Stop the Turnstile Jumpers

New York City and its subway system had horrific crime rates in the mid-1980s.  Robberies, rapes, and murders were not uncommon.  By the late 90s, New York City was the safest big city in the US.  Yet in this period, the New York economic recovery lagged the rest of the country, and the number of males aged 18-24 (who perpetrate most violent crimes) grew.  So why did crime decrease?

Part of the answer was a new head of security for the New York Transit system, hired in the early 90s.  He looked at the mayhem in the subway system, and decided to start by attacking the problem of turnstile jumpers.  The police would catch people jumping the turnstiles, handcuff them together until they had 10 people in a string, and march them up to the street.  There, they were booked right on the sidewalk.  A customized RV served as a mobile police precinct office.

No one was surprised that this led to a decrease in turnstile jumping.  Almost everyone was surprised, however, that this helped to turn back the wave of violent crimes in the subways. It was a testimony to the power of context.  Small changes in environment can create big changes in behavior.  Cracking down on small problems eliminates signals that disorder and chaos are accepted.   As a result, people with destructive tendencies are less likely to believe that their behavior will be tolerated or accepted.  In this way, forcing everyone to buy a subway token created a more law-abiding environment that inherently discouraged more violent crimes.

Performance Principle:  First, stop the turnstile jumpers.  Put an end to the small but blatantly obvious performance failures that can sour an entire team.  Send a message that bad behavior won’t be tolerated.  Then, in parallel, dig into diagnosing and solving the underlying issues that are contributing to poor performance.

Questions to Consider:

  1. Do you have a few people who are bringing your entire group down?
  2. Have you confronted their poor performance and/or bad attitude?
  3. What one change can you make today that eliminates the impression that negative or destructive behavior will be tolerated?

For more on the power of context and the concept of tipping points, I highly recommend The Tipping Point:  How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell. Boston:  Little, Brown and Company, 2002.


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