Very few people would argue that a respectful work environment isn’t important. In reality, it’s more than important, and it’s a bit more complicated that you might imagine. According to expert HR Consultant, Fran Sepler, people need to perceive their work environment as one of respect, fairness, and safety. These are the three elements that must exist in a workplace culture for people to do their best work.
For thirty years and through 700+ work investigations around the world, Fran has helped organizations create respectful work environments and address dysfunctional behaviors like bullying and harassment. In episode 006 of my podcast, The Modern Manager, Fran and I discuss the benefits of a respectful workplace, the perils of an unhealthy one, and how managers can create environments in which everyone thrives.
WHAT "RESPECT" REALLY MEANS
Fran unpacks the concept of respect, highlighting safety and fairness as two critical elements. Is the workplace environment not just physically safe, but does it also provide the kind of emotional and psychology safety that allows people to take risks and voice ideas - without the fear of others turning against them? For example, can people contribute in meetings without being judged or somehow punished?
Once the need for safety is met, people want to feel they are being treated fairly. Are decisions in the organization being made free of bias? When there is an issue, is the system set up to treat each person the same, providing the same benefits, interventions or other actions regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, status, or ability?
When people feel the environment is safe and fair, they perceive respect. Fran explains the benefits of this:
“If we can get all three of those perceptions ticked up in a workplace, we know absolutely by the evidence, that people are going to be more productive. They're going to commit their best thoughts and their best ideas. They're going to be more creative. They're going to be more engaged, and they're going to stick around. And that's, of course, the business case for creating these perceptions of respect and fairness and safety.”
THE PERILS OF A DISRESPECTFUL WORKPLACE
When people perceive that they are unsafe or undervalued at work, they may engage in unhealthy coping mechanisms like gossiping, creating alliances to claim territory or status, withdrawing, and disengaging. The disrespectful workplace can feel like the stereotypical high school at its worst, with cliques and loners, and a general lack of community and good will. At its extreme, this kind of workplace can lead to litigation against an employer for failing to provide a safe environment.
Disrespectful behavior also has a kind of cyclical “pay it forward” consciousness. When people feel disrespected, they may retaliate, and not necessarily intentionally. After an encounter in which you feel disrespected, your whole attitude can be impacted. You may feel frustrated, sad, or generally unhappy, leading you to be more impatient, critical, or even outright disrespectful to anyone you encounter.
WE HAVE A UNIVERSAL EXPERIENCE OF (DIS)RESPECT
In her work with teams, Fran encourages people to identify respectful and disrespectful behaviors. Incredibly, 90% of the time, those behaviors identified are exactly the same, regardless of whether they’re generated by CEOs or front line labor workers. This list of respectful behaviors includes niceties like listening to people, making eye contact, acknowledging people and greeting them, asking people's ideas and opinions, and saying “please” and “thank you.”
Reverse these behaviors to find their disrespectful counterparts, like eye-rolling, making derisive comments, failing to acknowledge others, talking negatively about someone who is not there, and being distracted while someone else is speaking. The number one disrespectful behavior cited is interrupting, which is primarily directed from men towards women.
In this era of #MeToo and public shootings, it’s important to acknowledge that disrespect “is the gateway drug to more insidious and potentially discriminatory things,” says Fran. She continues:
“We start to see that [disrespectful behaviors] aren’t just a matter of manners. This is a matter of equity… and health at our organizations, and we have to recognize that this behavior we’ve excused for a long time, this rude and uncivil behavior isn’t just ‘a shame’ that it happened on this day; it’s part of a systemic problem.”
INCORPORATE GROUND RULES AND FEEDBACK INTO YOUR CULTURE
Once we’ve recognized that disrespectful behavior is an issue, we can start to talk about it and create ground rules to prevent or address it. Since implicit bias exists in our blind spots, we need the help of other people to become aware of our micro-aggressions and correct them. Start with the expectation and explicit understanding that everyone wants equity in the workplace. Then, create opportunities for and people to seek and receive ongoing feedback.
You can start by simply asking colleagues, "How did I show up today? Can you let me know?" Be clear about your desire for input. Let them know that even if you don’t always ask for feedback, you’re open to it and hope they will come to you with reflections and suggestions. Seeking feedback helps to foster humility and a growth mindset. We begin building trust and respect just by asking somebody's opinion about our behavior and letting them know we value what they think.
It can be hard to let someone else know in a non-confrontational way that their behavior is not helpful to us. However, if we have ground rules that generate this kind of expectation, we can help each other self-correct before the behavior and its consequences worsen.
A HIGH PERFORMER DOES GREAT WORK AND LIFTS OTHERS UP
Many organizations evaluate people based only on their work product, and not their behavior towards others. But what if that “high performer” is mistreating people? Should they still be considered an asset to the organization?
Fran says no. Managers need to evaluate their people on the work they produce and the effect they have on other people. Once you take into consideration the negative effects of someone’s behavior on other people, you begin to realize the full cost of their 'performance.' A truly productive employee, explains Fran, contributes in“... both the work they do and the relationships they have. They make the people around them better.. they work as a team... they promote work that's cooperative and look to build relationships to make their work better and to make other people's work better.”
IT'S TIME TO STAND UP TO DISRESPECTFUL BEHAVIOR
It can be difficult as a manager to confront an individual or group to tell them that their behavior is not appropriate. It’s important that you do it anyways. Remember that the rest of your team is counting on you. And remember this: in general, people want to be told that they’re doing well. Once they are clear that both work output and interpersonal behavior comprise their performance, they can shift their behavior accordingly. When each team member strives for positive working relationships, everyone benefits.
Are you a manager who’s been letting the “little things” slide? What action can you take this week to address these things? How might your company culture be better as a result?
Keep this mantra in mind this week: “A manager’s role is to look not just at the output of what someone achieves, but the way in which they get there.”
This article was based on episode 006 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.
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