Giving Your Employees the Respect They Need

Today’s work environment is tough enough without having to deal with disrespect or incivility. Harvard Business Review research reveals that over 50% of people don’t feel respected by their leaders. Many employees find that disrespect is indicative of their work culture as well, and 25% of them claim that this is caused by a disrespectful leader as their role model. If a leader can be uncivil, then their people take that to mean this behavior is permissible for everyone. Fortunately, these issues are correctable if the proper approach is taken.

The cost of a disrespectful culture is heavy. People who feel they are not respected have poorer attitudes and work ethic. They are less interested, motivated and satisfied. This leads to lower productivity and inferior quality. Anxiety, frustration, absenteeism and turnover rise. Disrespected employees disagree with each other and communicate poorly. They have less loyalty, creativity and effort.

It’s clear that under these conditions, higher outbreaks of interpersonal conflict are inevitable, causing more disruption and HR costs. Upset employees generally impress their attitudes on customers, and this is the first step in lost business and lower profits.

Leaders who withhold respect for their people pay a high price, making their leadership careers difficult at best, and very short at worst.

Basic Human Needs

All people have fundamental needs, and in the workplace they center on being valued. People want to know they’re needed, that their work means something and they’re able to contribute to a cause bigger than themselves. This fulfills the basic human need of purpose, which imparts value.

Humans also have a need to belong. They need to fit in and be accepted as part of a “family”, those they can trust and offer trust to. Being treated with respect reinforces an employee’s positive self-image and self-esteem. Encouragement, acceptance and respect enhance unity and opportunity.

A lack of respect leads to internal doubts, despondency, lack of motivation and performance problems. Employees who have been affected by a disrespectful leader often have continued self-esteem challenges later in life, even when reporting to a different respectful leader down the road. They search for answers, many times in the wrong places, and blame themselves for the disappointments that follow.

Signs of a Disrespectful Culture

A work environment where leaders disrespect their people has both obvious and subtle indicators. Generally, the disrespectful traits of the leader migrate down the line to the employees, since the culture is reflective of the leader. When disrespectful traits are widespread, the indicators become more repetitive and easier to spot.

  • Rudeness or abruptness: This inconsiderate behavior is harsh and offends people. It can take the form of interrupting people, talking over them or always having the last word.
  • Sarcasm, insults, profanity and verbal attacks: Employees often take on the leader’s bad behavior to either find a way to survive, or release the anxiety caused by the leader’s style.
  • Disfavoring people: Typically, it is communicated via the leader’s opinion of an employee’s qualifications, work ethic, loyalties, employment history or association with certain colleagues.

Subtle indicators of a disrespectful leadership or culture take longer to recognize.

  • Silence: When feedback and free expression are not welcome, managers or key employees are silent about disturbing issues.
  • Shoot-the-messenger: When the status-quo remains unchallenged, a culture of shoot-the-messenger may have taken hold.
  • Stagnation: A lack of ideas, creativity or problem-solving may mean that employees feel too disrespected and demotivated.
  • Stressed-out: Overloaded or anxious staff are indicators of unmet needs, typically manpower, tools, equipment or funding, and suggest lack of recognition, neglect and disrespect.

It Starts with the Leader

Workplace culture begins with the leader; the tone of your environment is, and must be, set by you. If there are signs of disrespect around you, it’s likely you are a large factor. This is the time to do some serious self-assessment. Turn to a trusted colleague or executive coach for objective perspective.

The key is to recognize any disrespectful thought patterns or behaviors within yourself, and make corrections. It’s not enough to simply eliminate your disrespectful behavior, rather, you must offer respect in ways you may not have thought necessary. As any coach will tell you; it is very necessary.

Learn and practice expressing genuine respect; regardless of any demographic. The mistake many leaders make is downplaying this subject, giving it low credibility. Great leaders testify to the fact that respecting their people is one of the most critical (and rewarding) responsibilities they have, and how adopting this mindset has made all the difference in the success of their organizations. Once respect is engrained into their culture, leaders understand they can never go back.

The General Right of Respect

People who understand the complexities of the human spirit recognize that respect is the glue that holds relationships together. Mutual respect between two people promotes the affirmation and appreciation people need to work well together, accomplish things and feel fulfilled. An organization of fulfilled people is an organization positioned to reach its full potential.

The need for respect is seen by many as so critical that it is considered a right. People generally believe that everyone has the basic right to be shown respect. From experience we know that a culture depends on people living in mutual respect to function beneficially.

This general right of respect is one of two types of respect, as described by management professor Kristie Rogers in a 2018 Harvard Business Review article entitled, Do Your Employees Feel Respected?. “Owed Respect”, as she calls it, is the respect all people deserve, out of decency and consideration for others. We owe this to each other, and leaders owe it to their people.

This kind of respect is shown by leaders intermingling with their people, expressing interest in them, getting to know them. It tells people that they are worth knowing and worthy of caring. Things as simple as showing courtesy or helpfulness are basic respectful acts. Compliment and encourage your people and see what a difference that makes. This tears down status walls and treats people as partners, not subordinates.

