Article main image
Aug 27, 2020
This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.

You’ve probably seen the YouTube clips. People who refuse to wear masks in public getting into arguments, fights, and all sorts of foolishness. But what happens when those people work for your organization? 

For companies that have already returned to their offices, there have been tensions between workers about mask protocol. At the same time, it’s clearly important for employers to keep the workplace safe by enforcing CDC guidelines, which include wearing a mask. 

To do this, it’s important to understand what’s going on psychologically when employees don’t wear masks. Once you’re able to understand this, you can then adopt an approach that can get reluctant employees to observe safety guidelines.

The Real Reason People Won’t Change

The first formidable force at work when people don’t wear masks is a psychological phenomenon known as cognitive dissonance. Basically, it’s what happens in our minds when two ideas or behaviors fundamentally clash with each other. A classic example is when people know that smoking is dangerous to their health but smoke anyway. 

To reconcile this inner mental conflict, people often rationalize or justify the conflicting behavior in some way (e.g., “smoking helps me manage my stress”). In the same way, people who experience cognitive dissonance about wearing masks may actually agree that the pandemic is a real problem but at the same time feel that wearing a mask clashes with their belief in personal freedom. This is why they may rationalize that the risks of not wearing a mask is acceptable because personal freedom is too important to compromise.

Because of cognitive dissonance, merely citing facts and data is not how to get people to listen to you. They’ll always find a way to subjectively justify their preferred behavior (e.g., “freedom is too important to give up”). Hacking this natural human tendency often requires an indirect, unorthodox approach. 

An example of this is the Thai government’s 2012 anti-smoking campaign in which child actors walked up to smoking adults and asked for a light. When the adults would say no, the children would ask why and the adults would usually explain why smoking was bad for their health. 

Instead of the typical anti-smoking campaigns that tell smokers about the dangers of smoking, this clever campaign had smokers pleading with children not to smoke and explaining, with their own words, why it was dangerous. Brilliantly, the campaign got smokers to be on the other side of the fence: instead of being told smoking was bad, they became the ones doing the telling. Subsequent to this campaign, Thai smoking cessation hotlines saw a 40% increase in calls.

The second force at work when people don’t wear masks is that not wearing masks used to be the norm, and it’s easier to say “no” to change than “yes.” This is the real reason people won’t change: change brings uncertainty and uncertainty is scary. 

One study demonstrated this by having two groups of college students rate two different sets of graduation requirements. Group 1 was told that set A comprised the older requirements and that set B would be newly implemented by the college upon approval. Group 2 was told the opposite: Set B was the original requirements and set A would be newly implemented. Both groups expressed preference for whichever set of rules they were told were older. 

In other words, people generally prefer to stick with the status quo. 

A perfect real-life illustration of this was Brexit. Initially, the slogan urging people to support the Vote Leave campaign was “Take Control.” The response was lukewarm. The campaign’s strategists then added one word — ”back” — and the new slogan became “Take Back Control.” The campaign became a success. 

Simply by adding the word “back,” the campaign was able to shift how people interpreted it. Instead of changing the way things were, Brexit was about changing things back to what they were before. Instead of triggering people’s fear of change (“take control”), it was now evoking their natural desire to hold onto the way things used to be (“take back control”).

How to Get People to Listen to You by Listening to Them

The fear of change and cognitive dissonance are powerful forces that will work against employers’ efforts to get their employees to wear masks. While, legally speaking, employers can essentially coerce employees into wearing masks for safety reasons, doing so wouldn’t create the inclusive workplace culture that many companies nowadays seek to establish. 

So what can you do? 

The Behavioral Change Stairway Model (BCSM), an approach used in law enforcement, provides an excellent blueprint for getting people to accept change in a way that’s inclusive and compassionate, without triggering cognitive dissonance or the fear of change. 

BCSM consists of five components: active listening, empathy, rapport, influence, and behavioral change. Employers can start by creating spaces, virtual or otherwise, where instead of preaching the importance of wearing masks, they simply try to listen and understand — truly understand — the thought process of employees who don’t wear masks. The goal is to identify the values underlying their employees’ anti-mask stance.

For example, maybe people feel that the CDC’s guidelines are hurting the economy, which, in their minds, is too important to jeopardize. And underlying their desire to save the economy may be a deeper, more primal desire to provide for their families. You can then genuinely empathize with employees and assert that you all share the same desires to keep the economy strong and provide for families, as well. 

Such sharing of values builds the rapport that makes it possible to influence behavior. You could subsequently remind your people that whether they believe in wearing masks or not, your customers and business partners do. Wearing masks would therefore be good for business. What’s good for business, in turn, will provide them with the ability to continue providing for their families. This puts the focus on keeping things the way they used to be (“provide for families”) instead of on change (“wear masks”). 

This also allows employees to wear masks without compromising their values or creating cognitive dissonance. From now on, they’ll be wearing masks not for medical reasons per se but to protect the business and to provide for their families during an economically challenged time. In other words, wearing masks can be a way to reassert their cherished self-identity instead of conflicting with it.

Finally, instead of stating that all employees must wear masks and forcing them to say “yes” or “no,” present a range of different types and designs of masks and ask, “Which masks do you prefer?” 

For example, do they prefer disposables or cloth masks? What kinds of designs do they like? This furthers employees’ sense of agency and makes them feel like they’re being given a choice rather than having it taken away from them. It also asserts, once again, their belief in the value of personal choice.      

This approach is backed by research. When employees feel that a company’s values align with their own, they are more likely to exhibit organizational citizenship behavior (OCB), or actions that are in the best interests of the company but not necessarily part of their normal day-to-day job description. 

Other research also shows that to better ensure that employees comply with company policies, it isn’t enough to inform them of those policies. Rather, they should communicate these policies in fair, inclusive, and respectful ways that appeal to and align with their employees’ values. This will significantly increase the likelihood that their employees will comply.

It is of course possible that even after such a thoughtful approach, there will still be some employees who refuse to wear a mask. For the remaining few who resist to the bitter end, you can then consider what the most desirable action to take would be, whether it’s invoking legally mandated safety policy, taking disciplinary action, or terminating employment. 

So long as you’ve made an honest attempt to practice the principles laid out here, you could honestly say that you did everything possible to create an inclusive environment while also doing what’s necessary to keep your employees, business partners, and customers safe. 

This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.