Why leading respectfully matters, plus six ways to build a culture of respect at your organization
Most people don’t think about respect very much unless there’s a lack of it. And then, that’s all they think about. It turns out that respect in work relationships is far more important than most of us imagine.
At the Center for Respectful Leadership, we define interpersonal respect as feeling and displaying genuine admiration and appreciation for someone based on their abilities, qualities, achievements and/or position—or simply because they’re another human being.
Why Respect Matters
Feeling respected matters much more to employees than once believed. Research shows that if employees feel respected, valued and trusted and are treated kindly, they’re much more likely to stay with your organization. They’ll be more likely to treat members with respect, put in extra hours and effort when the going gets tough, and remain upbeat and resilient in the face of challenges. As a bonus, they’ll usually be happier and more productive.
Sadly, it appears that disrespect and incivility are common and have significant negative impact in the workplace. This is strongly supported by expert analyses of tens of thousands of reports of disrespect posted on anonymous, online employer rating sites like Glassdoor and Comparably, workplace cultural surveys that have been made public and industry assessments.
A Growing Culture of Disrespect
If television news, social media and personal conversations are reliable indicators, public disrespect seems to be rampant these days. Our feeds are filled with people verbally and physically disrespecting each other in stores, on the street, in politics, online and in our workplaces. Is the frequency of disrespect our new reality, or are we just more hyperaware and hypersensitive than ever?
Research indicates that disrespect and incivility are on the rise. And sadly, a 2021 study by Portland State University underscores the idea that the more we see and experience people being disrespectful, the more likely we are to behave disrespectfully too.
The Platinum Rule
You may be surprised to hear that The Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) isn’t always the best way to interact with others. Rather, we need to bear in mind that not everyone wants to be done unto in the same ways we do. This is where The Platinum Rule (“Do unto others as they would have you do unto them”) can be helpful to you as a leader and communicator.
Coined by Tony Alessandra, Ph.D., in his book of the same name, The Platinum Rule suggests we consider how others want to be treated rather than assuming they want to be treated like we do. It’s about being empathetic, acknowledging that people are different—not better or worse, just different—and then adapting our own styles to communicate more effectively, meet them “where they are,” and achieve better outcomes. In today’s increasingly diverse workplaces, acknowledging, appreciating, valuing and adapting to differences is a business imperative if you want to retain your team and drive results.
Are You Respectful?
People often don’t recognize they’re being disrespectful, nor do they mean to be. While every organization likely has some level of disrespectful behavior, respectful leaders and cultures are those that value and reward respectful behavior and civility and are on the lookout for microaggressions and unethical behaviors, nipping them in the bud before they grow into bigger problems.
Toxic work cultures are those that fail to promote diversity, equity and inclusion, where workers feel disrespected and unethical behavior is tolerated or even encouraged.
If your work culture is teetering toward toxicity, what can you do?
1. Foster Psychological Safety
A psychologically safe culture is one where employees are comfortable taking interpersonal risks, such as voicing an unpopular opinion without fear of retaliation or being labeled as disruptive or “not a team player.” Recent studies examining why some teams are effective while others aren’t, including a major study at Google called Project Aristotle, indicate that psychological safety is a key success factor in teams and organizations.
Leaders who encourage and listen to diverse perspectives and opinions, who clamp down on negative labeling and ensure that dialogues—even about controversial topics—are respectful, are more likely to have teams with positive business outcomes, less conflict and lower turnover.
2. Be Open and Honest
Leaders who typically withhold important information or sugarcoat bad news are often considered untrustworthy. This behavior makes it much harder for their colleagues and team members, who will end up second-guessing themselves, seeking out other sources and wondering if the assumptions they’re operating within are valid.
While no one is saying that leaders need to tell everyone everything that’s going on, those who are willing to “declare reality” thoughtfully, even if it’s bad news, are more likely to rally the troops than drive them away.
3. Recognize Good Behavior
It’s a leader’s job to point out mistakes and correct them. But it’s equally important to recognize when people do something right. This means pointing out and acknowledging people for the good work and contributions they’re making, not just for the mistakes they’ve made. At CRL, we call this “looking for diamonds in the rough.”
Without being acknowledged occasionally for good performance, most people will eventually become demotivated, perform poorly and end up thinking that nothing will please their boss. Do yourself and your team a solid favor: Genuinely acknowledge them for their good performance now and then.
4. Check Your Emotions at the Door
Before you take out your frustrations on someone, get your “emotional shift together” and stop your unconscious negative responses to problems from driving your behavior. Look first into yourself and ask:
What words would I use to describe the feelings I’m having right now? Am I angry? Sad? Humiliated? Confused?
When we deliberately name our emotions, we can move them out of the realm of the unconscious and into that rational, cognitive place where we can make more reasonable, mindful decisions about how to move forward. An angry tone of voice shuts down productive interaction, whereas addressing issues from a place of genuine concern demonstrates respect and opens communication.
5. Don’t Assume the Negative
Too often, we assume that when someone does or says something we consider disrespectful, they must have done it deliberately. It’s important to remember that most people don’t intend to be disrespectful.
Before reacting, take a moment to consider at least one or two reasons why they might have done or said what they did. Perhaps that person just got some really bad news or they’re having a difficult time at work. It’s this moment of conscious consideration of alternative explanations that’s key, because when you cut people slack, it usually prevents you from saying or doing something disrespectful yourself and thus continuing the cycle.
6. Practice Kindness
Having a “too nice” culture, where leaders are uncomfortable giving any negative feedback, where there’s a veneer of niceness and friendliness that seems insincere, and where people feel blindsided when they’re put on a performance improvement plan or let go without warning, can be problematic.
But being nice and being kind aren’t the same thing. Being kind means being clear with expectations rather than assuming people know what you want; it means first assuming positive intent before investigating a problem or complaint, and it means cutting people slack when work or life seems to be overwhelming them.
Being respectful, kind, decent and civil always pays dividends.
Gregg Ward is the founder and executive director of the Center for Respectful Leadership and a highly sought-after speaker, facilitator and executive coach. He’s the author of the award-winning bestseller The Respectful Leader: Seven Ways to Influence Without Intimidation and its follow-up release, Restoring Respect. Learn more at RestoringRespectBook.com.