When people get into the habit of exercising, they begin changing other parts of their lives for the better, too, often without realizing it. Studies show they start eating healthier and become more productive at work. They have more patience with coworkers and loved ones. They get more sleep at night. Regular exercise, it turns out, is a special kind of habit that encourages other healthy habits and helps them flourish.

Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, calls them “keystone habits.”

Keystone habits, Duhigg writes, are small changes in routine that lead to other positive changes elsewhere. The phenomenon isn’t limited to personal habits. When organizations disrupt habits around the right goal it can spark a similar chain reaction, dislodging old patterns of behavior and leaving more helpful ones in their place.

Keystone habits explain why Berkshire Hathaway Corp. is consistently ranked one of the world’s most admired companies and why its stock outperformed the S&P 500 year after year for more than five decades. Its CEO, Warren Buffett, is big on habits. At age 90, he still lives in the modest Omaha house he bought for $31,500 in 1958. He orders the same breakfast at McDonald’s every morning and plays bridge most evenings. If you check his schedule, Tuesday is haircut day.

But there’s one particular habit Buffett is especially fanatical about—reputation. “Lose money for the firm, and I will be understanding,” he’s been reminding managers for decades. “But lose a shred of reputation for the firm, and I will be ruthless.” Try to remember the last time you read a scathing story on the front page of your local paper about any of Berkshire Hathaway’s 70-odd subsidiaries—a list that includes Benjamin Moore, Geico Insurance, Duracell and NetJets. Go on, we’ll wait.

Making reputation a keystone habit doesn’t just avoid bad press. When employees take ownership of reputation they begin to see their contributions to the organization in a whole new light. They develop a deeper appreciation of the value of reputation and how easily it is damaged. They start to take reputation risk into consideration in their day-to-day work without thinking about it. They speak up when they see things that put reputation in jeopardy instead of turning a blind eye. They are mindful of how social media blurs the boundaries between their work and personal lives and are more careful about what they post and how they appear outside work as a result.

Ready to embrace reputation as a keystone habit in your organization? Here are five healthy habits to help get things started.

Make Reputation Everyone’s Habit

It makes sense that safeguarding an organization’s most valuable asset should be everyone’s responsibility, but getting workers to see reputation as part of their job descriptions and not just a passing corporate fad is easier said than done. Get the ball rolling with a clear, unequivocal message about the value of reputation and how it contributes to the company’s long-term success and their lives and livelihoods. Be explicit about the company’s expectations of employees, the trust invested in them and what they can expect from their leaders and managers in return.

Continually reinforce good reputation habits by recognizing and rewarding workers for behavior that builds reputation or averts crises. Use competitors’ reputation challenges as teachable moments to stimulate discussion and refine best practices. When an issue does manage to slip through the cracks, use it as an opportunity to hone good habits, not to point fingers or assess blame.

Encourage employees to raise questions and discuss reputation concerns openly and give them multiple avenues to do so. Provide a mechanism for reporting #MeToo issues, executive misbehavior, suspected illegal activity and other sensitive matters anonymously through an outside law firm or other third-party. Assure employees that false alarms are anticipated and show the system is working, and are preferable to failing to report problems or, worse, covering them up.

Create Tests, Not Rules

Leaders have to trust that employees will use sound judgment and common sense. They wouldn’t be on the payroll otherwise, right? It only takes 10 minutes watching videos of hideous customer service encounters on YouTube to understand why leaving people to their own devices where reputation is concerned is, as we say in the crisis field, a rotten idea.

As tempting as it may seem, creating rules and policies to dictate employees’ every decision is also a recipe for disaster. United Airlines learned this lesson the hard way when security agents forcefully dragged a doctor off a flight in 2017 after he declined to give up his seat to make room for a crew member who needed to get to Louisville. The root cause of the debacle was very simple: employees at every level did exactly as they were told—they followed the airline’s rules.

Instead of creating rules, create a test that helps employees get in the habit of pausing to reflect on actions and decisions before they proceed and inadvertently spark a reputational firestorm. Warren Buffett tells managers to use what he calls the “newspaper test.”

