How civil is your workplace? Does everyone treat others with respect in every interaction?

Unfortunately, rude behavior is far more the norm in our workplaces. Georgetown University professor Christine Porath has conducted research over 20 years and found that 98% of employees have experienced “uncivil behavior” in the workplace, and 99% of employees have witnessed it.

Employees are paying greater attention to workplace culture. In a 2019 Glassdoor survey on mission and culture, 77% of respondents said they “would consider a company’s culture before applying for a job there,” and 73% said they would not apply to a company if its values didn’t align with theirs. In fact, this study supports the common sentiment that “culture eats salary for breakfast”: Over half of respondents said that company culture is more important than salary “when it comes to job satisfaction.”

These data points indicate that for organizations to attract and retain talent in the years to come, they must create respectful workplaces. Leaders are the most important pieces of that puzzle, but creating and sustaining a purposeful, positive, productive work culture is not something many senior leaders know how to do. In fact, they’ve never been asked to. They’re comfortable managing performance and results, but managing a civil, respectful work culture doesn’t come naturally.

This simple three-step process can help leaders throughout your organization to create a civil work culture. The three steps are define, align and refine.

1. Define

Defining your desired culture requires formalizing how you want people to treat each other. Your culture statement can be as simple as a set of ground rules or as elaborate as an organizational constitution (which specifies your company’s servant purpose, values and behaviors, strategies, and goals).

Ensure that your culture statement includes observable, tangible and measurable behaviors. By specifying behaviors, you can then measure how well leaders are modeling them. Just as you measure traction on results, you need to measure traction on civility and respect.

For example, one organization created five values and related behaviors as part of its organizational constitution. One of the five values is respect, and the company’s leaders defined it as “appreciating the worth of others and treating everyone with courtesy and kindness.” The valued behaviors required to model their “respect” value include:

  • I seek and genuinely listen to others’ opinions.
  • I do not act or speak rudely or discount others.
  • I work to resolve problems and differences by directly communicating with the people involved.

You’ll notice a couple of vital qualities of these behaviors: First, they are measurable; you could observe a person in this workplace over a couple of hours and know if he or she is behaving respectfully (or not). Second, they are “I” statements, which ensures that all employees understand how they must treat others.

2. Align

The second step is the most difficult. It takes the longest length of time and, more importantly, requires leaders to drive it.

Leaders throughout the organization must demonstrate the company’s valued behaviors in every interaction. Their role-modeling builds credibility for the new way of operating. Leaders must also coach others: They must consistently (and daily) observe behavior, praise it when it’s aligned to the defined culture, and redirect it when it’s not.

This step requires skills that many leaders do not have. If that’s the case, train them on providing feedback, validating aligned behavior, providing effective praise, engaging promptly when someone demonstrates behavior that doesn’t align to your desired culture, etc.

You’ll also need to train leaders on how to set clear boundaries and how to have difficult conversations with people who don’t model your desired behaviors. They will need to put those misaligned employees on a behavior contract; for example, some organizations use a performance improvement plan and a respect improvement plan to address gaps. Many leaders will need training on how to have those conversations in a calm, nonjudgmental fashion.

3. Refine

The final stage occurs every 24 months or so. It enables leaders to review their valued behaviors or ground rules and revise them if needed to improve the effectiveness of those expectations.

This three-step approach can help you create a civil, respectful work culture.

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