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Establishing a Culture of Respect in the Workplace

In the classic song “Respect,” Aretha Franklin tells listeners to “find out what it means to me.” She nails an often-missed point: people have different definitions of the word. It’s a notion often overlooked in the workplace, where respect may be included in a company’s core values but filtered through a one-size-fits-all application.

As Christine Porath points out in Harvard Business Review, “Respect is directly tied to what a particular individual expects—and how the leader makes the person feel.” People representing disparate cultural backgrounds, genders, generations, education levels, sexual orientations, and physical capabilities can view respect in various ways.

When companies don’t delve into what constitutes respect for all their employees, it becomes a hollow byword. But creating an organizational culture designed to make everyone feel respected is central to building a strong, unified, and high-performing team.

Two Kinds of Respect

A Harvard Business School study of nearly 20,000 employees shows that no other leadership behavior impacted staff members more than respect. Unfortunately, over half of the respondents said they’re not receiving it regularly from their bosses. Kristie Rogers, a professor of management at Marquette’s College of Business Administration, offers two reasons behind this disconnect in a Harvard Business Review article.

First, she notes that people who aren’t shown respect are keenly aware of the lack of it. But those in high-status roles who feel respected don’t give it much thought and are unaware of the problem. She uses a quote from Joseph Grenny’s acclaimed book on business communications, Crucial Conversations, to illustrate her point:

“Respect is like air. As long as it’s present, nobody thinks about it. But if you take it away, it’s all people can think about.”

More importantly, she observes that leaders who try to create a respectful workplace fall flat because their comprehension of respect is incomplete. Her research concludes that employees value two kinds of respect: owed and earned. When properly displayed, she defines them as follows:

“Owed respect is accorded equally to all members of a work group or organization. It’s signaled by civility and an atmosphere suggesting that every member is inherently valuable. Earned respect recognizes individual employees who display valued qualities or behaviors.”

Rogers argues that people need to experience both types of respect to feel valued in the workplace. First, leaders must establish a solid baseline of owed respect—cementing it as a company culture norm. Using this framework, leaders can then “identify and tailor the mix of respect types that will best enable their employees to thrive.”

How to Show Respect in the Workplace

An environment of respect is established when specific behaviors are practiced throughout an organization. And while every company is different, there are some universal ways to ingrain respect into any workplace culture.

Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, respectively the CEO and president of the leadership development consultancy Zenger/Folkman, outline the following seven areas of focus for leaders in Harvard Business Review.

  1. Valuing diversity
    Many employees who feel disrespected believe it is because they are viewed as different from most of the staff and don’t fit in. Leadership at their company may actively work to create a diverse team and proudly point to formal DEI policies. But their efforts will fall short unless they model, teach, and reinforce behaviors that support inclusion and belonging for everyone—two vital prerequisites for establishing respect.

  2. Being aware of people’s issues and concerns
    Employees feel respected when they are seen as individuals, not just cogs in the machine. Leaders should coach managers to build relationships with their direct reports, which cultivates mutual trust. They can relay respect by getting to know them on a more human level and discovering what matters to them.

  3. Being trusted by your team
    The authors’ research found that workplace respect is eroded if even one employee distrusts their boss. They call trust, or the lack of it, a contagious emotion that can make or break a team’s culture. Leaders can foster a respectful environment by demonstrating integrity and transparency and clarifying expectations for everyone. And they need to ensure that every level of management mirrors these behaviors.

  4. Resolving conflicts
    Even minor disputes among coworkers can negatively impact the whole team and generate disrespectful conduct. And Zenger and Folkman note that leaders often don’t consistently intervene in conflicts among team members. But this “selective peacemaking” makes marginalized people feel less respected. It’s leaders’ responsibility to develop equitable processes to manage conflict.  

  5. Balancing a desire to get results with a concern for others
    Leaders must keep an eye on productivity for their business to be successful. But when they view results as more important than the people asked to produce them, employees feel disrespected. It often only takes small gestures, like making exceptions for employees during illness or personal stress, to show a balance of concern for the business and its staff.

  6. Encouraging open discussion
    People feel respected when they believe they can speak openly about issues and that their opinions will be valued and considered. Leaders can start by making generous listening and speaking up behaviors that they not only encourage but require in the workplace. Taking it further, the authors recommend that leaders ask employees for their opinions and give them the floor even if they disagree. Doing this demonstrates that people with differing views are still worthy of respect and that their willingness to share ideas is appreciated.

  7. Giving honest feedback in a helpful way
    Celebrating people’s successes is a meaningful way to show respect. Accordingly, leaders should provide meaningful acknowledgment in all directions throughout their organization. But they and their management team are responsible for helping employees grow. So it’s important for them to provide feedback for improvement in a way that also demonstrates respect.

For example, employees often receive disproportionate feedback with an emphasis on the negative. But they’ll feel respected and be more inclined to improve if their boss balances positive and corrective feedback.

The Benefits of Respect at Work

People feel empowered to do their best work when respect permeates an organization. They feel free to contribute ideas and act in the company’s best interest because they know they are welcome members of the team. Accordingly, leaders who forge a respect-filled culture are not only doing what’s good and right for their people; they are maximizing their company’s potential.

The impacts of a respectful workplace include:

  • Stress reduction
    Feeling disrespected is one of the leading causes of workplace stress. In a culture of respect, workers shed the stress of feeling unseen or unappreciated and are less likely to experience other mental health issues like work-related depression.

  • Increased productivity and collaboration
    In a respect-filled workplace, employees are more inclined to ask for and provide help to coworkers and solicit their ideas and share knowledge. These traits increase the potential for creative solutions and boost outcomes. And everyone’s work is accomplished faster and more efficiently.

  • Improved employee engagement
    Respect makes staff members feel more plugged into the organization. It allows them to shift their focus from self-protection to pride in their work and team goals. As a result, they experience higher job satisfaction and are less likely to experience burnout.

  • Less turnover
    A Pew Research poll shows that 57 percent of quitting workers cite disrespect as one of the top reasons for leaving. With costly turnover an increasingly worrisome trend since the advent of the Great Resignation, respect-filled organizations maintain admirable retention rates.

  • Better customer experiences
    Employees who feel respected are more likely to show respect—not only to their coworkers but also to the customers they serve. This trickle-down effect generates repeat business and brand loyalty.

One of the primary reasons respect at work is so powerful is that people’s jobs are often central to who they are and how they perceive themselves. It’s where they spend most of their time. So, a company culture grounded in respect is a formula to bolster employees’ self-worth, unleashing their potential to excel. And a workforce that is engaged, positive, collaborative, productive, and customer-focused is a bottom-line boosting asset.