“I want them to judge every action they take not just by legal standards, though obviously that’s the first test, but also by how it would appear on the front page of their local paper, written by a smart but semi-unfriendly reporter who really understood it, to be read by their family, their neighbors, their friends,” Buffett says. “It’s pretty simple. If [the action] passes that test, it’s okay. If anything is too close to the lines, it’s out.” If a manager needs to call Buffet to ask him what to do after applying the newspaper test, he jokes, “there’s probably something wrong with them.”

Be a Better Listener

Tuning in constantly to what people are saying about an organization online is essential to shaping reputation and inoculating against crisis. It can provide an early warning of problems with service delivery, products, operations and workplace culture, and offer critical insight into how a company measures up against society’s expectations in areas like diversity and inclusion, equality and social justice.

There’s no question a company can gain plenty of information from just sitting back and listening. But if the goal is to gain reputation, it had best get in the habit of responding to what it hears.

Research shows that businesses that make it a habit to respond to online reviews—gushing or blistering—garner consistently higher ratings from consumers, 45% of whom say they are more likely to visit a business they see responding to negative reviews. Even more compelling, a third of customers who received a response from a company after posting a negative review said they followed up with a positive review, while another third deleted their original negative post.

And while it’s easy to dismiss negative reviews on sites such as Glassdoor and Vault as the work of disgruntled ex-employees, companies do so at their own peril. While it may be true that relatively few workers post reviews of their workplace experiences, it’s guaranteed that prospective employees are paying close attention to them when considering whether to work for a company. Even the most beloved companies get dinged by employees on occasion. A steady pattern or sudden uptick in negative reviews may be a symptom of deeper issues. In addition to demonstrating that the company is listening, engaging these employees can help narrow down problem areas for additional scrutiny.

Focus on Good Nutrition

Building a solid reputation takes time. Fixing reputation when it’s damaged takes even longer. There are no shortcuts, despite what self-proclaimed “reputation repair consultants” who prowl the internet promising to make negative search results vanish—guaranteed!—would have you believe.

Churning out articles and press releases packed with self-serving keywords to “optimize away” the detritus of past reputational wounds will probably have little effect and could have negative long-term consequences for reputation and search rankings. The same goes for flooding the internet with mediocre (or worse) content in hopes of driving unflattering search results off Google’s first page. Unless, of course, the goal is a mediocre reputation, in which case the strategy is spot-on.

The only proven way to add luster to how an organization appears online is to nourish Google with a steady diet of wholesome, high-quality, backlink-worthy content stakeholders want and search engines value. Tools like Google Keyword Planner and Moz Keyword Explorer make simple work of figuring out the kind of information people are looking for when they search online. Turning this insight into thoughtful, credible, high-quality content that responds directly to their needs shows the company is listening and interested first and foremost in helping them, not making a quick sale.

As an added benefit, packing Google’s first page with solid, sought-after content makes it that much harder for negative content to gain a foothold, in effect fortifying online reputation against unfavorable news stories or activist attacks.

Put Values to Work

Values can be a powerful tool for preventing corporate embarrassment, particularly that of the self-inflicted variety. Too often, however, they remain hidden away on companies’ websites between the executive team photos and timeline of notable corporate achievements. It’s time to bring them out into the light so they can start earning their reputational keep.

Like Mr. Buffett’s newspaper test, values provide a uniform framework to help workers analyze the dangers and opportunities presented by a particular decision or course of action. In a group setting, encouraging employees to ask questions like, “Is the direction we’re about to take aligned with our core values and what we strive to be as a company?” is a good way to make sure everyone involved has considered the situation from all sides and is comfortable with the decision reached before going forward.

Watch what happens as employees throughout your organization begin mastering new habits and making reputation a priority. Chances are, you’ll see them stepping up in other ways that boost performance, reduce risk, build stakeholder trust and demonstrate why making reputation a keystone habit is the gift that keeps on giving.

Next in our series on Building Crisis Immunity, we’ll lay out an exercise regimen to strengthen crisis muscles, boost reputational stamina and build crisis resilience. So lace up your sneakers, get warmed up and stay tuned. And if you’re just joining us, be sure to check out the first two chapters, Why Crisis Immunization is the New Crisis Planning in a Post-Covid World, and An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Truckload of Antacids.

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