Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

How to Change Social Norms at the Office

Joseph Grenny 

Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.



QDear Crucial Skills,

I moved to a new branch a year ago and am managing a new team of people. The long-standing norm has been to allow staff to spend time on activities that are not work-related. I am very frustrated with what I believe is dishonest behavior, as people use paid time to do personal chores. I am also concerned that my frustration will come across to the staff in the wrong way.

I have looked to many sources to deal with this effectively. When I bring up the issue, things change for a short time, and then behavior reverts back to old habits. How can I get across to the staff once-and-for-all that this is not acceptable?

New Kid in Town

A Dear New Kid,
I applaud your integrity. We operate in a far less-supervised workplace than people did fifty years ago. So much of our work is electronically mediated and done independently, that there is a much greater temptation to slack off now and again. And given all the tools that make it easy to e-mail, shop online, connect with friends on Facebook, or share videos on YouTube—it takes an enormous amount of self-discipline to stay focused on the job you’re paid to do.

You face a tricky situation because your challenge is not how to change bad behavior; it’s how to change bad norms. It’s one thing to confront the inappropriate meanderings of one individual. It requires a wholly different strategy when you’re attempting to reset the norms of a group of people.

Here are some thoughts about how to approach your problem. You’ve got at least three crucial conversations to hold:

1. Establish air cover. The big problem with bad norms is you don’t know how high and wide the acceptance runs. If, for example, your peer managers in this new location give tacit approval to personal indulgences during work hours, it’s much harder to establish new norms. It’ll be even harder if those above you have enabled this behavior. If this is the case, then the first crucial conversation you need to have is with other managers and your bosses.

When discussing the problem with peer managers and bosses, you’ve got to give yourself air cover in the form of facts and data so you won’t be standing alone when the going gets tough. Gather and share data about the frequency of the problems and do some rough calculations of the effect on costs or other important business results. In doing so, be sure not to come across as indignant or self-righteous. If you do, you’re more likely to be seen as a zealot than as a reasonable leader.

Your goal in these crucial conversations is to establish mutual purpose. Don’t push them faster than they’re willing to go. Let the data do the talking and let them come to conclusions with you about what to do. Of course, if the problems are open-and-shut violations of policy, you’ll need to notify HR or other appropriate leaders—but if we’re talking about sloppy management and gray area issues, these conversations are your most effective influence tool.

2. Make it public. Next, you need to start a public dialogue about these concerns. Bad norms are usually established in silence—no one discusses misbehavior but everyone is guilty. The first thing you need to do is openly and publicly acknowledge the frequency of the concerns. Show a bit of respect by acknowledging your own natural tendency to fall into bad behavior when others are doing so. Be careful that you don’t come across as thinking you are better than your colleagues. Instead, talk about your growing awareness of the ethics involved and share your perceptions about the consequences of this behavior (on costs, customers, peers, etc.).

3. Clarify three kinds of consequences. Your goal in the crucial conversation with your staff is to help them clearly understand the importance of changing their behavior. Less effective influencers attempt to motivate people to change solely with threats. Remember, you aren’t trying to alienate them; you’re trying to help them change. You’ve got to work with these people to get things done and don’t want to start your relationship with them by provoking resentment. As we’ve suggested in Influencer: The Power to Change Anything, you’ll do far better if you have three sources of motivation rather than just one. Your goal is to help people change through personal, social, and structural motivation.

Personal: Raise the issue candidly and respectfully as a moral issue and invite people to challenge your view of the concern if they see it differently. If people don’t immediately feel defensive, they are likely to realize they have fallen into moral sloppiness. If this happens, you’ll have their consciences as your ally in influencing change. And that’s an ally that is with them more often than you are.

Social: Encourage people to respectfully confront violations of the new norm. They are unlikely to join you to begin with—but letting them know there will be social consequences for misbehavior can be a powerful deterrent.

Structural: Let people know what sanctions will be applied for first time or repeated offenses. This public discussion—done in a respectful way—can cause people to be far more conscious of their choices than they have been in the past. If you do this well, you’ll take a big step toward disrupting the past norm. The last step is to establish the new norm.

4. Follow up scrupulously and compassionately. New norms are established when people experience immediate and consistent social consequences for their behavior. So be sure they do. If you see violations, confront them. But also confront those who were aware of them but said nothing. You need to not only communicate your desire for new behavior—but also your expectation that others will join you in encouraging the agreed-upon values. And when repeated offenses occur, be sure to invoke the sanctions you committed to. But when you do, do so in a way that shows you get no satisfaction from inflicting punishment. If you seem vindictive or remorseless about it, you will once again alienate those you’re trying to influence.

The bottom line is if your goal is simply to crack down on bad behavior, you can go in with guns blazing. But if your goal is to influence sustainable and healthy behavior, you’ll have to use a broader range of influence strategies—beginning with a few crucial conversations.

Best wishes in your worthy attempt to change the behavior of your team.


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1 thought

  1. Lee

    One additional step I recommend was noted in another “Crucial Conversation” – get your head right.

    In this context, that means when collecting the data on employee activities, be sure to *also* note data that doesn’t support your viewpoint. For example, are employees consistently coming in early, leaving late, and taking/making business calls during “off” hours?

    It is absolutely possible that the employees are taking unfair advantage in this company. However, it is also possible that they are following a more flexible schedule while putting in full effort and work.

    I would be extremely careful to understand exactly what is going on before attempting to make changes. You might not like the consequences if the employees also begin to keep work at work – which is the logical outcome of having all personal activity shut down. The 24/7 reality of many businesses is why a lot of companies began to offer reasonable personal activity during the workday. It helps offset the early/late/weekend hours employees put in.

    Definitely a situation to listen carefully.

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