Asking your people for their ideas, feedback and perspectives communicates that they are valuable. Include them in updates, meetings or news. Show them they are respected as part of the team by treating them like teammates.

A powerful way a leader can respect their people is to brag about them to other colleagues or leaders. Support them and cover their backs. There’s no greater display of respect from a leader.

Leaders who take the time to thank their people offer genuine respect. This can be done personally or through an email, phone call or a hand-written note. The effect is amazing.

Performance-Related Respect

The second type of respect is performance-based. Rogers calls this “Earned Respect”. This goes beyond what’s generally owed to people and recognizes accomplishments or acquired skills.

It’s not necessary to distinguish between small, medium or large accomplishments: recognize them all! Let your people hear about the things you appreciate. Some examples of a person’s accomplishments you could inform your staff about include:

  • Gaining extra qualifications through training or a degree
  • Solving a difficult problem
  • Completing a long project that will benefit the organization
  • Favorable comments from customers or coworkers
  • Suggesting a better process, procedure or cost-saving idea
  • A promotion or higher levels of responsibility

You can make these recognitions count even more in one-on-one time, with performance reviews and planning future personal goals. Document their accomplishments and your appreciation. Give some people the opportunity to train others or be a mentor to a younger coworker. Where appropriate, train employees to be leaders. Leaders who demonstrate trust in employees’ potential and efforts convey great respect.

These activities set a tone in your culture that performance, engagement, accountability and respect are highly valued. The key is to be consistent in your respect. Picking and choosing which accomplishments to acknowledge looks like favoritism, and even if this isn’t the intention it will appear to be. Spread the respect equally and frequently. In return, hold everyone accountable for good work, and trust them to do it.

A respectful culture, established and fostered by the leader, is the most powerful means to run an effective, prosperous and dynamic organization.

The Problem with Problem-Solving Leaders

Many employees long for leaders who can solve workplace problems—from flawed systems and procedures to inconsistent policies and managers. They want their leaders to see through the trees and attack forest-sized issues, with the discernment and authority to fix them one by one.

While this sounds great on the surface, employees who report to problem-solving leaders cite challenges that dwarf the problems themselves. Organizations typically benefit from resolved difficulties, but unsound methods or mindsets can exacerbate even the most mundane issues.

Troubleshooting leaders often have skeptical views and have a hard time trusting the workplace culture. They equate run-of-the-mill difficulties with threats to themselves and their companies, prompting over-analysis in their quest to find ideal remedies. Their problem-solving attempts can stymie operations and push people beyond their breaking points. Qualified leadership coaches specialize in helping leaders overcome these tendencies and establish healthier approaches to troubleshooting.

Are You an Obsessive Problem Solver?

Problem solvers look at circumstances with a critical eye, never assuming systems work as well as they should. They’re motivated by risk mitigation and view problems in procedures or systems as weaknesses that jeopardize their future.

Setbacks or glitches are acute sources of personal pain, according to Dr. Beatrice Chestnut, author of The 9 Types of Leadership: Mastering the Art of People in the 21st Century Workplace(Post Hill Press, 2017). Problem solvers persistently look for hazards and make every attempt to minimize, if not eliminate, them to improve workplace conditions.

If you can relate to this description, you may have problem-solving tendencies that detrimentally affect your people. If your critical eye always focuses on what can go wrong, you’re likely causing difficulty for others. You may be an obsessive problem solver if you cannot stop yourself from asking diagnostic questions and exhausting all troubleshooting options. You may feel uncomfortable until all uncertainties are eliminated. You cognitively understand that this is impossible, but you’re nonetheless emotionally compelled to try.

Mixed Outcomes

When obsessing, troubleshooting leaders disrupt the normal pace of business and frustrate their people. They:

  • Are deep thinkers who tend to perseverate over data, diverting their attention away from people and communication priorities.
  • View circumstances with skepticism and need assurances that systems and products are at optimum states, which can drag down those around them.
  • Taint their mindset by overstating negative and minimizing positive aspects, which leads to poor decisions.
  • Are easily paralyzed by analysis and avoid making decisions, thereby blocking progress.
  • Have little trust in processes and procedures, as well as those who adhere to them.
  • Wear people down with endless questions as they seek complete resolutions or fixes.
  • Tend to challenge authority by questioning their motives in supporting the status quo.
  • Can invent negative outcomes to affirm their discomfort with ideas or methods, creating greater challenges.
  • Lack flexibility and a willingness to accept new ideas.

At the same time, problem solvers have some positive traits that benefit their organizations. Leaders who focus on troubleshooting:

  • Are great lessons-learned resources, full of advice on how to avoid past mistakes.
  • Have excellent analytical and problem-spotting skills. They catch errors most people overlook, which reduces waste.
  • Are prepared and calm when trouble arises, as they planned for it.
  • Are unafraid to discuss the elephant in the room, tackling significant issues no one else wants to mention.
  • React honestly, without hedging, grandstanding or bragging.

How many of these traits hit home?

Ideally, problem-solving leaders’ positive traits will outweigh their negative behaviors. Self-awareness can help them minimize damage to their organizations.

Outward Signs

Certain observable behaviors expose a problem-solving leader. Taken to extremes, they can wreak organizational havoc.

