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Increasing compliance

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Management often needs to increase the likelihood that employees comply with regulations, policies, and requests.

Explicit remarks

Depiction of prevalent attitudes

Step 1. When you need to convince employees to comply with some act, do not highlight that most individuals support your position. Indeed, you should emphasize that most individuals do not support your position, primarily because they are oblivious to some key arguments.

That is, individuals are convinced by a speech or argument, but do not change their behaviour. They are especially unlikely to change their behaviour if they informed the vast majority of the population agree with the position the speaker or arguments support (Martin, Martin, Smith, & Hewstone, 2007). For example, consider a speaker who wants to convince employees they should not work overtime. The speaker might also highlight that most employees believe that overtime should be prohibited. In this instance, many employees will adopt this position merely to comply with the majority. Their core values, however, have not changed, and hence they do not behave differently in the future.

In contrast, suppose the speaker highlights that few employees believe that overtime should be prohibited. Employees will not merely adopt this position to comply with the majority. Instead, they will comply with this position only if they feel the arguments are solid--that is, only if their core and genuine beliefs have changed (Martin, Martin, Smith, & Hewstone, 2007). Because any shift in their attitude reflects a change in their core values and beliefs, they are more likely to maintain this opinion in the future.

Incidental remarks

Incidental questions

Step 1. Sometimes,you want to increase the likelihood that someone will perform some act, such as lock the doors. Somehow, you need to encourage these individuals to imagine engaging in this act. You could, for example, state "Can you imagine any difficulties that could arise if your role is to lock the door?"

After individuals merely imagine performing some altruistic or suitable act, such as locking a door, they become more likely to engage in this behaviour (Thomas, Hannula, & Loftus, 2007). That is, after individuals imagine themselves perform some act, this image becomes integrated into their memory. Subsequently, their memory tends to shape their behaviour. For instance, a memory of locking a door, even if they have never performed this act before, tends to propel individuals towards this behaviour.

Incidental references to emotions

Obviously, managers need to show the behavior they want employees to follow is desirable, highlighting the benefits these acts might accrue. They might, for example, highlight that compliance to safety regulations tends to reduce insurance costs.

Step 2. However, managers should also evoke anger or excitement in employees. For instance, suppose the behavior is intended to redress some problem. The managers could state "This problem often ignites anger in employees." Alternatively, suppose the behavior is intended to improve some outcome. The managers could state "This outcome generates so much excitement and enthusiasm."

To clarify, some emotions seem to elevate the level of activity in which individuals engage, such as anger, terror, enthusiasm, or sociability. Attitudes that provoke these emotions will usually influence behavior (Seitz, Lord, & Taylor, 2007). In contrast, some emotions do not elevate the level of activity, such as composure or sadness. Attitudes that provoke these emotions do not usually influence behavior (Seitz, Lord, &Taylor, 2007).

Incidental errors

Individuals often want to present some favorable information about a suggestion or proposal they would like to promote. They might, for example, want to highlight how their suggestion to employ more older individuals could improve teamwork. Immediately before they present this information, they should commit some seemingly inadvertent slip, such as "Employees over 160, I mean 60, are more helpful", intended to disrupt attention.

Other possible techniques to disrupt attention include sentences that do not end, errors such as "Nice ray" rather than "Nice day", or other interruptions to a pattern, such as beginning a handshake but then tapping the thumb of this person lightly as you proceed. Furthermore, items with one odd element, such as a coffee cup with a lead base, have been used. Finally, very specific requests, such as "Working 25 more minutes", also tend to be effective (Santos, Leve, & Pratkanis, 1994)

Unexpected errors or other odd events are distracting (Fennis, Das, Pruyn, 2004). These distractions preclude individuals from exploring any doubts they might experience (see Disrupt then reframe).

Workgroup activities

Justifications of values

Step 1. Supervisors should convene a discussion about the motivations to act obediently and unethically. These motivations then need to be challenged. For instance, some employees feel that compliance might stifle innovation or empowerment. Other employees feel that compliance can increase trust and efficiency, ultimately enabling more time to uncover innovative solutions.

In addition, the benefits of cooperative behavior should also be discussed. For example, when one individual acts egocentrically, rather than cooperatively, other employees will tend to become aware that some inequity has arisen, even if they cannot identify the perpetrator. In response, their own moral standards tend to decline and hence they will also tend to behave unethically.

Under stress, employees will sometimes neglect their values. That is, under stress, individuals regard their values, such as cooperation, assistance, honesty, and tolerance as irrational, logical, and thus impractical. In other words, they almost feel obliged to relinquish their values during demanding conditions. Discussions about values, however, demonstrate that such ideals stem from rational and logical arguments. After these discussions, therefore, individuals are less likely to discard their values during stressful conditions. Such discussions are effective even if they uncover many of the drawbacks of these values (Maio, Olson, Allen, & Bernard, 2001).

Format and style

Step 1. Ensure the work environment is as bright as possible& open winder shutters, if applicable, for example. Individuals associate dim environments with anonymity. They, therefore, feel less obliged to act appropriately when their ambience is not bright. In dim environments relative to bright environments, for example, individuals are more likely to cheat on some task (Zhong, Bohns, & Gino, 2010).

Email versus paper

Step 1. Sometimes, you need to send a message, either using email or paper. If the message is intended to influence the behavior of other individuals, use paper& individuals are more inclined to recall the information spontaneously in the future, which increases the likelihood their behavior complies with your requests.

In general, individuals can more readily recall information they read from a piece of paper than information they read from a computer screen, especially if the message is potentially biased by ulterior motives (Jones, Pentecost, & Requena, 2005). That is, when individuals read from a paper, they are more aware of their surroundings. The information on this piece of paper is stored in memory, alongside the surroundings. Later, vague memories of the surroundings, therefore, tend to facilitate the retrieval of information from memory. This benefit does not arise when the information is presented on a computer screen. Nevertheless, if the information is vital and unbiased, individuals consider the material carefully. Memory of this material is excellent even if presented on a computer screen.

Related topics

For further information, see:


Fennis, B. M., Das, E. H. H. J., Pruyn, A. T. H. (2004). If you can't dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with nonsense: Extending the impact of the disrupt-then-reframe technique of social influence. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 14, 280-290.

Jones, M. Y., Pentecost, R., & Requena, G. (2005). Memory for advertising and information content: Comparing the printed page to the computer screen. Psychology & Marketing, 22, 623-648.

Maio, G. R., Olson, J. M., Allen, L., & Bernard, M. (2001). Addressing discrepancies between values and behavior: The motivating effect of reasons. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 37, 104-117.

Martin, R., Martin, P. Y., Smith, J. R., & Hewstone, M. (2007). Majority versus minority influence and prediction of behavioral intentions and behavior. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43, 763-771.

Santos, M. D., Leve, C., & Pratkanis, A. R. (1994). Hey buddy, can you spare seventeen cents? Mindful persuasion and the pique technique. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 24, 755-764.

Seitz, S. J., Lord, C. G., & Taylor, C. A. (2007). Beyond pleasure: Emotion activity affects the relationship between attitudes and behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33, 933-947.

Thomas, A. K., Hannula, D. E., & Loftus, E. F. (2007). How self-relevant imagination affects memory for behaviour. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 21, 69-86.

Zhong, C., Bohns, V. K., & Gino, F. (2010). Good lamps are the best police: Darkness increases dishonesty and self-interested behavior. Psychological Science, 21311-314.

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Last Update: 5/7/2016