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.
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.