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COVID Cooperation: How Do We Get It?

Dear Mary: 

Early in the pandemic, the board at my condominium established house rules on mask wearing and social distancing in common areas. Now we’re urging staff members to get vaccinated. But we’re getting pushback on all fronts. How do we get people to keep cooperating? What works? What doesn’t? 

– Tuckered Out in Tribeca


Dear Tuckered Out:

Imagine behavior change as a series of hurdles to jump over. The first hurdle is believing that it’s important to change. The second is feeling confident that one can do so successfully. The third is deciding that the result is worth the cost – in time, effort, etc.

In encouraging mask wearing and vaccinations, boards face challenges around all these hurdles. Messaging about masks has been confusing from the start. Social media sites are a source of misinformation. Some people don’t trust the vaccines. We still don’t know how the behavior of vaccinated people affects others. How can a board succeed in this environment? 


What can work: strategies that help residents and staff get over the hurdles.


Communicate solid information from trusted sources. Clarify what you want people to do and why. You should wear a mask even if you’re vaccinated. The vaccines are safe and effective. Dr. Anthony Fauci is always a good go-to source. Consider quoting him and health agencies. Do you have trusted residents or staff who can encourage neighbors or coworkers? That approach can be very powerful.


Report what ‘everyone’ is doing. If it’s true, let people know that most of their neighbors or coworkers are engaging in the desired behavior. We tend to look to others for cues about appropriate behavior, particularly in unfamiliar situations. Communicate your building’s norms, and lead by example. (Note: Consider privacy concerns and union rules before sharing personally identifiable info.)


Point out positives. Talk about protecting families, neighbors and staff. Appeal to civic or community duty. Encourage connection to others, using “we” wording. Join us...we’re all doing this...we share the same goal. Express thanks for cooperative behavior.


Remove barriers. Try to make it easy. Are masks available at the front desk? How about providing assistance with vaccine appointments? Can staffers get vaccinated during work hours? Could you help with transportation to a vaccine site, if needed? What other barriers might you remove?


So what doesn’t work?


Threats. “Do this or else” approaches (including fines) should be a last resort. You may get compliance, but you can foster resentment and damage relationships. You become both the police and a collection agency. This isn’t just unpleasant, it’s also much less effective than the approaches above.


Paying staff to get vaccinated. Sounds tempting, but don’t do it. Such payment can diminish people’s intrinsic motivation to act altruistically. It also implies that the desired behavior is so unpleasant or dangerous that no one would do it for free. That could actually reduce compliance. And what about those who got their vaccine without a bribe? Do you want to penalize the very people who are already cooperating? Finally, if you pay some staff for this behavior now, you may find yourself having to pay everyone for everything in the future. 

And remember: your board has ongoing relationships with residents and staff. What you do today can affect those relationships for years to come. Using strategies that help people get over hurdles lets you keep relationships intact. Using threats and bribes does not.


Mary Federico serves on the board of her 240-unit Upper West Side condominium. Through her consultancy, Organizational Behavior Strategies, she helps leaders use behavioral science to improve their organizations.


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