Posted by: Brad Stanford | November 13, 2009

Encourage Vs. Command

On the way home today, I drove down a small road that significantly saves time. It’s a county road about 4 miles long, and there is no speed limit. So people fly down the road like there’s no tomorrow, right?


Five things keep speeds in check on this road.

  1. It’s Gorgeous: While it doesn’t have miles of view, the foliage, animals an topography are interesting, and it draws your attention.
  2. Wild Animals: I’ve seen very large deer go across the road. And pigs. It possible to suspend your day and even your week if you run into those.
  3. The People: These people don’t live on a country road so they can be scared of traffic. They didn’t move here only to find themselves living on a highway.
  4. Partial Lack Of Friction: One-third of one end is a dirt road. You know if you have to avoid either #2 or #3 above, the dirt road does not afford much braking action.
  5. It’s hurry-free: People who are in a hurry don’t use this road because it’s not that safe to hurry on.

These things combine in different ways to make people drive at a safe pace, usually 50mph on the paved section, and 45mph or less on the dirt. No policemen necessary – everyone is self-regulating.

I think there is a lesson here, though I haven’t thought about it thoroughly yet. If there was a speed limit sign on that road, it would ruin the whole drive. If it was paved all the way, or the threat of the animals was gone, hurriers would use it, and bring their impatience into the equation.

The whole atmosphere encourages safe action. It’s the atmosphere, not the law, that encourages people to do the right thing, rather than commanding and threatening them into doing it.

Yes, I am aware of the cynic’s opinion that if you give people an inch, they will take a mile. The interesting thing about this road, though, is that is discourages the hurriers – the self-centered, my-schedule-is-more-important-than-yours people – from using it, thus effectively eliminating this problem. So it demonstrates that it is possible to encourage better behavior by making the undesired behavior undesirable. In other words, if selfishness is a problem, create an atmosphere in which selfishness doesn’t yield results.

I’m certainly not thinking that these methods can be change society from the outside in. I think that if we build this kind of atmosphere in our families, we can transform society from the inside out. The atmosphere I try to set in my house has no room for selfishness, and plenty of room for failure. Thinking more highly of yourself than others in the family is not allowed. Refining your unique set of gifts is encouraged and supported. With this atmosphere, it’s obvious to everyone – including the offender – who is in the wrong, and who is in the right.

Atmosphere is the framework from which we grow. If an area is full of toxic fumes, only the plants that thrive on toxic fumes will survive. If it’s an oxygen/nitrogen environment, you’ll get those plants. It is up to the dads out there to lead out in this. It doesn’t matter if you have a whinny wife or brat kids. Changing the environment is the first step to removing the toxins, and encouraging the right kind of growth.

This will also honor your wife as well, making her job easier.

Ultimately, after years of work, the atmosphere – and your reputation – will be that of encouragement. Much better this than an atmosphere of command and consequences, especially if you want your family to thrive, rather than just survive.


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