Here's what respect in the workplace contributes to and why it's more important than you think for your people and your bottom line.
We all know the expression “Treat others the way you want to be treated.” Respect is deeply rooted in the code of social behavior – we’re expected to be polite, show gratitude, and appreciate other people’s rights, values, and private space.
However, in the workplace, respect is more than just good manners. It’s a real power that can bring your business to a new level, inspiring people to do their best. Organizations that nourish respect among their employees are typically more profitable, and people who work there are much happier.
We will discuss how workplace respect can make a difference.
Without feelings of respect, what is there to distinguish men from beasts? – Confucius, a Chinese philosopher
Respect can be defined as treating someone with kindness and attention, giving due regard to their feelings and rights. It’s recognition of other people's intrinsic value, regardless of their status, views, or any other things that might differ from ours. It's an appreciation of people for who they are.
Workplace respect is about valuing each participant of the work process - their individualities and the contribution they make. Work environment unites people with different backgrounds and life experiences, and respect to each other helps them overcome differences and interact smoothly.
In the workplace, respect should be a standard rule. Personal attitude should never be the principle guiding our interactions. You may like the personalities of your colleagues, supervisors, or bosses – or you might not. However, it doesn’t mean you can allow yourself be rude and treat others poorly or as less important than you.
And there is more to it than just being polite or trying to avoid conflicts. True respect is not something superficial, like a beautiful façade of a mansion with an ugly interior. It’s a deeper concept. It’s about acceptance, equality, and a sense of belonging.
Respect in the workplace has important implications for team success. It creates a feeling of psychological safety that, in turn, improves performance and has a positive impact on employees’ mental and physical health. Without respect, productivity drops, stress increases, and work in a team becomes a nightmare.
Respect is a complex phenomenon that can be expressed in different ways. It involves more than one feeling or practice, which typically coexist and supplement each other. Let’s take a look at the core values that create respect:
Every kind of peaceful cooperation among men is primarily based on mutual trust and only secondary on institutions such as courts of justice and police. – Albert Einstein
Trust is a sense of confidence and security you develop while dealing with other people. It gives you a chance to predict the behavior of others and be able to rely on them. It’s an essential component of human communication.
In the workplace, trust is an important factor of group cohesion. It has a neurobiological nature. Our limbic system, which is the emotional center of our brain, is hypersensitive to perceived danger. And if our relationships at work are healthy, and the work environment is safe, the perceived danger is reduced. This allows people to be more collaborative and creative.
In large organization settings, dignity exists when people are listened to and taken seriously regardless of their position – and feel they can disagree respectfully and be heard, without fear of reprisal. – Monique Valcour, an executive coach and management academic
Dignity is a feeling that you’re worthy to be valued, to be treated fairly, and rewarded. At work, dignity can mean consideration for coworkers and clients, celebrating diversity, and having zero tolerance to discrimination.
Dignity in the workplace can be included in specific policies. For example, in 2001, the House of Lords in the UK introduced “The Dignity at Work Bill” that stated all employees “shall have a right to dignity at work” and prohibited harassment, bullying, and other things which could cause employees to be distressed, like unjustified criticism or punishment without reasonable justification.
Dr. Tasha Eurich explains that dignity in the workplace arises from 4 things:
You’re no better than anyone else, and no one is better than you. – John Wooden, an American basketball coach
Representation and inclusion are the core principles of diversity, which is a difference in identity – sex, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, age, and sexual orientation (the difference is that while representation is a quantitative factor, inclusion is a qualitative one).
To work effectively, people must learn to understand and accept the differences among themselves. This way, we must make a conscious effort to be inclusive – to make sure everyone feels valued and accepted, not just tolerated.
The key to true acceptance is willingness – willingness to welcome diversity. Real diversity requires you to understand each person as an individual, and not as a stereotype. It’s about being open to different perspectives and backgrounds and giving each employee a right to a voice, making sure they won’t be excluded based on their identity.
You may get the impression that diversity concerns merely the emotional component of working on a team – however, diversity or its absence has pretty materialistic outcomes. Diverse organizations are more successful at attracting and retaining talent, pursuing innovation, and making high-quality decisions.
According to 2019 McKinsey report, the greater the representation, the higher the likelihood of outperformance. The analysis proved that the most diverse companies are more likely to outperform peers on profitability.
People will try to convince you that you should keep your empathy out of your career. Don’t accept this false premise. – Tim Cook, CEO of Apple
Empathy is the ability to perceive the emotions and experiences of others, which allows you to understand the situation from the perspective of the other person and react with compassion. In the workplace, empathy is essential – it improves communication and, this way, boosts performance.
