people’s context of use. And if you don’t understand the context of use, it is unlikely that any change you make will address the underlying problem.