Beware Protocol Interventionistas

On The Fragility of Protocols

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In the Summer of Protocols Discord (anyone can join) there have been some interesting threads about the relationship between social protocols and situational comedy. Seinfeld is an example. What makes the situations funny are the characters breaking social protocols in unexpected ways. 

Comedians are like dowsing rods for protocols. Good comedians find hidden, routine behaviors that most of us do and point them out to the audience. Like Gary Gulman, who has a great bit about how he has a compulsion to create a level surface in his pint of Cherry Garcia ice cream – but because of the chunks, he inevitably eats the whole container. Sadness.

Some comedians go further and tease out a moral (or maybe even a new protocol). Daniel Sloss, for example, makes fun of people who have had the thought, “I wish my significant other would cheat on me so I had an excuse to leave this relationship without feeling guilty”. The audience laughs, because it’s relatable. But then he goes on, saying that if you feel that way, maybe it’s a signal that you should take action to exit the relationship. [1]

But comedians have masterful levels of social intelligence. They are attuned to human nature in a way that not everyone is. Indeed, a ripe source of comedy are patterns of behavior that are perhaps overly literal, rigid, and somewhat “cringey”. 

I got thinking about the concept of “cringe” being a cause of protocol failure after listening to a talk by Nancy Cartwright [2]. She said causal chains are fragile. Intervening might break a causal chain. Protocols might also be fragile – at least when they’re observed.

If someone is trying too hard to change a protocol, it could backfire. To be specific, by “trying too hard” I mean being both i) forceful and ii) inflexible in one’s intervention. A traditional big org is a classic setting where this happens. Team X gets issued a high-priority goal to achieve Y and is supposed to achieve that goal by implementing Z. In this case, Z requires changing the habits of several hundred employees (i.e. intervening in a protocol).

In this case, since the goal is high priority, Team X expected to be forceful in their approach. And since they’ve been prescribed a means to the end, the team has little agency – they are inflexible. Because of this, the intervention will probably fail. My theory is that Team X will be perceived as “cringey” and thus unable to effectively change behavior / intervene in the protocol. Not only will efforts to do so fail, but the element of cringe will actually degrade the protocol by association. 

Protocols are fragile in the sense that even well-intentioned actors can degrade them, simply by not being self-aware of the pressure that they’re applying to the protocol. People might ignore the protocol entirely to avoid being associated with the “cringey” group. Since a lot of protocols are embedded in culture, social factors play a big role in adoption. 

So interventionists need to be aware of this. A protocol left alone will likely work better than a protocol that is used as a point of leverage to change behavior. Even if you’re trying to achieve a noble outcome, I think there’s a healthy, non-zero chance that trying to manipulate a protocol could be massively counterproductive. Not because the effort failed, but because of the resulting damage to the baseline adoption of the protocol. 

Workplace safety is one classic example. Safety inspectors / experts / enforcers can be quite pedantic, which is cringe on a social level for a lot of people. The opposite of cringe is cool, so there might be an incentive for people to do the opposite of what the safety inspector says.

All that being said, I have no evidence to point in one direction or the other. I suspect it does, but cringiness might not affect things much. When I dive deeper into researching how safety protocols evolve, this will be something I look into. Stay tuned for that. 

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[1] This is very similar – if not a case of – Venkatesh Rao’s concept of Imaginative Irony. Making fun of the status quo or cliches or social protocols can lead to productive changes to how we work. Granted, there is room to fall into pit of self-pity if you merely complain and don’t exercise your creativity.


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