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No, You Don’t Have to Be Disrespectful to Run A Successful Organization

Respect is not a nice-to-have, but a necessary leadership skill. Treat others how they want to be treated.

By Gustavo Razzetti

October 27, 2021

We all want to be treated with respect – and dignity – in the workplace, but not all respect is the same.

Respect is one of the most important qualities that creates a positive work culture. Both managers and employees need to respect each other and their colleagues. A respectful atmosphere encourages dialogue, collaboration, and creativity.

You show respect to your colleagues by paying attention, listening to them, and treating them with kindness. However, respect is more than just treating people with dignity. It’s about respecting their views and ideas, listening to their opinions, and taking them as valid.  

Respect is an act of empathy.

In this article, I will explain why respect is vital, affecting both interpersonal relationships and the bottom line. Hint: most managers are clueless about how to leverage the power of respect.

What Is Respect in the Workplace?

Being respectful to your coworkers is not just good for them – it’s good for business, too. However, if you ask a manager what matters the most in the workplace, respect is not top of their list.  

Leaders set the tone – the way you treat people says a lot about your leadership.

Christine Porath said it best in her TED Talk: “How you show up and treat people means everything. Either you lift people up by respecting them, making them feel valued, appreciated, and heard. Or you hold people down by making them feel small, insulted, disregarded, or excluded. Who you choose to be means everything.”

Incivility at work has significant costs for employers. It consumes a lot of time and energy that could be used for solving business problems. When people are rude to each other, it causes division, reducing information sharing and open communication.

So, what’s incivility – the opposite of respect?

Incivility is disrespect or rudeness – it includes a lot of behaviors such as mocking, making jokes, calling people names, interrupting when someone is talking, or texting instead of listening to you.

What is uncivil to one person might not to another. Disrespect is in the eye of the beholder – it’s about how you make others feel.

"They may forget what you said - but they will never forget how you made them feel." – Carl W. Buehner

Small transgressions usually go unpunished. Most leaders tend to look the other way and minimize the impact of disrespectful behavior. Unfortunately, studies show that small, uncivil acts can lead to bigger issues – like violence and aggression.

Incivility affects the bottom line.

Research shows that 48% of people decrease work effort, 66% said that performance declined, and 78% agreed that their commitment to the organization declined. In the long-run, incivility is a key reason why people quit their jobs.

The best way for leaders to communicate that sense of value is through respect. Being treated with respect, Porath noted, “Was more important to employees than recognition and appreciation, communicating an inspiring vision, providing useful feedback—even opportunities for learning, growth, and development.”

Respect pays off. It increases positivity and psychological safety, leading to better collaboration and risk-taking. When managers are civil, their team members are more likely to respect each other.

Start by breaking the golden rule. Don’t treat people as you want to be treated. Treat them as they want to be treated.

The Great Resignation Is All About Respect

You can’t respect someone you don’t understand.

There’s a clear gap between why employers think their employees are leaving and the actual reason behind the great resignation. If there’s something that we can learn from McKinsey’s great resignation survey, it's how disconnected managers are from what people want.

The study found that employees were far more likely to prioritize relational factors – feeling valued by their organization and managers, working with caring and trusting peers, and having a sense of belonging.

The top two reasons employees cited for leaving (or considering leaving) were that they didn’t feel their work was valued by the organization (54%) or that they lacked a sense of belonging at work (51%).

In contrast, managers tend to focus on transactional factors. They think that improving compensation and the work-life balance will drive loyalty. People look for meaning at work. It’s not that money doesn’t matter. But a higher salary cannot make up for lack of respect.

It’s no surprise, then, that imposing policies such as back to the office are backfiring. Rather than making rules on their own, leaders need to understand people’s expectations. Including employees in the process is a sign of respect.

McKinsey’s article failed to realize that attraction is not the solution to attrition. The change is not about your organization becoming more attractive (focusing on you), but increasing empathy and respect (focusing on people).

Some of the key issues related to a lack of respect are sheltering toxic leaders (and cultures), a lack of effective leaders, transactional cultures that focus solely on results at any cost, and benefits that don’t take care of people’s life challenges.

It’s not the first time that respect tops the list.  

In a recent Georgetown University survey of nearly 20,000 employees worldwide, respondents ranked respect as the most important leadership behavior. In another study conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 72% of employees rated 'respectful treatment' as a top-rated behavior for job satisfaction.

Rudeness is a problem in today’s society. 95% of respondents of the “Civility in America” survey agreed with that statement.

People are rude to others because they’re tired or stressed out and don’t realize how their actions affect other people. When someone feels hurt by an act, it doesn’t matter whether or not that behavior was deliberate; the person will still feel hurt.

