Smiling employee at meeting in healthy company culture

Perhaps you are trying to transform a negative company culture. Or maybe you haven’t been consistent with hiring to fit a healthy company culture, so there is inconsistent culture alignment. You might also be dealing with the fallout from employees carrying the baggage from the toxic environments of previous employers that fit the following description:

“Companies aren’t big happy families where everyone plays together nicely. Rather, most workplaces are made up of fiefdoms where executives compete for power and credit, often in hidden skirmishes that make their own performances appear superior and their rivals’ seem worse. Divisions compete for resources and sabotage each other to steal glory. Bosses pit their subordinates against one another so that no one can mount a coup.

Companies aren’t families. They’re battlefields in a civil war.”

― Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

Workplace battlefields can leave scars on your employees that cause them to repeat the same toxic culture patterns over and over.

How do you help these employees turn their unhelpful behaviors into helpful ones?

The good news that there is a common, measurable process employees go through when they are learning a new approach or behavior. And it’s simpler than you may have thought.

The Behavior Equation

Behavior = Perspective + Values

If behavior comes from employees’ perspective or point of view and values, then the way to change behavior is to reshape the driving perspective or value. But how is that done?

Here’s a little secret: Everyone does what makes sense to them–what makes sense in the context of their personal perspective or viewpoint on the situation and the way they rank or place importance on the values involved.

This is such a natural dynamic that most people tend to be unaware of why they are doing what they are doing. And that’s where it always starts…being unaware that there is any other choice.

Step 1: Unaware

So much of our behavior comes from perspectives and values that we aren’t even aware of until we run into someone who acts on a different value than the one we currently hold. At that point, we become aware that a new value exists.

This is where education begins. You must clearly and consistently communicate what value you are promoting and expecting.

Step 2: Aware

Once your employees become aware of a new value, they have the opportunity to compare that new value to their old value. This is where training comes into play. There’s just no substitute for correctly training your employees if you really want to turn around a toxic company culture.

You need supervisors and others in the top levels of your organization to be the ones who most embody your company’s values and mission. By spending quality training time with these people, your employees in the “unaware” stage will often begin to change behaviors and habits without even realizing it.

After you train your employees in your culture and values, they may desire to change old habits (such as passing the buck or gossiping about other coworkers), but awareness by itself is not enough to actually bring about change.

They have to find the path forward through what we call “Focused Attention.”

Step 3: Focused Attention

“Change might not be fast and it isn’t always easy. But with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped.”

― Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

The basic evaluation phase involves working through these steps:

  • Identify what the new value is
  • Describe what it looks like in action
  • Evaluate the pros and cons of the new value
  • Learn how you use it
  • Decide when you use it

The more thorough these steps are, the more likely a long-lasting decision will be made in favor of or against adopting the new value in question.

As you’re creating a healthy company culture, you can help your employees focus attention on the new values in three ways:

  • Personal Training
  • Training Videos
  • Encouragement and Recognition

At our parent company Qualbe Marketing Group, one way we accomplish personal training is through 1-Minute Manager sessions each week. In these sessions, we go over what the employees accomplished that week and where they need assistance. We also talk about how team dynamics are doing and ways we can strengthen certain core values in the way we do our work each day. Supervisors ask what they can do to help their team members be successful – not only in the quality of work but also in modeling the Core Values.

Training videos are also helpful. For example, we encourage inbound sales representatives to watch short training videos in between calls. Many of these videos have selling advice, but a lot of them also focus on how to cope when you’re having a bad day or how to deal rightly with a difficult customer. Some of your top supervisors who consistently mode your Core Values can be the ones who record these videos.

Finally, Qualbe encourages the Core Values through a form of recognition called Rock Star cards. The goal is to spread “good gossip” around the company. For example, someone might say, “Bob modeled Core Value #1 – Respect people as inherently valuable – just now. A customer was screaming when she first called, but Bob was calm and respectful the whole time. By the end of the call, the customer was thanking Bob for listening to her and helping her solve her problem.” These Rock Star awards are sent to the office via email each week so we can be encouraged to model the Core Values by our coworkers’ examples.

