When leaders talk about improving culture, values naturally enter the conversation. There’s a lot of discussion about sharing values, incorporating them into your daily communication, and generally making your standards ever present in the workplace. What happens next is infinitely more difficult. Some might call it the knowing-versus-doing gap.
Changing a culture, after all, means changing behavior, breaking patterns, doing away with what might be the default. When we had the chance to influence culture with the team at Prologis, there wasn’t a large singular event that transformed employees’ attitudes. Instead, there were many small yet significant moments over time that added up to a winning culture.
Bridging the gap between espoused values and motivating your people to act on them is very similar to the mental framework we experience when forming new habits. Atomic Habits author James Clear says that your life today is essentially the sum of your habits. If our work life is also the sum of our professional behaviors, it stands to reason that we can help our employees form new habits to honor our desired workplace culture.
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Clear’s simple set of rules that explain why we adhere to good habits form the basis for how you might implement your company values.
- Make it obvious – New habits need to be effortless if you want them to spread. Making your values part of the company’s everyday communication is a strategy that goes without saying, but telling people how to activate those values can be accomplished in a variety of ways to improve the culture. Perhaps you lead a company where you have frontline employees interfacing with customers or vendors and you want them to implement a more empathic way of handling issues. Providing them with scripted options to give them clear language for how you’d ideally like your folks to de-escalate conversations improves your client retention, reduces employee stress, and improves morale. Modeling the values you want repeated is another way to make new practices more obvious to those around you. Meetings are the ideal venue for modeling values since they’re interactive and reach a broader audience consistently over time.
- Make it attractive – If the new habit involves some effort, making the task engaging will help it catch on and be repeatable. If you’re a company that values internal referrals for your recruitment, making referrals attractive might mean offering an incentive so people are inclined to think about peers in their sphere who would be interested in applying for a job. This accomplishes two things: One is that if you’re hiring great people to begin with, chances are they network with others who are equally talented. The other is that you’re creating goodwill by sending the message that you want to build a company with more people like the folks you have. This strategy instills pride among current employees and motivates them to make helpful referrals that sustain a great culture.
- Make it easy – The less friction you create between your values and the new habit you want to perpetuate, the better. Let’s say your company appreciates employee feedback. How do you make that new habit easy? Soliciting feedback on a rolling basis often yields better results because employees can respond to short pulse surveys or when prompted in meetings. Research shows that employees prefer more frequent opportunities for impromptu feedback rather than lengthy forms they have to complete. Reinforce the perception that feedback is easy by demonstrating that you’ve heard the input and intend to act on it. With ongoing feedback to inform your decisions, you have a greater chance of reflecting a culture that people value.
- Make it satisfying – Our brains experience contentment when they encounter immediate returns on a new habit. Two types of reinforcement come to mind when I think about this rule: The first is that in-the-moment satisfaction that comes from recognition for a job well done. This gesture is one of the easiest ways leaders can emphasize behaviors they value. When recognition is specific and immediate, 92 percent of workers are more likely to repeat a specific action after being recognized for it. The second type of reinforcement can be creating conditions that cultivate the behaviors you want to promote. For instance, if you value curiosity or innovation, consider engaging your employees in a friendly competition to improve the way you do business.
Creating change within your culture is a challenging endeavor that requires time and buy-in from everyone on your board and management team. James Clear’s framework for adopting great habits is a helpful way to identify what makes a practice repeatable. Consider collaborating with your human resources department to explore strategies to meet these four criteria for each of your values. Before long, your employees will act on them in ways that lift up your culture, motivate each other, and create a climate that’s conducive to performance.