April  30,  2019

What if I told you your community justice system could lower adult recidivism by 10%, juvenile recidivism by 20%, and would need to send only 1% of defendants to jail? It might be as simple as changing the courtroom.

Judge Alex Calabrese did just that. He decided to reform the criminal justice system with a new objective: “Improve behavior rather than punish it.” In The Art of Gathering, Priya Parker describes his innovative approach. He thought about the courtroom itself. A defendant encountered a dark, unfamiliar room, where a judge decided his fate from on high – literally. The towering judge’s bench and the layout of the courtroom seemed designed to make the defendant feel small, isolated, and hopeless. Instead, Judge Calabrese set Brooklyn’s Red Hook Community Justice Center in a former high school, with big windows that bathed the space with light and a judge’s bench at eye level. Red Hook made other changes to the process too, but the physical environment played a crucial role in their results.

There are many findings that tell us environment affects our behavior. For example, researchers found that the very presence of a number on a classroom door can influence a student’s choice of a number in an estimating exercise. Williams Sonoma found that placing an expensive bread maker next to mid-range priced bread maker improved sales of the cheaper version. People in theatre know that emotion is contagious, so they choose venues where audiences sit close together.

Scientists call this priming – cues in our environment affect how we perceive or interpret information that follows. Priming changes what things mean to us and how much attention we give them, which changes our behavior.

For example, companies that want their teams to collaborate often use open seating arrangements – removing physical barriers and signaling a lack of emotional barriers. The dotcoms that want their people to stay and work long hours prime the environment with free food, foosball tables, and in-house dry cleaning – they are signaling “home” and “community,” which is where people live. Starbucks used its warm colors and small tables to create their famous “third space,” encouraging people to linger over pricy coffee.

We see the effects of environment often, in our change management work. When we were helping a Chicago hospital implement a new process for approving IT projects, we realized the pagers the IT team carried symbolized an automatic “Yes!” to every request. In order to get people to use the new approval approach, we explored the idea of taking away the pagers. That was too big an interruption to the process, so we came up with Plan B: we changed employees’ pager numbers. This made the requestors stop and pay attention to every request. The new numbers were also a symbol of the new way of working – both for people asking for help and for the service-oriented IT team.

This is a question we should always ask ourselves: How are we using the work environment to frame our change and support the right behaviors? We want people to enable – even embrace — the change and shift behavior. How is their environment defining the change? Is it good? Is it safe? Where is the environment focusing their attention? What are we triggering in those we want to succeed?

Dr. Brian Gunia, of Johns Hopkins University, studied environment-influenced deception during negotiation. He believes it can impact the outcomes of mergers and acquisitions. In summarizing work by Kay, Wheeler, Bargh, and Ross, he writes, “objects …help people make sense of ambiguous situations and determine how to act.”

Dr. Gunia’s findings give us some tips for constructing the work environment to support a business change:


  • The science: If you make people think about money, they will put their own interests first. In fact, symbols representing extreme wealth cause some people to justify cheating. They are driven to somehow make things fairer. And cheating is more likely if it costs an organization, as opposed to a person. It’s just business, after all.
  • The application: Take money off the table. Don’t use images of cash, wallets, status, or wealth. For example, promising big bonuses for hitting milestones might be a mistake. And don’t brand your initiative with dollar signs or glitzy imagery.


  • The science: Certain objects and images remind people of their identities. Mirrors and video or audio content promote self-awareness. They also discourage cheating.
  • The application: If you’re remote, insist on video conferencing. Seeing each other’s faces and hearing their voices reminds people they are dealing with human beings. And seeing one’s own face on a video share is like the mirror – a reminder of identity. You’ll promote the best behavior from team members.

The Senses

  • The science: The senses are critical in interpreting our environment.
    • Gunia suggests that disgust drives our sense of what’s good or bad. There’s a subconscious moral overlay that comes from religious rituals such as baptism. Our desire to clean can represent making amends. Clean spaces are seen as morally better. Cleaning products can represent taking higher ground.Dark spaces seem threatening. Dark colors feel more hostile and aggressive. People associate bright lighting and white spaces with moral behavior.People who smell fish oil view situations more suspiciously, those “exposed to ‘fart smells’ made harsher moral judgments about others.” Pleasant smells (the researchers used citrus Windex) prompt generosity.People who drank bitter drinks were more judgmental than those who drank sweet drinks
  • The application: Prime the project team workspace. Project war rooms are famously windowless and littered. Put your team in a large room with windows. Keep it meticulously clean. Whip out the citrus Windex if you must. Townhall, kick-off or workshop? Treat the senses. Put the group in a light room. Wear light colors and avoid flashy accessories. Splurge on delicious food. Make sure there are sweet drinks. Definitely avoid anything that smells bad. Whatever the research, you probably should keep the coffee!


  • The science: Using the concept of time causes people to consider their actions more carefully.
  • The application: What’s on the walls? A large clock? Good. You’re conveying that what happens now fits in a longer-term experience. A statement about your values? Excellent. You’re reminding people of a higher calling.

When we lead through change, we have a powerful tool in our arsenal: the physical environment. Science teaches us that spaces, symbols, and materials can work for us or against us. Design the environment to promote your change.

For fun, take a look at this video and count the number of times you see the ball passed. Environmental cues and priming impact all of us, even when we’re aware of and looking for them.