In contrast, a healthy work environment, where the employees’ efforts get addressed, fuels the motivation to perform the best.

However, employees have been reporting more disrespectful and uncivil behavior each year.

Take Amazon’s recent blow-up as an example. The tech giant has a paid leave problem that costs people money – and sometimes their jobs. The New York Times dubbed it “Amazon’s worst human resources problem.”

Amazon’s employees consistently reported that the company has systematically underpaid people who took parental leave. Workers were fired when the attendance software mistakenly marked them as no-shows, or doctor’s notes vanished into black holes in the corporate databases.

It doesn’t matter that Jeff Bezos has recently acknowledged that the system was “inadequate”– Amazon employees feel disrespected.

Breaking the cycle of rudeness or incivility requires a candid assessment. Start by understanding the different types of respect in the workplace.

Is Respect Earned or Owed?

We all want to be treated with respect, but not all respect is the same. There are two types. Lack one and you’ll feel miserable.

Respect is much more than providing a civil culture and making everyone feel appreciated. It’s also appreciating those who have displayed the right behaviors. Respect requires seeing people as human beings, not human resources.

People who often feel respected don’t think about it very much – the absence of respect is easier to acknowledge than its presence.

As Ron McMillan wrote in Crucial Conversations: “Respect is like air. As long as it's present, nobody thinks about it. But if you take it away, it's all that people can think about.” The author explains that the instant people perceive disrespect in a conversation, the conversation quickly becomes about defending our dignity.

Senior executives don’t think about respect very much. This is either because they believe they deserve respect from their team or because they are unaware of how badly they treat their employees.

Even worse, most leaders don’t understand the different types of respect and the roles they play in creating a collaborative culture.

A study by Kristie Rogers, a professor of management at Marquette University, shows that employees value two distinct types of respect: Owed and Earned.

Owed respect is rendered equally to all members of a team or organization. It’s consistently displayed through empathy, civility, and a positive atmosphere. Owed respect is the notion that all employees are fundamentally valuable.

Richard Branson said, “Respect is how to treat anyone, not just those you want to impress."

Earned respect is the result of one’s accomplishment. It recognizes individuals for their unique skills, behaviors, and contributions. You earn this respect as a result of what you accomplish.

Leaders usually assume respect is a given. They believe that their position will guarantee them respect. There’s a difference between being respected for being part of the organization and for your title. Leaders have to earn respect from their teams – it doesn’t come with the title.

According to Rogers, one of the challenges in creating a respectful workplace is finding the right balance between the two types of respect. As she wrote in a recent paper, an imbalance can backfire.

Workplaces with lots of owed respect but little earned respect can make individual achievement a low priority for employees. It sends the message that everyone will be treated the same regardless of their performance. This is the challenge most Tribal cultures face – by treating people as a family, they avoid conflict and lower the bar.

On the other hand, organizations with low owed respect but high earned respect promote individualism and internal competition. This is typical of highly Aggressive Cultures where individual performance is prioritized over collaboration.

Finding the right balance helps create a culture in which both collective and individual respect are experienced – everyone deserves to be respected as a human being and anyone can earn respect for their unique skills or accomplishments.

A civil workplace requires respecting both the human being and the professional. But there’s more to it.

Respect is connected with our identity. Show respect for others both as individuals and professionals – not one or the other.

The Three Levels of Respect

The effect of respect goes beyond making people feel valued. A respectful workplace drives job satisfaction, resilience, and engagement.

Employees who feel respected are more grateful for – and loyal to – their organizations.

However, not all respect is made equal.

Research suggests that companies should invest more in training managers to communicate respectfully and nurture employee well-being. The rise of a hybrid workplace requires not just respectful communication, but also respect for boundaries. People need to be respected for the choices they make – how, when, and where they work from.

A study by Kansas State University examined two facets of workplace respect to determine how leaders can improve workplace culture. The survey result revealed that autonomous respect was a stronger predictor of resilience and engagement than respectful engagement.

Respectful engagement is being present to others, affirming them, communicating, and listening in a way that shows appreciation. It requires active listening – to appreciate other people’s worth.

Autonomous respect is about accepting and trusting the person. It’s making people feel respected for who they are beyond their position or title.

“Autonomous respect is a lot more meaningful to employees, and they want to earn that respect through the interpersonal communication with those that manage them,” Danielle LaGree, the professor who led the study, says.

Both types of respect matter, but autonomous respect matters the most.

Leaders must become better at – and spend more time – getting to know their team members. They must learn more about what drives their employees – purpose, passion, and interests in life. Investing in personal development is as important as promoting professional development.

