Respect Begets Respect



Respect in organizations is essential because it demonstrates that one values another as an employee who brings something special to their work and to their team. A respected employee is more engaged, productive and innovative, and as a result an organization that takes respect seriously will be high performing.  Employees will show up, be responsible and accountable and demonstrate as much respect for the organization as it demonstrates for them: respect begets respect.  

There are numerous articles (search “respect in the workplace”) that provide excellent tips for people to demonstrate greater levels of respect for others around them.  These add value but do not account for the fact that respect and civility are declining in the workplace (Weber Shandwick, 2011).  In a survey of 1000 American adults, 55% believe respect and civility will get worse in the next few years, and over 43% are already experiencing it.  Finally, nearly 66% believe that leaders are responsible for this deterioration (Doug Dickerson; International Business Times 3/29/17).

The ultimate solution to growing disrespect in organizations is systemic.  Tips for individual behaviors for all employees are great but if systemic issues are not addressed, all of the small behavioral changes will not make a big enough difference.  In most cases there is no intent to increase the level of disrespect in organizations.  It is a systemic problem that is largely associated with the pace of change, the increasing complexity of many of our organizations, and the quality of leaders, particularly those who are responsible for “the system”. If respect is missing in your organization it is not fair to simply blame leaders, but the challenge of systemic improvement will inevitably land on the shoulders of leaders and they must be prepared for this work.  

Systemic problems are hard to unravel so rather than looking back, the premise of this blog is that there are three systemic ways leaders can bring respect back to the workplace.  None of these are easy but one can address these one by one or together, and they will have an impact.

  1. Take a serious look at the pace of work, the hours people are putting in to complete their work, the extent to which people are duplicating effort (three people working on the same issue; uncoordinated/poorly led enterprise initiatives), engagement survey results associated with work-life balance, your own ability to sleep at night, and anything else that helps you define whether or not it feels like you are working in an environment in which the "ocean is boiling."  The unintentional consequences of this phenomenon directly influence the level of respect in an organization.  While people are doing everything possible to keep up with their workload, their ability to demonstrate respect for others is diminished.  They miss, cancel, come late, or try to multitask in meetings; they forget to communicate small things or do not communicate at all; they break promises and miss deadlines; they exclude people who could help because it is faster to do it themselves; and they run down the halls missing opportunities to simply acknowledge others. In large organizations where the ocean is boiling there are probably a thousand unintentional and simple examples of disrespect a day.  If this is the case, disrespect has become pervasive and is defining the culture.  There is no simple solution to this trend but you can start with better prioritization of work; integration of projects and initiatives; finding balance between headcount and workload; lead with greater clarity and consistency; or at a minimum be very conscious about the culture and learn to behave in ways that demonstrate your respect for others.
  2. Work extremely hard to develop the emotional intelligence of leaders., particularly those that influence the organization at large.  I know many very good people who are in leadership positions, but have little or no understanding of the impact their actions have on others, and this impact is often experienced as disrespect.  One could focus on the breakdowns in their path to leadership positions but for this purpose put emphasis and resources toward the future; developing the emotional intelligence of leaders willing to commit to improvement. Terrific energy is spent on creating organization cultures in which employees choose to be engaged; responsible, accountable, and loyal.  It only takes a couple of emotionally unintelligent leaders in important positions to derail tremendous progress made by others.
  3. Finally, there are leaders in organizations who are simply not interested in the principles of leadership that engage the workforce and lead to high performance.  In fact, there are leaders with significant system wide influence who understand the negative impact they are having on others, but feel good about the discomfort they create and believe it is needed to achieve the organization's goals. When these individuals make this choice in organizations that are explicit about the development of an engaging and respectful culture, they need to go.  They are doing more harm than good and getting in the way of a culture in which people are key to the achievement of an organizations results.   

It has been stated and proven repeatedly that the culture of organizations is more important than their strategies (John Kotter). Further, there is sufficient evidence that engaged workforces drive better results.  Disrespectful leaders and behaviors cannot coexist in organizations that espouse a strong employee value proposition. If culture is more important than strategy, then developing and employing leaders who can engender respect in organizations is more important than the subject matter expertise, years of experience, or credentials they bring to the job.