That’s why it’s important for managers to practice empathetic leadership. Building and maintaining empathetic relationships, they can retain talent. Trying to understand your employees’ needs, perspectives, and circumstances helps lay a foundation for loyalty and engagement.
One of the skills that makes empathy possible is active listening –the ability to not just hear the words your counterpart says, but also see the true meaning behind them. Active listening means being fully present in the conversation, showing genuine interest, and withholding judgment. It makes the other person feel valued – and, consequently, respected.
Great things in business are never done by one person; they’re done by a team of people. – Steve Jobs, an industrial designer and investor
When people feel valued and well-treated, they get motivated to do their best. And vice versa, employees who are disrespectful to their colleagues pose a threat to team culture. No doubt, workplace conflicts will take place – we all have different points of view and ways of working. However, these conflicts do not have to be disastrous. With mutual respect, people resolve them peacefully, and in a healthy manner.
This is why respect has a positive impact on collaboration and leads to increased efficiency. It lets people learn from each other, improve their skills, and that, of course, benefits the business.
Keeping employees engaged is not easy – but a respectful workplace really helps with that. In one of the studies, the respondents who felt respected reported the following:
Mary Dunn, a general practice attorney at Western New England University School of Law, explains why respect is the main thing needed for the team to be engaged. Having analyzed the Gallup survey on employee engagement, in particular, the questions that the respondents were asked, she made a conclusion that it all boiled down to respect.
Let’s take a look at some of the questions and see how respect is an underlying concept:
Do you know what is expected of you at work? – This is about respect, because it means your leader cares about your time and energy.
Do you have materials and equipment to do your work right? – This is also about respect, because it’s rude to ask for work to be done and not provide the necessary equipment to do it right.
In the last 7 days, have you received recognition or praise for doing good work? – Most people really want to do a great job. It’s important to let them know their efforts are noticed.
Does your supervisor, or someone at work, care about you as a person? – We’re normally told to leave our personal problems at home, but it’s not always possible. Privacy needs to be respected, yet, when someone needs support, they should never be neglected.
In the last six months, has anyone at work talked to you about your progress? – To give employees a clear understanding of their value is respectful.
As we can see, the questions on engagement cover various aspects of an employee's life. However, as Dunn points out,
By focusing on respect and building a respectful workplace, we may have the one tool we need to move the engagement needle in the workplace and achieve engagement levels that we never experienced previously.
While showing respect to employees has a powerful positive effect on morale and performance, the lack of it may cause high turnover. Employees may quit for different reasons, and sometimes it has nothing to do with pay rates. Poor work-life balance, lack of opportunities for advancement, unrealistic requirements – these things can make a person want to leave. And a lack of respect is on that list, too.
Christine Porath, a professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, launched a study, sending a survey to business school alumni from different organizations and asking them to write about their experience of being disrespected.
The experiences turned out to be different: for example, one person wrote about a boss making statements like “That’s kindergarten’s work”, and another one mentioned a boss who tore up someone’s work in front of the whole team.
What the researchers found was that disrespect did make people less motivated:
After the results were published, researchers got calls from organizations. For example, Cisco, after analyzing the numbers, reported that incivility was costing them 12 million dollars a year.
As we can see, respect is good for your business. To retain employees, you should create a more positive work environment where employees feel respected.
The concept of “psychological safety”, widely explored by organizational behaviorist Amy Edmondson, stands for the ability of people to share their opinions freely and be their true selves, without a fear of belittlement or exclusion. It’s a critical component of a healthy collaboration – employees who feel psychologically safe typically are more resilient, open-minded, and creative.
According to Edmondson, psychological safety describes a “climate of interpersonal trust and mutual respect.” In other words, trust and respect are inseparable from psychological safety. The more respected and trusted people feel, the safer they are.
Psychological safety frees people from fear. This means you are not afraid to take risks; you’re open to discussing challenging and provocative issues; you’re welcome to ask for help. You can let yourself be the way you are and express your uniqueness.
In a workplace, such freedom has the most positive effect on a team, improving performance and encouraging initiative, and decreasing the risks of building a blame culture.
What’s important, it all starts with respect. You recognize another person’s value and their right to self-expression. You take their ideas into account. This way, you demonstrate respect – and through respect, you prepare the ground for a psychologically safe and positive work culture.
