How often have you heard someone say, “That’s not how it should be”, or “They should do this or that”? Hidden in these commonplace statements is a dangerous assumption about the world. This assumption is that the world is obliged to work in a way that benefits you or accomplishes your goals. Of course, it is rarely made plain like this, yet this underlying assumption informs all ‘shoulds’. This assumption is dangerous and counterproductive as it prevents us from seeing the world as it is.

The fact of life is that people, like all beings, are self-interested. We all make decisions and act in ways that we judge to be in our interests, and we refrain from actions that are against our interests. This does not mean that we always make good choices. On the contrary, as most of us are focused on the short term, we will often make the expedient choice instead of the optimum choice. We tend to take the sub-optimum path primarily because there are incentives that encourage us to do so.

It is at this point that the ‘should’ comes in. I work in technology, and the ‘should’ is omnipresent. Designers and vendors living in ‘should land’, when confronted by a problem caused by operators taking the shortest path, often respond by saying, “They should not be doing that; instead, they should be doing this”. In other words, it’s not our product; it’s the operator. It is astounding how often this comes up in vendor support meetings. Of course, this impulse solves nothing if the operator keeps taking the easy path and the product keeps failing.

This impulse is not limited to technology; it is a common refrain in business, government and the health sector. Far too often, the managers, politicians and health professionals look at a problem and say, “This problem would not exist if people did not do this; therefore, they should not do it”. Simple, right? Of course, out in the real world, people keep doing precisely what they did before, and the problem remains unsolved.

They keep doing what they were doing because the incentives for them have not changed. For the proponents of the solution, the problem is pressing, yet for the individual whose behaviour needs to change, it is not. Therefore, they have little incentive to change their behaviour. All the shoulds in the world cannot change this. What is needed then is to change the incentives. There are two ways to do so — you can invest in compliance, or you can invest in conformance.


Compliance is generally the most common method used by governments, businesses and parents to encourage behavioural changes. Compliance is forced obedience to policy. In essence, if you invest in compliance, you are choosing to invest in disincentivising behaviour you do not want. Good examples of this are fines, monitoring systems and inspections. Compliance generally relies on negative reinforcement, i.e. punishment to disincentivise undesirable behaviour. Yet its weakness is that compliance is dependent on folks judging that the chances of being caught are sufficiently high to discourage the behaviour. Consider drunk driving — every night, hundreds of drivers are caught, yet for a significant minority of drivers, they judge the chances of being caught as being sufficiently low to make the risk of being caught negligible.

Compliance has the benefit of making explicit the leadership team’s expectations about what behaviours they want and don’t want. Yet, the fundamental problem is that the individual will still have a strong incentive and hence desire to do what they have always done. They will adjust their behaviour while they are being observed yet will fall back into old habits once the monitoring is removed. On top of the only intermittent effect of compliance in enforcing desired behaviour, compliance has additional negative effects.

As compliance is imposed on people, not chosen by them, they rebel against it. The more this resistance is perceived, the stronger the impulse is to clamp down further. This leads to a feedback loop of increased resistance followed by increased compulsion, which, in turn, leads to increased resistance and general hostility to the leadership team. This hostility manifests itself in lower levels of engagement and the development of a culture of distrust. A culture of compliance is always us vs. them at its core. It presupposes that those at the top have the answers while those at the bottom don’t. Instead of treating the lower-level employees as rational adults, it infantilises them by telling them what to do and punishing misbehaviour instead of engaging with them as partners in success.


Conformance is the opposite of compliance — instead of compelling people to do what you want them to do, conformance relies on convincing them that it is beneficial for them to adjust their behaviour. Conformance can be achieved by providing physical incentives such as rewards, prizes or recognition, or through honest and open discussion about the negative effects of the undesirable behaviour. Essentially, a conformance strategy seeks to create positive incentives to encourage individuals to choose to change.

Unlike with compliance, where it is assumed that the higher-status individuals have the answers, conformance requires the assumption that everyone can understand and assess information for themselves. Great examples of this are many public health campaigns that, by informing the audience about the risk of lifestyle choices, seek to provide a positive incentive (better health) to individuals to choose to change their behaviours.

As with compliance, conformance has its own weakness. Firstly, it is hard to convince people to change, and sometimes individuals will continue to make poor choices even when they are convinced that it is not in their interests to do so. Individuals make these choices for multiple reasons, ranging from addiction to poor product design. In each case, the temptation is to incorporate a compliance strategy, and yes, you can combine both methods effectively. Yet if you want to avoid the negative of the conformance strategy, another path remains open to you.

Systemic Change

If you follow a compliance strategy, you will not be simply sending orders down from high. Instead, you will be actively engaging with those whose behaviours you want to change. Part of this is to be open to the idea that the problem, while manifesting due to individual choices, is caused at least in part by the system’s design (social, mechanical, etc.). If you identify this as the root cause, then it is pointless to continue to focus on changing individual behaviour. Instead, what is required is to modify the system to prevent the negative outcome.

For instance, when I was employed to support Heavy Mining Equipment Systems, we were having problems with the operators isolating power to the equipment before the various computers had a chance to shut down. Inevitably, this caused the computers to become corrupted, which led to production losses and higher maintenance costs. The solution necessitated that the operators wait one minute after turning off the engine before isolating power to the machine. Now, you try to get folks rushing off shift or going to get lunch to remember to wait one minute. Hell, I was the guy fixing the issues, and I often forgot.

We could have invested in compliance and placed supervisors or cameras out at the park up bays, however, I convinced the management team that the fault lay with system design, not with the operators and that we’d be better off engineering out the problem. In the end, all that was required was a small capacitor connected to a timed relay circuit, which allowed the computers to shut down no matter what the operator did on leaving the machine. This engineering solution solved the problem effectively where we could have wasted resources and goodwill trying to force people to change their behaviours to suit our needs and our ideas of what should happen.

The Way Forward

Conversely, I have seen many other situations where the leaders have chosen to prioritise their ideas of how the world should work over seeking an understanding of the real situation. When we focus on the should, we often ignore the could. This leads to sub-optimum solutions that waste resources and destroy employee engagement.

Therefore, if we want to create positive change, we need to focus on the world as it is, not how we wish it to be. This does not mean that we should become part of the problem by following negative social or workplace norms, but it does mean that we need to understand why those norms exist and what motivates those who adhere to them. Only once we have done this can we begin to modify the incentives that have led to the development of the behaviours in the first place.

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First Published on on the 18th of October 2021

I am a writer and philosopher. Join me in exploring the purpose of life and how we can best achieve it. Check out for more.