New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine Insider Guide



Taming the Rule Breakers

Dear Mary:

Recently we’ve needed residents to take certain actions for the good of the building — things we knew they wouldn’t want to do. Clear off balconies for facade repairs. Resume taking dogs out via the now-repaired service elevator. Stop storing items on the top of storage bins. But we must be doing something wrong because we have to keep reminding, pushing — even threatening. Any tips?

— Pulling Teeth in Park Slope


Dear Pulling:

Just to set expectations: You’re never going to get everyone’s cooperation immediately. Even when the request is a “must-do,” there will always be residents who will respond only after an inordinate amount of nudging. (Often the same people in every situation.) But what you can do is adjust your approach to minimize the size of that group.


There’s a huge body of science on how to affect behavior. Here are three techniques that can reduce your frustration and improve your results:


1. Use positive reinforcement. Emphasize the good things that will happen as a result of the behavior you’re looking for. You can appeal to safety, security, saving money, neighborliness, being kind to staff, etc. Removing items from the top of the storage bins will reduce a fire hazard. Clearing off your balcony will speed up the project and help ensure the safety of workers. Taking your dog in the service elevator is considerate of your neighbors.


This doesn’t mean that you never have to use the “do-this-or-else” approach. You may sometimes have no choice but to threaten a fine. But that should be your very last resort, used only when intransigent residents fail to comply with critical requests. Don’t make it your first move.


2. Provide social proof. Ever wonder why advertisers want to show you how others – people just like you! – are buying and enjoying their products? That’s because people tend to follow what others do, especially when they identify with those “others.” This is especially the case in new or ambiguous situations. Take advantage of this tendency by sharing information on what other residents are doing. It’s quite likely that at some point you’ll have a critical mass of people cooperating with your request. That’s your opportunity to let the entire building know that many residents have already done whatever it is you’re looking for. As you can see from the street, the vast majority of our residents have cleared their balconies, as needed for facade repairs. Thank you! Are you one of the few who still have items on your balcony? Join your neighbors in getting the building ready so we can stay on schedule and budget.


3. Let them rise to your expectations. This may sound counter­intuitive, but when you set and communicate high expectations for people, they will typically rise to the occasion. And vice versa: Set low expectations, and people will “live down” to them. So communicate as if you expect people to do what you’re asking, and for good reasons. We all want to keep the building as safe as possible. And items left outside the storage bins are a fire hazard. So we know you’ll want to remove any of your lingering items as quickly as possible. How about this Sunday? Our staff will set up bagels and coffee right outside the storage room starting at 10 a.m. Looking forward to seeing you there and getting this done!


Take advantage of what social scientists have long known about changing behavior. Don’t rely on threats. Instead, focus attention on those who are cooperating, and treat people as adults who are willing to do what’s right.


Mary Federico serves on the board of her 240-unit Upper West Side condominium. Through her consultancy, Organizational Behavior Strategies, she helps leaders use behavioral science to improve their organizations.

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