Relationships aren’t as healthy as we’d like in teams and organizations around the globe. Research and our own observations tell the tale. TinyPulse’s 2017 global employee engagement report found only 26 percent of employees feel strongly valued at work, down from 31 percent one year ago. The Workplace Bullying Institute’s 2017 study found that 19 percent of American workers have experienced bullying in the workplace and 61 percent of Americans are aware of workplace bullying.

Issues with sexual harassment have also moved to the forefront. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s 2016 study of incidences of sexual harassment found that almost 60 percent of women in U.S. organizations have experienced sexual harassment.

Workplace relationships in your organization may not be this dire, but they likely can be improved. The approach I suggest requires leaders and their team members to make the quality of workplace relationships as important as business results. It doesn’t require a company-wide culture change initiative to improve civil treatment in a department – but it does require planning, structure and reinforcement.

Here’s how the new leader of an established department changed the dynamics in a team where a bad egg was creating frustration and disappointment in every interaction:

The leader inherited the team and was at her wit’s end. She’d tried to redirect the employee from his demeaning, discounting and dismissive behaviors for months, to no avail. This player’s behavior was not new; it had been a problem for some time. The organization’s leaders had been tolerating the behavior, which tacitly enabled it. Moving this person to a different team wouldn’t solve the problem. Firing the player would eliminate the problem but wouldn’t help the team evolve. The team needed to be part of changing the rules and reinforcing civil treatment daily.

Create Ground Rules That Specify Civil Behavior.

I coach leaders to embed ground rules that force team members to be civil to each other. Team members don’t have to be nice – but they can’t be mean. This approach is a way to embed desired values and valued behaviors on a practical, tactical level.

The ground rules take the form of “I” statements that everyone agrees to abide by in daily interactions. Effective ground rules include:

  • I am honest and do what I say I will do.
  • I do not speak or act rudely or discount others.
  • I selflessly support and execute team decisions.
  • I hold myself and others accountable for team commitments.
  • I celebrate individual and team efforts and successes.
  • I take responsibility for my actions and learn from my mistakes.
  • I engage everyone in a friendly and respectful manner.

The real traction, of course, doesn’t happen with the agreement on the ground rules. It happens only when the each team member aligns themselves to those ground rules and acts to hold their peers accountable for demonstrating them. Accountability means that team members promptly praise demonstration of ground rules and re-direct behaviors that are inconsistent with them.

If workplace relationships aren’t civil in your team or company, don’t delay. Don’t wait for an organizational initiative. Take the reins. Create ground rules that make sense, and then model them, coach them, reward aligned behavior and re-direct misaligned behavior.

You’re going to be there anyway, right?