“In terms of engaging employees and retaining them over time, they want their leaders to advocate for them. Part of doing that is showing them respect,” LaGree added. Companies have to respond to people’s need for meaningful work. To “contribute not just to the bottom line of the organization, but also its purpose.”

Respect in the workplace is about respecting people as human beings, professionals, and grown-ups. Some are owned from day one; others must be earned.

Respect for autonomy is a human right. People want to control their lives, not be told how to do things. It means that every adult person has the right to be involved in decisions that affect them. Respecting people’s wills and preferences are central to promoting autonomy.

”Respect is an appreciation of the separateness of the other person, of the ways in which he or she is unique.” – Annie Gottlieb

Months of working from home have disrupted our notion of work. We want meaningful jobs, not just to make a living. We have come to appreciate flexibility and autonomy more than anything else – even company perks.

Autonomy is the best way to motivate your team.

Show Me Some Respect

Treat your employees for what they are – human beings. Show them some respect. Treat them the way they want to be treated.

Here are seven ideas to get you started.

1. Trust people from day one

In most organizations, it takes time to be trusted. You must earn respect. At Atlassian, people are shown respect from day one. The software company offers people a “holiday before you start.” New hires receive a travel voucher to take a vacation before they even start working.

That’s how you show respect.

2. Remove hierarchical barriers

Respect requires treating everyone as an equal. Regardless of seniority or tenure, all employees should be treated evenly. At Pixar, hierarchies don’t get in the way. Everybody can talk to anyone. It doesn’t matter if you are an intern; you don’t need an appointment to crush John Lasseter’s office.

Respect is how you treat everyone.

3. Rule out disrespect

Bad apples can quickly ruin your culture. Having zero tolerance for disrespectful employees helps set the tone. Have a no-asshole policy and enforce it – culture is the behavior you reward and punish. The All Blacks have a “no-dickheads” rule and Slack has zero-tolerance for “brilliant jerks.”

Regardless of individual performance, there should be no room for players who continually disrespect their colleagues.

4. Reframe assumptions about people

Disrespect in the workplace is usually a consequence of ingrained beliefs. Underlying assumptions about your people send a clear message whether or not you respect them as grown-ups.

Many years ago, the CEO of AES realized that most of its company rules treated people as if they were lazy, selfish, or thieves. He realized that the corporate policies send a powerful message – in this case, lack of respect.

The CEO revisited the rules to ensure that employees were treated with the respect they deserved – like trusting grown-ups.

5. Nothing about me without me

Respecting people requires including them in the decision-making process, especially when the outcome will affect them.

When Gravity’s CEO, Dan Price, had to choose between laying off 20% of his employees or going bankrupt, he shared his dilemma with all the employees, asking them for ideas. Rather than laying off people or cutting everyone’s salaries by 20%, people came up with a better solution. Each employee would take a salary cut depending on their possibilities – some a slight reduction, others a huge one.

By showing respect, Price got the best out of people.

6. Treat me with care

Every person is a world to be explored. Respect lies in the eye of the beholder. Learning how others want to be treated is vital for collaboration.

Washing Instructions” is a team building activity by agile coach Pia-Maria Thorén. By using laundry labels as a metaphor (Machine wash cold, do not tumble dry, etc.), people can make a list of things they need – and share their “instructions on how I would like to be treated.”

Respect is about treating people with care by following their washing instructions, not yours.

7. Turn feedback into a gift

In most organizations, feedback has become a corrective action – a tool to fix people – rather than a gift people want to receive.

At Microsoft, performance reviews were so damaging that new ideas were killed rapidly because no one wanted to risk their job. Its “rank-and-yank” system was turning people against each other instead of getting the best out of them. When Satya Nadella took over the reins, he had to shift Microsoft from a “know-it-all” to a “learn-it-all” culture.

Turning Microsoft’s culture around required replacing internal competition with respect.

The Power of Respect in the Workplace

Respect is like air – we only realize its absence and usually when it’s too late.

For some people, respect comes naturally. Many, especially managers, need to be coached on how to genuinely care for others. Small acts of kindness can go a long way. The pandemic has made more evident the need for human, purpose-driven workplaces. Anyone’s struggle is everyone’s struggle. People are hurting; they are busy, tired, and burnt out. Respect increases understanding, providing support and alleviating the weight.

Empathizing with your team members is not a nice-to-have, but a necessary leadership skill. Respecting people requires respecting who they are, how they feel, and how they think. Promoting a psychologically safe environment is vital to creating a culture of respect.

Treat others as they like to be treated. When in doubt, read their washing instructions.

Want to radically transform how you lead yourself and others? Learn more about the Fearless Leadership Program.

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