The Wheatsville Way: A System for Better Workplace Accountability

The Wheatsville Way: A System for Better Workplace Accountability

Dan Gillotte | 07-01-2019

It’s hard to create a positive workplace culture, and it seems to be even more difficult to understand how holding staff accountable to standards of internal service, hard work, and cooperation actually make a workplace better. At Wheatsville Co-op in Austin, Texas, we’ve developed a system that builds organizational alignment, recognizes high performance, and helps supervisors hold staff accountable for important agreed-upon standards— and you can, too!

Wheatsville, like most food co-ops, struggled over the course of our history with any kind of accountability. Around 2009 we adopted a time and attendance policy, due to concerns of unfairness and frustrations voiced in a staff satisfaction survey.

That policy, while not universally loved, did establish a fair and clear system of accountability around attendance. Since establishing this system, we have used it diligently. However, as the general manager I found that it was the only place where we had real alignment and consistency, and some of the more important but less clear performance areas were not being addressed by supervisors very well.

How can you successfully, consistently hold people accountable for friendliness, hard work, and achievement, being positive and solutions-based, adaptable and helpful? It’s challenging, but our system helps—a lot.

The pillars

We established four pillars to describe what we expect out of all Wheatsville staff: Friendly, High Achieving, Positive, and Cooperative. You can develop your own pillars at your co-op, but you can also just adopt these and have success. (That’s what GreenStar Co-op in Ithaca did, when I helped them roll out this system in Fall 2018.)

These pillars all work together: staff need to be friendly AND high achieving, positive AND cooperative. This is an important concept, because we’ve all had those staff who were really friendly but extremely slow-moving, or that super-fast and efficient stocker who was just a jerk to everyone. Expecting staff to achieve in all areas creates a well-rounded workforce that helps build the kind of workplaces we want at our co-ops.

Inside and outside the circle

Each pillar is, in effect, also a circle. These circles consist of: the Bullseye, the Expected Zone, the Edgy Area, and Outside the Circle.

Overall, we expect that staff will operate within the Expected Zone at all times at work. The Expected Zone is achievable by everyone we hire. It’s not an impossibly high bar by any means, but when everyone is working in the Expected Zone, the work is going well.

The Bullseye is an achievement. This is going the extra mile, making-people’s- days kind of work and should include lots of high fives when achieved. If people are in the Expected Zone or the Bullseye,

then work is really going well. We’re getting a lot done, people are working together well, and the time is zooming by. This is how we want work to be as often as possible.

Sometimes, people might act in a way that is Edgy. Edgy is not the end of the world. Retail work is tough, and we’re going to be challenged sometimes. But when staff are Edgy with each other, they should expect to be talked to by a supervisor and move to the Expected Zone quickly. Someone who is frequently Edgy may need to begin getting corrective actions, depending on the frequency and the issue.

When people behave in ways that are unacceptable, we consider them Outside the Circle. This is serious and will definitely result in a talking to by the supervisor and probably a corrective action. These are transgressions we never want to see at our co-ops—but without an effective way for supervisors to address them, they may happen.

Unpleasant workplaces have people behaving in an Edgy fashion or Outside the Circle all the time. Most restaurant kitchens, for instance, are full of this kind of behavior. These behaviors do not make good workplaces, and a system like the one we’ve created gives us a way to address these behaviors with staff effectively.

Behaviors NOT attitudes

An important aspect of our system is that we establish the behaviors and actions that are in the Bullseye or Expected Zone or Edgy Area or Outside the Circle. As we’ve implemented and taught this program, we have found that people really understand exactly what kinds of behaviors are inside or outside the circle for each pillar and can articulate them clearly when asked.

We are not mind readers, right? That’s okay, because people demonstrate through their physical actions and behaviors that they are or are not behaving the way that we need them to at Wheatsville. People show us whether they are being Friendly, High Achieving, Positive, and Cooperative.


