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Is it Possible to Operationalize Civility?

One of leaders’ most important jobs is to establish goals and priorities for their teams.

They hold employees accountable to things like sales quotas, manufacturing quotas, and user acquisition goals. They expect all employees to understand what those goals are and focus on working together to meet them.

When it comes to setting standards and goals for behavior between employees, though, things get a little fuzzy. In fact, few organizational leaders bother with any goal-setting in this area. They may make some effort, such as instituting some mandatory training or adding a harassment policy to the employee manual. But compared to other business-related initiatives, civil behavior efforts tend to lack a sense of urgency.

That’s unfortunate, because there’s a lot at stake with how your employees treat each other. Expensive lawsuits are always an intimidating threat, but lost productivity due to bad behavior can be catastrophic on its own. Plus, the business benefits of making people feel comfortable and welcome at work are hard to ignore: Civil environments lead to things like better retention and better teamwork, which have big financial payoffs

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The key to prioritizing civil behavior just as you would another business initiative is to operationalize it, getting specific enough with your goals that the values become part of standard operating procedure.

It’s possible to make this work in your own office. Here’s how.

1. Get Specific About Which Behaviors You Want to See

Business leaders aren’t the only ones who need to take relatively vague concepts and define them objectively. This job is essential in studies like sociology, where researchers must measure things like “fear” and “crime” to analyze their relationships. These words often mean different things to different people, so researchers need to get everyone on the same page in order to study them objectively.

They do this by “operationalizing” the terms to give them measurable outcomes. For example, for the purposes of a study, the concept of “fear” could be assessed by asking people if they’re willing to walk alone in certain places at certain times.

By linking behaviors to values, the values become easier to define.

Businesses can benefit from these same methods. Instead of stating that employees are expected to demonstrate a value like “respect,” which can be interpreted differently by each person who hears the word, leaders should take it a step further and establish “value-linked behaviors.”

Behaviors that illustrate the value of respect, for example, could be letting people finish their thoughts without interrupting, speaking directly and without sarcasm, and criticizing ideas instead of people.

2. Keep it Clear and Simple

Throwing an entire behavioral handbook at employees and teaching them about all the various ways they can go wrong, including the most subtle forms of harassment and stereotyping, is usually ineffective and can sometimes even lead to backlash. (Related article: Why Focusing on Microaggression is a Bad Idea)

For cultural change to stick for the long term, the ideas behind them must be simple and clear for employees to understand.

Part of attaining that clarity is making expectations action-focused, as we mentioned in step one. Knowledge and awareness are great, but if they’re not paired with an understanding of how to act on that knowledge, they don’t do much other than make people uncomfortable. (For that reason, ELI’s training is based on live, interactive practice with scenarios people are likely to face in real life.)

The second part of making training simple enough to stick is learning to focus on what’s most important. If the “about us” page on your web site lists ten core values with paragraphs describing each one, you’ve made things too complex.

You can probably think of dozens of value-linked behaviors like the ones we described in step 1 that you’d like to see in your workplace. But focusing on a handful of them at a time is the best way to realistically affect cultural change. If employees are overwhelmed, the status quo will prevail.

3. Start Taking Action

The term “operationalize” implies taking concrete steps to put something into action, and that’s what you need to do with civility in your workplace.

Civil behavior should be internalized by staff and holistically integrated into the day-to-day operations of the business consciously. Leaders have to take action on these values to make sure they’re realized. However, the actual steps required can be quite simple.

Consider this anecdote from ELI trainer Tucker Miller. She recalls watching the leaders of a company she was working with struggle to find a simple way to instill civility in their own culture. She pointed out another cultural change that they had successfully incorporated in recent months: hand sanitizer. It was placed throughout the facility, she noted, and she was now consistently offered it whenever she checked in. How had they managed to make that cultural change?

The company leaders laughed and said that they took health very seriously. And there was their answer.

That’s right: There were no mandatory hours of handwashing training or a section in the employee handbook explaining the consequences for failing to sanitize. People just observed the behavior of company leaders and their colleagues and took the initiative to follow suit.

Another great example of operationalized values is the prioritization of safety in the manufacturing industry, as we mentioned in our post on rising incivility in the workplace. Because ignoring manufacturing safety guidelines can have catastrophic consequences, both for employees and for end users, there’s a tremendous amount of attention paid to making sure safety is observed constantly. Although this priority is also formalized into rules and guidelines, the constant discussion and weight placed on the value leaves little doubt about its importance

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Yet another example of an operationalized value that Steve Paskoff discussed recently in a post: Consistency and speed at McDonald’s and Starbucks. Those values are so central to the culture of these companies that they’re apparent at each and every location you visit. That amount of consistency requires top-down leadership and lots of operationalized attention.

Your organization needs to take the same approach with civility that it does with health, safety, efficiency, or whatever core value is already established in your culture.

The Need for Leadership

Some people aren’t sure it’s possible to make people behave civilly at work. But it’s definitely possible when you break down your civility goals to concrete, actionable steps and stay dedicated to putting them into action.

A final reminder: None of this works without leadership and accountability.

A civil workplace is impossible without the right leadership and accountability. Click To Tweet
Civility cannot be seen as the responsibility of just certain people. It needs to apply to all levels of employment, from the CEO to the newest hire. If leaders don’t demonstrate the values of civility personally, they have little chance of seeing a real cultural change.

At ELI, we’re experts at helping organizations become civil workplaces. We specialize in creating actionable, lasting cultural change in all kinds of organizations. If you’re ready to learn more about our award-winning training, please request a quote. We offer plans and training options for all sizes and budgets.

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