How to Create a Healthy Workplace Culture Through Clean and Clear Communication

Jeanne Malnati is the CEO and founder of The Culture Group, where she’s been making an impact in organizations and in her community. This post is based on her Ultimate Culture Conference presentation and features insights from her consulting work and in building an award-winning family business, Lou Malnati’s.

Lou Malnati came to America from Italy by boat when he was 17 years old with a dream to make a lot of money. He worked for 22 years making pizza at Uno’s’ and Dues’ in Chicago with his dad and grandfather. The day arrived when he decided it was time to go out on his own.

In 1971, Lou Malnati opened his first pizzeria in Lincolnwood, Illinois. Two years after that, he opened a second in Elk Grove Village. Sadly, Lou passed away from cancer at the young age of 47. My husband, Marc, had just graduated from college at the time. And though he hadn’t imagined or wished to be in charge of his father’s restaurants, there he was. Marc had a lot of energy. He decided to open a few more locations.

Out of Chaos Comes Change

In the late 80s, we were opening our eighth restaurant in Buffalo Grove, IL. It was our largest restaurant to date. We’ll never forget the third night we were open. It was a Saturday night. People were lined up halfway around the building waiting to get a table. They were hungry and excited with anticipation of the yummy deep dish. Inside, however, was utter chaos. We were short-staffed, new hires were dropping pizzas, we were burning pizzas in the kitchen, the phones were ringing off the wall, and we couldn’t make the pizzas fast enough. I don’t know how many free pizzas we gave away that night. Managers were yelling at the servers and it was not a pretty sight.

And as if all of that wasn’t bad enough, out of the blue, two of our top people working that night, a regional manager and a member of our executive team who had been with us for over 10 years, walked out and quit. Whoa, what just happened? Walked out and quit? We are Malnati’s, we are one big happy family.

Jeanne encourages honest and open conversations in her work with leaders and teams to help improve their effectiveness. If you have not already done so, sign up and join our Ultimate Culture Community to view the full video.

When the dust settled and we spoke with them, their feedback actually suggested that we had become a dysfunctional family. Lou created a place where he bellied up to the bar: he loved people, people loved him, and they loved being there—customers and staff alike. That was the culture that had been created. With the sudden, fast growth of the company, the people and communication part got dropped out. The two employees who walked out reported, “We don’t feel cared about, we don’t feel seen, we don’t feel respected, and we don’t feel heard.” And they did not return.

When my husband heard this there was a big fat “ouch!” At about that same time, I was in school to become a psychotherapist. He and I were in therapy, learning some great tools and focusing on just that—our relationship and the communication that was or was not happening. I said to Marc, “It sounds like people aren’t speaking honestly with one another; they’re not really seeing or caring about one another. It’s all about the pizza, and not the people.”

With that thought, Marc took his team offsite and brought in a therapist/coach, and for four hours the executive team yelled, screamed, and hollered at one another about how unhappy they all were. Four hours! And that one month wasn’t enough, so they did the exact same thing the following month. Finally, there was a breakthrough. The anger had subsided and was replaced by tears, and then care and concern for one another. People felt a new-found freedom to speak their minds, share their feelings, and ask for what they wanted and needed.

Communication, Malnati Style

I called this The Malnati Effect. It was our first ‘cleansing of the relationship container’ and helped start the “communication groups” at Malnati’s. That was the late 80s. Today we have over 20 small groups with over 180 managers participating. Using trained facilitators, 8 to10 people meet once each month, for two hours, with the sole purpose of communicating face-to-face with each other: to have the honest conversations and to “clear” with one another.

It’s amazing what happens when people make themselves feel safe in a circle and open feedback is encouraged. People learn to care about each other on a whole other level, and it creates a place where you feel trusted and respected. At the time, we didn’t know we were creating culture. That was a foreign concept back then. Today we realize we had begun creating a healthy work environment where people loved arriving and performing every day. The Malnati Effect. It’s about honest face-to-face conversations.

Our culture is not all about the pizza. It’s about coming together and caring about one another, about each other’s growth, personal and professional. Caring enough to speak the truth to one another.
-Jeanne Malnati

Today, we’ve been named by the Chicago Tribune for five consecutive years as one of the top workplaces in Chicago. What was chaos and crisis back then is now a healthy culture with people relating to each other. It’s not easy work, but it’s definitely needed—and worth it.

Tools to Build an Award-Winning Culture

Five years ago, I moved on from my psychotherapist practice and started a business, The Culture Group—the business of conversation. I have developed dozens of simple, yet extremely powerful, tools to help increase one’s interpersonal and communication effectiveness to use with your teams, your culture, and in your overall life.

One of the tools is SASHET Check-ins. SASHET is an acronym that stands for six main feelings: Sad, Angry, Scared, Happy, Excited, and Tender. At the beginning of a meeting, as you are seated in a circle, each person does a “check-in”, using the SASHET tool to express what you are feeling in the moment and why. Using this common language helps you to describe and express what’s (really) going on instead of simply saying, “I’m fine,” “I’m good,” “I’m okay.”

A second tool is The 24 Hour Rule. You can use this tool to help leaders shift culture; it works like this: Let’s say Tim comes into your office and starts talking about Mary. “Oh, that Mary. She is so…bugging me…” When people in the workplace commit to The 24 Hour Rule, you and Tim know that he has 24 hours to meet (in person or by phone) with Mary to discuss and resolve the issues he had just been talking about (gossiping) with you behind closed doors. Having honest conversations can be difficult at first, but this tool alone has helped create environments where people begin to thrive and be happy on a whole new level.

The third tool is Check It Out. Let’s say your boss passes you twice in one day without saying “Hi” or acknowledging you (which is uncommon). Before this scenario takes on a negative interpretation, the Check It Out rule can bring peace of mind quickly. It goes like this:

  • You: “Hey Bill, do you have a minute? I have something I want to check out with you. You passed me twice without a greeting and instead of making up a story in my mind of why you didn’t, I wanted to check out and see if you’re doing OK, and/or see if everything is OK between you and me.”
  • Bill: “Thanks for checking. We located our missing materials and I have three hours to get it redirected, so I’m laser focused on resolving that matter.”
  • You: “Is there anything I can help with?”
  • Bill: “No, but thanks. And “hello!”—All is good with you and me.”

That’s it, done deal, finished, moving on. Very powerful tool; check it out.

At Malnati’s and when I work with teams, a goal is to care about each other’s growth—both professional and personal. A place to begin is with feedback—honest feedback. I believe giving each other honest, face-to-face feedback is a “gift.” Speaking the truth—in love—promotes an atmosphere of, “I care about you and your growth and advancement as much as I care about my own.”

This kind of consciousness, this people-oriented work, this ‘deep-dish dive’ can be demanding, yes, but in order to have a healthy culture this type of work must be done. Having the conversations, the cleansing of the container, checking things out, stopping the gossip at the water cooler—the meeting after the meeting—all of this is extremely important if you desire to excel. The bottom line IS affected. Employee retention rises. Goodwill permeates. People will give the shirt off their back to one another.

The challenge is to implement these tools and start having the honest conversations, consistently. This is not about a one-time, mountain-top experience doing team building on a ropes course.

A challenge to you: Over the next week, ask two different people, “Will you give me a “gift” by sharing with me feedback about my blind spots? What do I not see about myself? How could I be a more effective leader?” Because, if I have pizza sauce on my face, I won’t know unless you tell me I do.

We all long to be seen, don’t we? To be noticed. When I work with teams, I encourage people to start with an honest conversation. How important is this for a healthy culture?

I welcome learning about how you support clear communication in your organization. Let me know via the social media buttons below.