Inside the Circle: High fives, smiles, greetings, holding the door for people, knowing people’s names, family friendly jokes, walking people to products, using the 10-4 rule, buying someone a cup of coffee, showing appreciation.

Outside the Circle: Swearing at people, ignoring, gossiping, rumor mongering, inappropriate jokes or touching, fighting, making fun of people.

High Achieving (Hard Working)

Inside the Circle: Moving quickly, getting a lot done on your shift, helping other people, coming up with faster ways to do things, being thorough, being in the know, maintaining or achieving accuracy, continuous improvement, making improvement based on feedback.

Outside the Circle: Slacking, leaving hard work for others, working messily, making orders or food incorrectly, allowing inaccuracy, long off-topic talking, riding the clock.


Inside the Circle: Using a cheerful voice, smiles, open body language, solutions-based, says yes, tries new stuff willingly.

Outside the Circle: Gruff, frowns or scowls, closed body language, resistant to new things.


Inside the Circle: Teamwork-oriented, picks up shifts, flexible, thinks about the department, the store, and the co-op as a whole, adapts to change, sets up next shift, puts stuff back where it belongs.

Outside the Circle: Frequent call-outs, “not my job (department, problem, etc.),” always says “no” to new things, looks for reasons why things won’t work, leaves early while there is still work to be done, leaves work stations messy, doesn’t take out recycling or trash.

A better workplace where difficult conversations are easier

Setting clear expectations helps you in hiring and onboarding staff to build the workplace culture with the positive virtues you want. Establishing and teaching these concepts helps your co-op to more likely be the kind of workplace you want, where people want to work.

What we realized in developing this approach, and what has been found to be true through teaching it, is that when people are in the circles work is fun, customers are happy, work gets done. It actually makes work better.

Having such a system established allows supervisors to have more difficult conversations that they may have previously avoided, because we have a shared language to use. Our supervisors have frequently remarked about ways in which

they have used the terms Outside the Circle or Edgy to discuss a behavior with staff person who needed correction. Sometimes this helps the staff person know what behaviors we want to see more of and what we don’t want to see, and they can correct their actions and stay employed and succeed at Wheatsville. Sometimes it helps them decide that they don’t want to behave that way and then choose to leave, or it gives us a simple clear path to corrective action and termination, if necessary.

Says Celia Ross, our Guadalupe front-end supervisor: “I was able to explain, ‘You’re Outside the Circle in this category for this reason.’ We had a shared language, so they knew what I was talking about and fully understood

what I was saying. Having a shared vocabulary is very helpful.” Lesley McKechnie, deli supervisor, says: “A staff person in the intro period was not living up to our expectations on High Achieving. We had a conversation about what behaviors are Inside the Circle and spoke about examples of what Inside the Circle behavior would look like. They took ownership of it: ‘I guess it’s up to me, then.’”

The importance of positive reinforcement

Ultimately, this system gives supervisors shared language to find ways to praise their staff frequently. We expect that Bullseye behavior will be met with high fives, “Caught in the Act” forms, and even commendations from supervisors. When staff are being praised for their good behavior, it creates a virtuous circle where more of your staff want to get that praise, too.

For the most part, the positive side of this system is actually even more important than the accountability component. If you consider developing this program, I strongly encourage you to make sure you have strong visible ways to highlight Bullseye behavior.

How people want to behave at work

These concepts concerning how we want people to work at Wheatsville are actually the way most people want to work at most places—but we find that it isn’t trained or demonstrated, so it doesn’t actually happen at other workplaces. In spending time establishing and expecting this at our co-ops, we can ensure that our co-ops really are places where people want to work.

In our history of being the friendliest store in town, we have found that some staff like the fact that we’re a friendly and caring place and that we have so many awesome people working here. But they didn’t understand that when they acted jerky that they weren’t just not contributing to a positive work environment but were in fact eroding it. The pillars and circles really help to show people this, I think.

We like to think our work environment is magical but not magic… It gets made every day by folks being “In the Circle.” And it can happen at your co-op too!


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