The first step in culture change: Ground rules exercise

by Aug 28, 2015

I travel around the world speaking on the topic of workplace bullying and I’m always asked one question: Where do I start?

The answer is with an exercise that will get the conversation going about workplace bullying, and more importantly, workplace civility.

During your next company-wide meeting break your attendees into groups of four and give them 15 minutes to answer this question: How would you like to be treated by your peers and managers?

If your company is too large or spread out to do company-wide meetings, or if you just don’t have them, you can always pass this exercise along to the department heads and let them run the exercise in their own teams. If you’re in California, you could also do this with managers and supervisors in the next sexual harassment training since you’ll already be on the topic of how to behave – and not behave – at work.

After 15 minutes ask each group to share their answers. As they call them out, write them on a whiteboard or large sheet of paper. Or you can type them out onto a Word document that is projected onto a screen. This is an important step in the exercise because they need to see that their desires and needs are similar. They will realize that they all want the same things. I’ve done this exercise many times in many organizations of all industries and sizes, and the list is always the same few items. We’re all humans and we all just want to be valued and we all just want to be treated with civility. Period.

Once you’ve completed the exercise, go back to your desk and group similar items together in order to make a more manageable list. I often just start making categories as I see them, and then move bullet points into the categories where it seems they fit. For example, you may notice a trend of bullet points that say, “acknowledge,” “praise,” “say thank you,” and “recognize others’ good work.” You can put those bullet points all into a category called, “Appreciation.” You may also notice there are several bullet points around communication, such as, “listen,” “use a civil tone of voice,” and “share information with everyone who needs it.” You might then create a category called, “Effective Communication.”

If you’d like an example, here’s a document created during a training with one of my clients. This is the document that was projected on the screen and filled in as groups shouted out their answers. In this case I ran five training sessions, and each session ended with this exercise. I just kept projecting the same document and adding to it. (A meeting attendee typed out the answers while I facilitated the collection.) From there, I created this document, which compiled the behaviors I collected into a set of three values and provided a description of what those three values meant. The descriptions come from the variety of answers I received in each of the three categories.

These two documents highlight the power of this exercise. I had four pages of behaviors and in the end was able to whittle them into three categories: respectful communication, trust, and teamwork. Realizing they all shared the same dream was powerful for them, and now they could come together and decide how to make it happen.

Now that you have whittled your own list down into something manageable you can use this consolidated list for all sorts of things. For starters you can put them in the healthy workplace policy. You’ll get buy-in for the policy because the behaviors the employees are being held accountable to came straight from them.

You’ll also be able to use your list of behaviors for a variety of other things such as a social vision statement, corporate values, performance management, lunch-n’-learns, rewards programs, and more.

Contact me if you need any help. I’m happy to help you figure out what to do with the ground rules gleaned from this exercise.

One example of using the ground rules to end workplace bullying involves one of my clients who worked with people with disabilities. Their mission was to help people with disabilities in their community participate in the community as much as they were able. They wanted people with disabilities to thrive – whatever that meant for each individual client given their disability.

They realized that workplace bullying was keeping their own organizational members from thriving in the community because they were unleashing unhappy people into the community at the end of each workday. After a training from me about workplace bullying and how to change the culture, we completed this exercise I am describing to you here in this post. Eventually they came up with the social vision, “A place to thrive” and revamped their corporate values to represent the behaviors that came out of this exercise.

Now employees could feel like they were thriving, and in turn could help clients thrive. Anyone who wasn’t on board with the new way of life and the new values either left on their own or was let go. Those that were let go were let go under the guise of being ill-fit with the culture. Since they were given a chance to demonstrate the values via performance improvement plans, the organization suffered no liability for unemployment insurance or wrongful termination. The organization had effectively tied together the vision, the values, and performance.

Ultimately, the best part about this program is that your actions will tell employees you are ready to listen to complaints about workplace bullying and incivility. Listening will get you the information you need to make a business case to your C-Suite for making change, and it will give you an idea of where to start.

Contact me if you need any help.


Do you know how much money chronically bad behavior costs your company? Spoiler alert – it’s a LOT higher than you want it to be. Download our data and worksheet to see how it’s costing your organization and what you can do to fix it.

About Catherine Mattice

Catherine Mattice, MA, SPHR, SHRM-SCP is President of consulting and training firm, Civility Partners, and has been successfully providing programs in workplace bullying and building positive workplaces since 2007. Her clients include Fortune 500’s, the military, several universities and hospitals, government agencies, small businesses and nonprofits. She has published in a variety of trade magazines and has appeared several times on NPR, FOX, NBC, and ABC as an expert, as well as in USA Today, Inc Magazine, Huffington Post, Entrepreneur Magazine, and more. Catherine is Past-President of the Association for Talent Development (ATD), San Diego Chapter and teaches at National University. In his book foreword, Ken Blanchard called her book, BACK OFF! Your Kick-Ass Guide to Ending Bullying at Work, “the most comprehensive and valuable handbook on the topic.” She recently released a second book entitled, SEEKING CIVILITY: How Leaders, Managers and HR Can Create a Workplace Free of Bullying.

Rebecca Del Secco: Six Years With Civility Partners!

We would like to take a moment to celebrate and recognize the incredible contributions of Rebecca Del Secco, our exceptional People & Culture Consultant, who has dedicated six remarkable years to Civility Partners.  Rebecca began her journey with us as an intern,...

Recognizing 5 DEIB Influencers in Unexpected Places

Picture this: a world where workplace culture is transformed not just by well-known DEIB influencers, but by unexpected heroes who wield the power of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) in their own unique ways.  DEIB are increasingly recognized as...

10 Songs About Inclusion to Play in your Office

In a diverse and inclusive workplace, it's important to create an environment where all employees feel welcome and valued. One way to promote a sense of unity and acceptance is through the power of music.  Playing songs about inclusion in your office can help inspire...

It Starts with You: The Power of Being an Upstander

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you witnessed behavior that made you feel uncomfortable or uneasy, but weren't sure how to respond? Maybe it was a situation where someone was being bullied or harassed, or perhaps it was a situation where someone was...

Three More Brilliant Tips for Dealing with an Angry Boss

A few years ago, we shared five simple tips on how to deal with an angry boss, and the response was overwhelming! We're back with even more tips to help you navigate this challenging situation with civility in mind. According to a survey conducted by the Workplace...

Insights from the Craft Brewers Conference

Last Sunday, May 7th, I had the honor of being a keynote speaker at the THRIVE pre-conference, which was a roadmap to a safe, inclusive, and equitable experience at the Craft Brewers Conference (CBC). As a conference held in Nashville, TN, a city known for its musical...

3 Tips to Leverage Positive Psychology at Work

In the world of traditional thinking, the notion that success leads to happiness is a commonly held belief. We're taught that if we work hard and achieve our goals, then we'll be happy. However, research in positive psychology has revealed a new perspective: happiness...

The Power of Psychological Capital in Creating a Positive Work Culture

Have you ever pondered why some individuals seem to flourish in tough situations while others flounder? It's likely due to their high level of psychological capital, also known as "PsyCap." Researchers in the field of positive psychology have even coined the term Post...

3 Fun Team-Building Exercises to Boost Employee Engagement

When your team members feel appreciated, connected, and invested in their work, they tend to be more productive, creative, and committed to the success of your company. But how do you keep your team members feeling engaged, connected, and excited about their work?...

How Does Your Work Culture Measure Up?

Workplace culture is like the secret sauce that gives your organization its unique flavor. It's a mixtape of attitudes, behaviors, and vibes that make your team groove, from epic dance-offs during lunch breaks to friendly rivalries over who has the coolest coffee...