In communication, respect can be as simple as letting other people talk, without interrupting them. In situations of disagreement, being respectful is necessary to keep the dialogue safe. Despite the difference of opinions, we should be able to hear the arguments of others. After all, we could still be wrong. It requires some humility to recognize it.
In addition to that, we should mention that disrespect negatively impacts our cognitive abilities. The research conducted by Christine Porath, which we’ve already mentioned, also showed that people don’t even have to actually experience a disrespectful attitude for their cognitive abilities to lower – it’s enough to just see rude words.
It affects our emotions, our motivation, our performance, and how we treat others. It even affects our attention and can take some of our brainpower. – Christine Porath
In an experiment, the researchers gave people combinations of words to make sentences with. Half of the participants received a list of words that typically trigger rudeness, like “interrupt,” “obnoxious,” and “bother.” The list of the second half of the participants did not include any of these triggers.
The results were surprising. The people who got the rude words were 5 more times more likely to miss information that was right in front of them, on a computer screen. Continuing the research, the team found out that those people who got the rude words took longer to make decisions, record them, and made more errors.
A lack of respect in the workplace leads to problems in teamwork and, as a result, to a higher turnover rate.
According to Gallup research, the lack of respect is directly related to discrimination and harassment. The survey of 1,900 faculty members (tenured, tenure track, and non-tenured professors) showed that only 38% of respondents agreed they were treated with respect at work. And 90% of respondents who said they were not treated with respect reported discrimination and harassment experiences at work.
Bullying, harassment, and poor working relationships decrease the motivation and productivity of employees and cause low morale. No wonder people who find themselves in such an environment call in sick more often and eventually quit.
Work-related stress can have a very detrimental effect on employees’ health, as it leads to heart attacks, hypertension, and other diseases. If stress is permanent, it may eventually transform into burnout – a state when a person is simply unable to continue working. That, in turn, can lead to absenteeism, which is economically costly for businesses.
The reasons of work-related stress and burnout can be different – heavy workload, unfair compensation, favoritism, or anything else. However, they all have to do with the lack of respect. Employers who create a respectful work environment simply won’t allow these situations to happen.
For teamwork, communication is key. Yet, communication breakdown is not a rare occasion. It can happen for a variety of reasons – for example, there may be a clash of communication styles, or maybe someone simply avoids important conversations. In any case, communication breakdown leads to several negative consequences, low performance, and high turnover among them.
Communication breakdown is often caused by a lack of respect. When we do not pay attention to what other people are trying to say, we may end up breaking our professional relationships. It’s hard to continue working when you don’t understand each other.
Respected employees are less stressed – so they’re more productive. Disrespectful behavior demotivates employees, while a respectful work environment encourages them to work harder.
Always treat your employees exactly as you want them to treat your best customers. – Steven R. Covey, an American writer
The behavior of a leader sets the tone for the whole team. It demonstrates a standard for the rest of the staff.
Actions speak louder than words, so if the leader doesn’t stick to the company policies on organizational behavior, it may send the wrong message to the employees. Leading by example also means consistency – acting in a particular way on a regular basis.
Leaders who treat subordinates with respect, both professionally and personally, teach other team members to do the same. Such leaders are good listeners, show empathy, and empower employees to make their own decisions, this way showing trust.
Organizations should include mutual respect as the core value that must be followed without exceptions. For this reason, they can develop special “work-place respect policies” that would determine clear rules of how to treat co-workers with respect to create a fair environment.
For example, the Ford Foundation created its “Respect in the Workplace” policy, the purpose of which is to maintain a respectful atmosphere. The document states that
Each individual has a right to work … in a workplace that prohibits discrimination or harassment as well as retaliation against anyone who in good faith reports or participates in an investigation of discrimination or harassment.
The document contains rules about equal employment opportunity, prohibited conduct (like derogatory jokes or threats, physical and visual harassment etc,), the procedure for reporting inappropriate behavior, and other information regarding dealing with a disrespectful attitude.
Respect in the workplace can be practiced in trainings. Organizations can provide these trainings, using the following tools:
Providing trainings, like establishing policies, can help leaders hold employees accountable for their behavior.
Informal learning can also be used to develop respect. Mentoring, using social media and different team activities can support your formal policies of respectful behavior.
As a leader, make sure that you acknowledge your employees for creating a safe, respectful workplace. You will inspire them to continue doing a great job.
Respect in the workplace is an inseparable component of healthy teams and, consequently, successful business. It may be expressed through a simple “thank you,” appreciation of someone else’s ideas, or through not tolerating inappropriate behaviors. Treating others in a respectful manner, we build an environment where talents flourish and businesses thrive.
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