Adamant troubleshooters have a reputation for being great problem solvers and often catch the CEO’s eye. They may have earned approval by preventing a huge crisis or finding a way to solve a cost overrun. Their detail-oriented behaviors follow them into leadership roles, where their effects on people are more prominent.

Problem-solving leaders are visibly satisfied by troubleshooting. They’re highly engaged as they calmly and systematically respond to challenges, approaching the process with a self-appointed sense of duty. Problem solvers probe situations with strings of questions, some of which seem irrelevant or exasperating.

Skeptical troubleshooters find fault with existing products or processes, believing it’s incumbent upon them to offer solutions. They confront established viewpoints, assuming they have a noble purpose: to heroically correct problems that plague the organization. Their defiance rubs people the wrong way. Tensions flare when troubleshooters focus on perceived threats but ironically overlook the disunity they promote.

To make their case, problem-solving leaders overstate consequences and minimize advantages, which weaken their trustworthiness and credibility. Their critical perspective prevents them from making decisions, as their quest for ideal solutions is virtually unattainable.

Data-driven problem solvers value numbers over people. They’re resistant to intuition and gut feelings, searching for solutions that can be validated quantitatively. Progress is delayed when hard data are unavailable, which creates rifts with people whose experience and input should be valued and trusted.

A Complex Mindset      

When we work for problem solvers, our survival depends on understanding how they think and feel.

Troubleshooters feel threatened when things go wrong and problems have no readily apparent solutions. They fear their analytical skills—and, by extension, they themselves—are inadequate. A loss of control over circumstances adds hopelessness to the mix.

Many problem solvers deal with their insecurities by fixing things and bringing order to their world. Their mindset is fairly concrete: Everything needs to be fixed. Trouble lurks around every corner and must be snuffed out. These leaders have an innate protection mode.

Problem solvers rarely recognize their fears or desperate need to feel safe, but they’re keenly aware of their preparedness. They’re always ready to dissect problems methodically. They pride themselves on their diligence.

Troubleshooting leaders are often the odd one out, taking a minority view. They notice how few of their colleagues grasp their insights, which empowers them. Their research often leads to predictions, which take the form of warnings to heed their advice. Setting themselves apart from others affirms their belief that their contributions are important.

Problem solvers revel in hard data. They dismiss others’ intuition as inferior to facts. Gut feelings are deemed inappropriate and risky. They require a high level of certainty. But when data are hard to obtain or seem misleading, these leaders struggle to make decisions. Pulling the trigger without enough assurance seems riskier than doing nothing. Appealing to their common sense proves fruitless.

Over-analysis is never a problem for obsessive troubleshooters—the more, the better. Extended analysis may uncover other problems—an effective bonus in the war against trouble. Discovering hidden problems is a delightful find for them, akin to uncovering a treasure no one else has spotted.

Problem solvers have trouble taking criticism, which they view as a roadblock to progress or a detriment to morale. But they often accept it as the price to pay for fulfilling their role as protector of the people. Criticism would be far worse if their careful analysis failed to catch problems.

When working with problem solvers, try to understand their perspective and appreciate their gifts of discernment and analysis. Know that they don’t intentionally bog things down with their hyper-focus. Their goals are honorable, though they may pursue them in disruptive ways.

Minimizing Challenges

Problem-solving leaders shouldn’t be expected to forsake their analytical skills or interests, but they can certainly use them in more helpful ways. All organizations have problems, requiring people with keen eyes and minds to solve them.

Problem solvers can learn to develop good personal relationships with peers and subordinates, thus ensuring greater trust in people, processes, practices and products, Dr. Chestnut suggests. An experienced executive coach can help them reduce skepticism and embrace challenges realistically. Rewarding relationships help dull fears of trouble and build greater confidence in well-managed systems. Getting to know problem solvers and hearing them out helps them appreciate relationships and focus on people over data.

Problem-solving leaders can develop better people skills and recognize how others respond to their actions. A coach can guide them through this process, helping them see how defiant or critical questions invite resistance. Leaders can learn to present their ideas more effectively, with everyone’s best interests in mind—a decidedly more palatable proposition. They can work on accepting feedback and consensus. They can express their intentions honorably and seek collaboration sincerely. Ultimately, they’ll learn to work the relationship side of the equation and be rewarded with better professional experiences.

Chronic problem solvers make the greatest strides in overcoming their foundational fears by seeing, admitting and facing them. A coach will point out that searching for problems is a sign of anxiety or negative thinking. A leader’s confidence is the best weapon to override fears and build positivity.

Uncertainty is a given in leadership and life, and self-assurance is vital to achieving success. Problem solvers know they have the skills to identify and mitigate risks, but they also want to trust their abilities to tackle major issues and decisions. Problems are plentiful enough; no one needs to go looking for more. Train your staff to tackle lesser problems, and delegate appropriately. Qualified employees with excellent judgment can lighten your load and any associated anxiety.

Problem-solving leaders must find an effective balance between their analytical skills and everyday time constraints by allowing others to help them. With a healthier mindset, free from fear and anxiety, they can manage problems constructively and unify people, without frustrating or discouraging them.