HR Pros – Using “Rule of Thirds” to Build Positive Culture

Unless you have been unusually successful managing workplace culture (more on this below), there are some general rules that can help you when planning changes, improvements or just plain communicating company decisions to your employees. Not all your employees love and support the company or are apt to embrace change.

Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is actually about photography – dividing an image into sections. A related concept is used in political campaigns in order to tailor messages to undecided voters. Campaign managers assume that some will support the candidate no matter what he/she does, some would never vote for the candidate and some are on the fence. Convincing the fence-sitters to vote their way is a key strategy for being successful.

It is a useful concept when thinking about your employees, grouping them, and spending time addressing the groups with the most to gain. This can be helpful when planning policy changes and initiating a cultural shift to a healthier standard. Picture it this way – at any given time, your employee base is made up of three general groups with a range of attitudes about you as an employer.

  1. Approximately one-third of your employees like the company, appreciate the job and work to achieve company quality and results goals (champions). 
  2. Approximately one-third do not like the company, do not enjoy their work and may not be all that hard-working (negatives). 
  3. Finally, one-third are neutral, and might be swayed by their employee peers or a well-constructed company promotion (undecideds). 

If you take the time to survey employees you will be able to pinpoint more exact numbers but you get the idea.  Competent HR Pros spend time talking with employees and since “negatives” tend to complain,  you generally know who they are.  Another way to identify negatives is when implementing change.  Negatives don’t like change and may drag their feet, even be suspicious of company ulterior motives. Even if they don’t speak up to owners, they may sew descent among their peers.

How to use this information

This information is key to creating a positive work culture overall.  Highly successful and efficient companies spend more time cultivating relationships with champions and undecideds and less time trying to convince negatives to like the company. Its frustrating to watch companies spend most of their time and attention on the picky, negative opinions offered publicly by disgruntled employees. You can’t please everyone so why beat yourself up over criticism that’s generally a distraction?  On the other hand, if these individual are causing damage to the company’s reputation or poisoning other employees, handle this through the performance evaluation process. Spend most of your valuable time working to reward the “positives” and engage the “undecideds.” Talk to them and listen carefully. These are the employees you want to understand more fully.

When making changes/improvements

Knowing your employee groups when planning a change is essential.  If you have a great idea for improving a work process and the positives love it, it’s probably a good idea.  If the positives have concerns or critique, it probably needs work.  Negatives tend to complain about any change particularly if it means working differently. As mentioned above, when you communicate something new negatives will let you know that you can’t count on them to work harder/smarter.  Listen carefully and think about how you manage employee performance and attitude. When negatives  move from just talk into negative actions, it is time to look at your performance evaluation process.  Do you include an accountability for promoting healthy, positive behavior or perhaps something about supporing company improvements?  If not, you may want to refine your performance management tools.

Who is negative and who is a perfectionist?

Negatives may simply be glass-half-empty people or they could have had a specific interaction with management that didn’t go their way.  In any event, they speak up about what they don’t like.  You should be careful, however, not to dismiss every negative comment as irrelevant. When negatives lodge complaints, it’s important to listen for content that must be addressed. Some complaints have merit and require solutions. Likewise, some positives are perfectionists whose natural process is to analyze processes for weaknesses.  They make great editors and would be good “early testers” when you want to test out new ideas. Understanding your employee group and listening as appropriate is a smart way to improve employee engagement.

360 degree culture management

When a company embarks on a comprehensive workplace culture improvement initiative it will be helpful to know more precise proportions of the company’s “thirds.” How you might improve workplace culture overall is beyond the scope of this piece but it would clearly involve an agreed-upon set of principles and values that outline team work,  collaboration or whatever is important as employees work together. Strategies for recognizing employees who exhibit those values every day shows employees you are listening and paying attention to their behavior. An example of cultural values would be, treating everyone with respect. Recruitment and performance evaluation systems should be bringing “positives” into the company and notice when they operate in a respectful way that foster’s company goals. These efforts could involve mechanisms to reward good performance and improve poor performance and poor attitudes. Finally, you should include public acknowledgment of company leaders and employees who model/live by the company’s stated values.

Hire and reward more positives; convert undecideds into positives; curtail the complaining and unproductive behavior of negatives;” and when necessary, move negatives out of the company all together.

(c) Copyright Benoit Consulting, LLC 2021 revised 2023, all rights reserved

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