Rules are not the problem, it is the way they are reinforced.

Supermarkets now use security guards to make sure we follow social distancing rules. We can be threatened with zero tolerance policies and fines if we don’t.  But it doesn’t have to be this way. Let me tell you the story of two supermarkets had to enforce the same social distancing rules. The first was negative and threatening. The second was relaxed and positive. Which business would you rather go to?

Police State

One large supermarket chain had barriers across checkout exits to limit access into the store to only one entrance. The barriers had yellow printed signs with statements about no entrance and threatening zero tolerance for rudeness. A big burly man with a serious expression stood at the entrance checking people as they entered. The bright green vest he wore with “I’m here to help” emblazoned on it didn’t quite match his stern manner.

Security guard

Lines were marked on the floor with tap. Perspex barriers protected the workers. Customers were being refused entry because of the limited number of people allowed inside. The atmosphere was threatening and unfriendly. I’ll admit I certainly felt a crackle of annoyance when I was abruptly refused entry because the limit of customers allowed inside had been reached. The supermarket’s zero tolerance policy. seemed ironic. It The supermarket could justify being rude and unfriendly to its customers, but the customers during a difficult time were not allowed to be rude and unfriendly back. All of the rules and restrictions for social distancing are completely understandable.But you don’t have to be a bully about it. There is a better way.


In contrast, a large local fruit and vegetable business was expecting large numbers of people to come to their store before Easter. Instead of employing a security guard they did something different. They employed a well-known local entertainer, as a greeter. He had three clear tasks:

  1. Greet customers at the door,
  2. Sanitise customers’ shopping trolleys before they used them
  3. Shake hands with customers using a 1.5 metre pool noodle

Just like the large supermarket, the number of customers allowed entry were limited. So the entertainer played music to keep customers occupied while they waited. He dressed up in bright coloured clothing and capered around creating a sense of fun. He took the time to greet each individual customer, and kept waiting customers occupied. Both the fruit and vegetable market and the entertainer enforced the same social distancing rules,. The difference was – they remembered the most fundamental rule about businesses – that the customer is valued.

This collaborative innovation between two businesses achieved three things:

  1.  Social distancing rules were clearly established and followed
  2. People were more inclined to follow the rules and the overall tone in the store was positive
  3. A local entertainer was employed at a time when it is almost impossible to perform to a large group.

What can we learn from this?

The problem is not the rules themselves, it is the way they are delivered and reinforced.

  1.  Set clear expectations that are not negotiable. In the case of social distancing there are 2 clear expectations:
    1. Wash hands
    2. Stay 1- 1.5 metres apart
  2. Make it easy for people to follow the rules
    1. Show them exactly what they need to do.
    1. Give them the resources they need
    2. Guide them if they’re not sure

It was easy for the fruit and vegetable business’ customers to wash their hands because there was a wash station they could use. Customers had their trolleys sanitised for them. That simple action was very smart, it ensured the trolleys were properly sanitized and prevented any crowding. Shaking hands with every customer using a 1.5 pool noodle, helped people see for themselves how far apart they needed to be.

Unfriendly environments don’t work

Setting up an unfriendly environment is not going to make people be co-operative. Threatening with zero tolerance will not lead to co-operation either. Reinforcing a rule after it is broken with punishment sets people up for failure, not success.

The old principle of attracting flies with honey still applies. If you want essential rules to be followed, give people the support and encouragement they need. Set them up for success and create a positive environment for these rules to be followed.

Yes, we are living in difficult times, and we have to follow strict rules to keep us safe. I have no argument about following rules in any situation, whether it is in the time of Covid-19, in a school, workplace or home setting. We need to always remember that no matter what the rules, we are dealing with people, and all people are worthy of respect. Be positive in your approach to setting and enforcing rules, and people will respond positively in return.