Collaboration, Communication, Trust

RESPECT: A Critical Value for Working with People

“R-E-S-P-E-C-T find out what it means to me.” These well known lyrics from Aretha Franklin’s classic song challenge us to explore what respect really means and why it matters.

In traditional cultures respect is related to a person’s status, position and even gender. This attitude is reflected in Charles Dicken’s novella, ‘The Chimes’:

“O, let us love our occupations, Bless the squire and his relations, Live upon our daily rations. And always know our proper stations.” In our contemporary culture respect is no longer limited to social status. Thankfully, things have changed since Victorian times.

Moreover, respect is now recognised as a transcultural human value essential in all cultures. Without respect (at least towards members of the same cultural group), no society could be sustained for the long term. And some faith systems such as Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity teach that respect should be extended to not only insiders but also to those outside that faith community.

So getting back to Aretha’s song, what does respect mean? According to the long definition of the term from the Ethics Centre, Australia:

“Respect for persons may perhaps be the most fundamental principle in all of ethics. Respect  calls on each and every one of us to respect the intrinsic dignity of all other people. If something is intrinsic to us, it is essential to our being and cannot be earned. It is a property of being a person.”

How to Build Respect

Every organization and leader I have worked with has recognised the importance of respect as a workplace and community value. Yet at the same time I have witnessed just how easy it is, especially in times of high stress, for respect to be abrogated. We know from experience that a culture of respect strengthens community, facilitates co-operation and collaboration and increases job satisfaction, effectiveness and productivity. But where respect is missing, groups and individuals become manipulative and leadership becomes toxic. As a result morale and productivity tumble while absenteeism and resignations soar.

Because respect then is so important how can we grow a culture of respect in our workplaces and communities? Here are nine practices I have found to be helpful. While particularly addressed to leaders, these same nine apply whether or not we are in a leadership role.

  1. Practise Non Judgemental Listening – Taking the time to listen carefully to another in order to understand and not to judge or jump to a conclusion, is the first step. This includes listening to not only their words but also their tone of voice and body language. Then checking back with them that you have truly understood what they are trying to communicate helps to check whether you have really understood them.
  2. Be Honest and Transparent in Your Communication – Also important (and especially if you’re a leader), commit to being open and truthful in the messages you send. Avoid spin and manipulation for sooner or later it will be discovered and then your credibility will be undermined. If you are not in a position to give the full story, due to confidential factors for example, just communicate what you can.
  3. Management Modelling – As an extension of the above point, the actions of a leader models those behaviours that are acceptable. In other words, a leader’s respectful behaviour and communication will encourage a culture of respect throughout the team.
  4. Establish Clear Rules, Processes and Protocols around Behaviour – People in an organization need to know what’s acceptable and what isn’t. What may seem as gentle ‘ribbing’ among people of one cultural background may not be acceptable in another. Leadership then, in addition to modelling, needs to establish clearly what’s ‘on’ and what isn’t. This also should include processes and systems for when people feel they have been disrespected.
  5. Recognise Times When You’re Tempted to Be Disrespectful – When people are highly stressed they often say and do things that later they would regret. What presses your ‘buttons’? Lack of sleep, domestic or financial problems, shortened and approaching deadlines and an unfavourable health diagnosis are some of the potential issues that might cause a person to act disrespectfully. Awareness of our own emotional stressors and our own feelings when we are pressured will help us to better manage our emotional self-control.
  6. Express Appreciation – Saying ‘thank you’ when your team or individual members make a special effort goes a long way to building respect, especially as a leader. Gratitude acknowledges the worth and effort of the other and therefore contributes to building their own respect for you as well as for themselves.
  7. Develop Your Team – When leaders take the time and commitment to develop their team members both collectively and individually they give the message that they respect those accountable to them. Development best happens through constructive and inclusive team meetings, training sessions and especially regular (ideally weekly) one on one coaching sessions.
  8. Fair Remuneration – There have been a few cases recently where high profile people in the media have resigned from their well-paid positions because their colleague was paid much more than they were for doing exactly the same job. The message taken was “I’m not respected by management!” So in the workplace ensure people essentially are paid the same salary for doing the same work having taken into consideration individual differences in experience and qualifications.
  9. Develop an Inclusive Workplace – Minority groups such as the disabled, ethnic and religious minorities, gender minorities (eg. females in a male dominated workplace) experience genuine respect when provision is made by the organization, for their personal and specific cultural needs. Conversely, disrespect is communicated when those needs are ignored or disregarded.  

Finally… Is Respect Something to Be Earned or Deserved?              

That’s a very controversial question. However, I suspect most fair minded people believe we should at least begin with an attitude of respect towards others until they give us reason not to. Nevertheless, as we have seen, The Australian Ethics Council maintains that respect is intrinsic to our humanity and essential to our being.

This is the way I see it. It’s like every one of us starts life with the gift of $1000 worth of respect in our personal ‘bank accounts’. Through our positive, considerate and constructive attitudes and actions towards others we ‘deposit’ more respect into our accounts so far as they are concerned.  However, when we express negative attitudes, inconsiderate and destructive behaviours towards those same people we ‘spend’ some of that respect.  Nevertheless, no matter how much people ‘spend’ from their respect accounts, that $1000 initial deposit should still remain. Why? Because each life is sacred and deserves to be respected and treated with dignity, even when people no longer respect themselves. This means we continue to try and serve others regardless of their actions because we all share the sacred gift of humanity.

In the workplace, as leaders we need to clarify the standards we want upheld, hold people accountable to those standards, and agree on the consequences when people don’t follow through. As each agrees to abide by the ethical obligations of the organization, it creates a culture that self-corrects its own behaviours perpetuating respect throughout the organization.

Graham Beattie

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