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Why do I put so much emphasis on good leadership? Simple: leadership sets the tone of an organization. It’s what separates a great company from a mediocre one. If you have a toxic culture at your organization, chances are it can be traced to the toxic behavior of your leader.

I recently had a chance to interview Jeanne Malnati, a Chicago psychologist who works with leaders, teams, and organizations to create thriving workplace environments, on my VoiceAmerica radio show iLead: The Leadership Connection. Among other topics, Jeanne and I discussed why culture has become such a buzzword.

The pizza epiphany

The Malnatis are known in Chicago for their chain of award-winning pizzerias. Jeanne told me about an awakening that happened while the family was in the process of opening their eighth restaurant.

“It was the third night we’d been open, and there was just chaos going on in the restaurant,” Jeanne said. “Pizzas were being burnt and managers were yelling at the servers and customers were complaining. In the middle of that, two of our top people, who had been with us over ten years, walked out.”

“We were like, ‘Whoa. What’s happening here?’ Because we were the Malnati family and everything was hunky dory, or so we thought.”

“Come to find out, we had a very toxic culture, even though we didn’t know how to name it at the time. We had to really dig in and see what was happening. Why did these people leave? We had no idea they were so unhappy.”

Slowly, the family began to realize they’d been so focused on turning out pizzas and pleasing their customers that they’d been ignoring their people. They learned the hard way that if employees are unhappy, it affects everything else.

‘Cleansing the relationship container’

At the time, Jeanne told me, she was in school earning her master’s degree in social work. She recognized that there were clearly some relationship issues going on within the family business.

The family hired a coach and a therapist to take the executive team off site for an exercise Jeanne calls “cleansing the relationship container” — an opportunity for people to vent their anger and frustration.

“It was pretty brutal, pretty tense,” she said. “And we found cleansing wasn’t enough. So we came back the next month and did it again. And there was more anger, but there was a breakthrough that happened as well. There were some tears, there was asking for forgiveness. There was just an amazing shift. We went forward with a vision of caring more about our people. And that was the start of a healthier culture.”

Malnati’s is now up to 43 restaurants in the Chicago area, and the managers still meet in small groups every month to have a clear and honest conversation with one another.

“The people inside, they feel cared about,” Jeanne said. “They feel seen. They feel heard and respected. It’s been very powerful.”

The Clean & Clear Communication System

When Malnati’s began receiving community awards as a top-rated workplace, the family decided it was time to share their management secrets with other companies. So Jeanne created The Culture Group, a coaching and consulting company that helps organizations develop healthy workplace cultures.

One of her primary tools is called the Clean & Clear Communication System, where groups and teams learn to have honest, face-to-face conversations.

I asked Jeanne how she keeps these meetings from becoming — for lack of a better term — bitch sessions.

“It’s not easy,” Jeanne admitted. “Sometimes there are tears, and that can be embarrassing at work. It’s all just part of the process. When someone starts complaining, the facilitator stops and says wait a minute, what’s going on? What do I need to do to take responsibility for this and stop blaming?”

“It’s about interpersonal relationships, building trust, building respect,” Jeanne said. “When people see it and get it and do it, when they take the risk, it’s very exciting. When you learn tools like this, there’s a trickle-down effect not only in the company, but in your personal life.”

Handing out hearts in the workplace

Jeanne’s habit of giving out little pewter hearts began when her youngest daughter was about to leave the country for a six-week internship and Jeanne slipped a heart charm into her suitcase as a surprise. Later, Jeanne and her husband, Mark, began carrying pewter hearts in their pockets to help them stay connected during her own trip overseas.

The tradition grew from there. Jeanne bought a bunch of little hearts and began handing them to people who touched her heart, or who just seemed to need a pick-me-up.

“We all long to be seen and recognized, especially out of the blue,” she told me. “It’s all about spreading good will and love.”

Now she passes out pewter hearts wherever she works. And she sells inexpensive heart charms on her website so others can do the same. “Sometimes, we need a little reminder that we’re loved and everything’s okay,” she said. “Slide this heart across the table before you have the conversation, and it breaks down barriers and lets people know you care about them.”

Three simple tools for good communication

One of the techniques Jeanne teaches is something called SASHET — an acronym that stands for Sad, Angry, Scared, Happy, Excited, and Tender.

“It’s a simple tool to help people learn to stop and acknowledge what they’re feeling,” she said. “What’s going on right now? Am I feeling sad? Am I feeling a little angry? It gives us a language everybody can use. You can express in a healthy way what you’re feeling, instead of ‘How are you?’ ‘Oh, I’m good! How are you feeling?’ ‘Fine.’ That tells us nothing.”

“It just helps us to learn more about one another,” she said. “You are being seen, and people may treat you differently. ‘Wow, Lucy’s sad today. She just found out her mom has cancer. I can be a little kinder to her. I can write her a little note. I could give her a little heart. I could smile at her.’ ”

Another tool is called Check It Out. “Maybe a co-worker walked by my desk twice and didn’t say hi or acknowledge me,” Jeanne said. “If you’re kind of in a bad place that day, you might wonder, ‘Why didn’t they say hi? Maybe he doesn’t like me.’ If that was me, I would stop by my co-worker’s desk and say, ‘Hey, Mary, I noticed you didn’t say hi and I’m starting to make up stories in my mind, so I’m coming to just check it out. Is everything okay with you and me?”

“Seriously, 95 percent of the time people are like, ‘Oh my gosh, no, this has nothing to do with you.’ But it also gives people the opportunity to say, ‘You know what, there is a problem. Let’s set up a time to talk about it.’ ”

And then there’s the 24-Hour Rule. “Let’s say you went into John’s office and closed the door,” Jeanne said. “You’re talking about Tim. Tim did this or he didn’t do that, and you’re so irritated and angry.

“The 24-hour rule means you now have 24 hours to have this conversation you had with John, face-to-face with Tim.

“It really cuts down on the backstabbing and complaining. You think twice about griping, because you’re going to be held accountable,” Jeanne explained. “It’s a powerful way to help shift a culture away from that toxic stuff.”

Three pieces of advice for leaders

I always ask guests on my show for three pieces of advice for business leaders. Jeanne was quick to respond.

“I would say number one, be your own unique self,” she said. “Trust yourself. Whether it’s in your own business or in life, be who you are.”

“Two, have relationships in your life, in your office, and in your home where you can be real and vulnerable. Have a group of people you can ask for feedback, who will tell you your blind spots and let you know how you can be a better employer, better leader, better spouse, or a better friend. Have people who speak the truth in love. It’s so important.”

“I would say the third is to be a person of integrity. Be trusted. Use the 24-hour rule in your own life, in your own relationships, not just at work. Check it out. Check out these colorful stories you’re making up, have the tough conversations.”

It’s not always easy, Jeanne and I agreed. The results might be a little tough or hard to hear. But now you have the opportunity to do something about it.

As I often say, the truth will set you free.