Is Threat of Punishment the Reason People Change?

Friday, February 29th, 2008

I read an interesting post that discusses how the US successfully resisted the metric system.

The author argues that personally perceived value and punishment are the impetus to change. I agreed with this writer in part. Here is my response.

As an American, I watched our society kill conversion to the metric system. But I do take exception to one point you made. “Since people make these choices based on personally perceived value combined with a natural resistance to change, most will not willingly convert to a new system without being forced to under threat of punishment.”

Punishment is certainly one way. But, I have seen people do a great job of working around systems,even when strong punishments are in place. But even if it worked 100 percent of the time, there are other options.

People change when the status quo becomes less attractive than the alternatives. The notion of the burning platform comes to mind. This gets to your phrase “personally perceived value.” I have seen people in organizations embrace change because they felt the need to do something different. If they didn’t change the company could go out of business,  they would lose market share, or they would fall behind the competition. Or, because they took great pride in their work and didn’t want to lose that something that made their organization special.