Step 4: Choose

If the new value survives the microscope of focused attention, you come to the point of choosing to act on it. In a healthy company culture, employees need to be motivated to make the right choice every time – the choice that aligns with your company’s Core Values.

It is always a very intentional, mindful choice. And it is usually chosen with a lot of skepticism and maybe even anxiety, but for whatever reason, the potential benefit of the new value has been determined to be worth the risk.

One of the most difficult parts of turning around a toxic company culture is that you have to be tough. Companies are often afraid to let people go even if they consistently spread dissent after repeated warnings, even if they repeatedly fail to model the Core Values and do not even seem to be trying. You can’t be afraid to give warnings and, if necessary, let someone go if they consistently choose to abandon the values of your company. If you want your company to be a well-oiled machine, you all need to be rowing the same way.

This choosing phase will repeat itself over and over until it is either abandoned (because of enough negative experiential data gathered), or it becomes preferred. Your employees must learn to naturally prefer your Core Values in order to turn around a toxic company culture.

Step 5: Prefer

If the new value passes the scrutiny of the previous 4 steps, it stays around a while longer as preferred. It has become the new normal.

In the long, hard battle to root out toxic habits and get everyone rowing in the same direction, the key is to get a majority if your employees on board with the correct values – especially those in leadership. They have to consistently prefer to model the Core Values even in situations where they’re very difficult. In the workplace, as in life, doing the right thing is not always the easy thing.

The tricky thing is that ultimately someone’s preferences have to arise within themselves. Someone might be able to abide by your Core Values short-term. They might be able to model them externally while fighting a battle on the inside. But ultimately, unless your Core Values become their natural preferences, they will revert to old habits when the going gets tough, and they may abruptly leave your company because they get so exhausted by the double act.

The question inevitably surfaces:

Are they really committed to these values long-term?

And that very question ushers in the next phase: Sorting.

Step 6: Sort

Sorting often looks like backsliding or slipping back into old behaviors. For concerned supervisors or mentors in the workplace looking on, it can be a very anxious time. But it is a very important stage to work through if you want a healthy company culture. No one is perfect, and no one’s development looks exactly the same.

Now that an employee has spent some extended time trying out this new value, they can effectively compare it to the old one. This “apples to apples” comparison allows us to make an informed, intentional decision about how they are going to conduct themselves in the workplace – in day-to-day interactions with both coworkers and customers.

So, often they revert back to the old approach to “test it out” and make sure they want to move forward and not go back to old habits. This testing might manifest in a number of ways:

  • Playing the “blame game” with coworkers when they’ve been doing so well lately at taking responsibility
  • Taking credit for someone else’s work when they’ve made so much progress at being a team player
  • Reverting back to lazy habits like coming in late, leaving early and watching YouTube videos at their desk when for months now they’ve been a diligent worker
  • Complaining about customers or workload when for the most part they’ve been such an encouragement to their coworkers

This is a stage in which employees decide for themselves which habits to finally adopt: the habits of their old, toxic work culture or the habits of a healthy company culture.

Step 7: Characterization

“Champions don’t do extraordinary things. They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking, too fast for the other team to react. They follow the habits they’ve learned.”

― Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

Here’s where this particular journey ends — where your team becomes a well-oiled machine. Your employees have learned about a different value; they have tried it out and practiced it. They have evaluated its effectiveness compared to their previous work paradigm. And they have made their decision.

Either they have chosen to be characterized by the new Core Values—the new way of doing things—or they have chosen to reinforce their character by sticking with the old, previously-held values.

When you understand these 7 basic stages people move through in the process of change, you are able to more effectively measure your employee development efforts and progress with each new change you have challenged them to embrace in your efforts to cultivate a healthy company culture.

Being able to see the baby steps of progress in our team members helps us endure as we go about a very difficult job. And recognizing when a person has rejected the new value or when they have abandoned the exploration of change, prevents us from a long and exhausting struggle and spinning of wheels.

So what about you? Where have you seen this paradigm in action? Do you recognize this path from personal experience?

If you want to learn more about our tool we created specifically to build a healthy company culture and eliminate toxic habits, click here.