Why do people obey traffic lights?

This post is going out to my friend Matt Eckert from Holiday World who is recovering from a nasty traffic accident.  From my understanding this wasn’t caused by someone running a red light, but for not following other traffic laws.  Godspeed, Matt, for a quick recovery!


How often do you hear leaders and managers complaining about the fact their employees won’t follow the rules? How often do YOU complain about it? Well, it occurred to me the other day (while sitting at a stop light) that the vast majority of people obey traffic signals. Of course you know me… I wanted to know why, and how we could apply this to our businesses.

I came up with three main reasons why people would obey traffic signals:

  1. It’s a common practice. Call it peer pressure or whatever you want, but when the overwhelming majority of people are doing the same thing, others will follow. If you pull up to a red light and there are lines of stopped traffic to the left and right, you stop (unless you happen to be Ben Gates).
  2. There is a severe consequence to NOT obeying the signal. Personal injury and death top the list. On the other hand, what happens if the light turns green and you don’t accelerate fast enough for the people behind you? You get honked at!
  3. People crave some sort of structure. Knowing what to expect and being able to count on that makes people feel safe and secure. If you were to measure someone’s heart rate as they approach a 6-way intersection where the light isn’t working versus a 3-way stop on an open country road, there will be a difference. Heart rates quicken with uncertainty and anxiety sets in… aaaahhhh!

So, how do you apply this to your business? Glad you asked! Let’s look at those three points again:

  1. It’s a common practice. In order for this to occur in your business, you must have crystal clear expectations, and those must be communicated constantly and consistently. I know why I stop at a red light… do your employees know why they need to be to work on time?
  2. There are consequences (and rewards).  Take a look at what happens to your employees when they don;t follow your rules.  Is that consequence consistent?  Is it fairly distributed?  If there is one thing that employees can sniff out, it’s a policy that is not enforced at all or inconsistently.  We all know what happens then…
  3. They want structure. This sort of ties the first two points together. If you have clear expectations that are followed, and your standards are enforced consistently, then your employees will know what to expect from you and their workplace. Without some sort of structure, chaos prevails.

It’s never too early or too late to start working on these three points.  The longer you wait, however, the worse the traffic gets!

Thanks for reading!