Why taking away control makes things worse


The fitness center in my building is pretty decent. There’s usually enough equipment for everyone, and it sure beats paying for gym membership and having to venture outside in the winter. But there’s one thing that really annoys me: some mysterious overlord controls the temperature, and you can’t adjust it. Why not? Because they put a locked plastic cover over the thermostat.

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen that approach. In fact, an office that I used to work in had the same brilliant idea. And just like the fitness center, the temperature was never confortable for the people inside the venue. This isn’t just a climate control issue: the same type of thinking is what leads certain coffee shops and airports to cover up their power outlets, thus preventing patrons from plugging in laptops.

In each case, the people running the venue are trying to prevent what they perceive as a problem by taking control away from customers. But this always backfires. In the gym, people open the windows to cool off — but on hot days, it ends up raising the temperature even more. In airports and cafes, people publish online maps showing where the best outlets are hidden, or might even resort to prying the covers off.

See the trend here? When you take away control from customers, the worst offenders find a new way to cause trouble. Meanwhile, the vast majority of customers — the well-behaved ones — suffer through a lower-quality experience. Instead of polarizing people by taking away all their control, try a compromise. For instance, a fitness center could install a digital thermostat that lets people control the temperature within a set range, while preventing them from leaving it extremely hot or cold. A coffee shop or airport could label certain outlets for customer use and put up signs asking that people limit their usage to one hour at a time. Show your customers that you trust them to act like responsible human beings, and I bet they’ll surprise you with their good behavior.