Compliance Communications Blog

Why People Break The Rules: Behavior Change And Managing Compliance


Why do employees do things that violate the law or violate company policies?  There are a lot of reasons, some of which have to do with a failure to understand the rules and some of which are about willful violation. But fundamentally, employee behaviors follow the same rules that all animal behaviors follow – they are ultimately driven at the level of pleasure attainment and pain avoidance.

[I’m not going to use this blog space, generally, to defend this thesis in any deep way, but I trust that you will recognize the resonance of this idea with the pain/pleasure principles developed by Freud – among others – and that you will also see this as the basis of behavioral conditioning.  Classical Conditioning, associated most strongly with Pavlov in his famous experiments with canine digestion – and the contemporary “science” of Neuro-Linguisitc Programming – both depend on this view.]

So to be clear, here’s the big – maybe a little wacky sounding – claim:   If an employee gives a bribe to get a deal or takes a gift from a vendor – or whatever – it’s because he or she associates more pleasure with giving the bribe than with not giving the bribe, and more pain with not giving the bribe than with giving it. 

In a sense, this is totally uninteresting.  Or maybe it just kind of seems tautological.  What’s interesting about it, though, from a compliance communications standpoint is this:  if we can create compliance messages that help to realign an employee’s pleasure and pain associations, then we can impact behavior. In other words, if I can get you – a potentially non-compliant employee – to start associating enough pain with that unwanted behavior, then I can get leverage on you and change the way you act.

How do we do that?  Not by saying that an act is a “violation” or that it’s bad for the company – like so many training programs today do.  Rather, we get leverage by piling up the pains for the individual.  Show me that I am going to be beholden to a vendor in ways that will make me uncomfortable; that my coworkers will lose respect for me and distrust me and that my professional reputation will be tarnished; that my family will be negatively impacted by a non-compliant act.  Then I will sit up and listen.

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