Behavioural Change

Recently, London Underground have embarked on a seemingly disastrous social experiment.  The plan was to cram up to 30% more passengers onto their escalators, improving flow at peak times, by asking passengers to stand on both sides of the ‘up’ escalator.

This has resulted in most of the Kubler-Ross stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression – everything bar acceptance.  Their reasoning, according to the behavioural science department of the London School of Economics, was that escalators of over 18.5m tend to have fewer people walking up on the left, as it’s too much effort.  The result is a vacant left side and a crowded right.

But it seems that the number-crunchers have forgotten a few key facts.

One rule for everyone doesn’t work
Just because fewer people will want to walk up long escalators, it doesn’t mean that no-one will. There will arguably now be even more angry, suited businesspeople who are blocked by left-standers.

This creates mixed messages
Only four London stations are above this 18.5m height ‘threshold’; namely Angel, Holborn, Green Park and Tottenham Court Road.  If we have to stand on both sides at all of these, why not all of the stations?  How will we know which ones to walk at, and where to stand?

They’ve underestimated our London-ness.
And by this, I mean our engrained mind-set.  Us Londoners are happy not having to talk to anyone while travelling, wrapped up in our ‘social norm’ of civility and autopilot commuting.  The shock of having this comfort zone unpicked in in such a blatant way is disturbing to the status quo.  This is London, not Paris.

Instruction doesn’t work
It’s one thing to be told with a range of methods (by a person, a robot-lady, a tannoy and some yellow stickers) what to do.  It’s another to be told why.  If people don’t know why, they are very likely to return to their original behavioural patterns as soon as they can.

Above all, there are lessons for the world of business.  Large-scale behavioural change does not come about overnight, nor does it react well to being told what to do.  People need a range of factors to come into play, in order for the underlying culture and mind-set to shift.  This often includes (but is certainly not limited to) communication methods, leadership and peer role-modelling, reward & recognition and purpose.

For me, it illustrates an interesting point.  No matter what the numbers may say or how “good for us” it may appear to be, there’s just one group of people that might derail the whole programme… The very people whose behaviour you’re looking to change.

About the author – Tom Robinson:

Tom is a talent professional with a background in the behavioural side of cultural and organisational development.  He has a particular passion for ambitious organisations that want to deliver sustainable performance improvement… but that want to do it through their people.

Tom has a knack for cutting through social complexities, diagnosing cultural issues in practical terms – then getting on with fixing them.   This is most often through work in clarifying the organisation’s values and what they mean in practical terms, day-to-day.  This then might result in guiding, coaching and facilitating – most often in terms of leadership development, team building, learning & development, engagement or customer service.

Follow Tom on Twitter – @Talent_Tom

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