Respect your employees. It seems like a soft skill, but it matters.

Respect At Work

Before we get started here, let’s be upfront about something right at the jump-off. Respect, as a concept, doesn’t have a universal definition. It means different things to different people, and it can be shown different ways, and it can vary across organizations and contexts. You can easily come up with a couple of words that relate to the idea of what respect is, but the definition will vary across different people and spaces. It’s amorphous. In workplaces, concepts that are amorphous — like “engagement” and “culture” and “respect” — often fall through the cracks, because what people seek out is that which is traceable (like money and margins and revenue dollars and headcount).

So, to many people, the idea of respect seems like a soft skill. Soft skills aren’t coveted. You don’t make the bottom line and the quarterly projections off soft skills. But the thing is — this stuff does matter, and research backs it up. 

Respect is No. 1 when it comes to work

There was a study of 20K employees around the world, done in concert with Harvard Business Review, and somewhat summarized in this post. Here’s the first thing that should catch your eye. Employees cited 1 thing above all else as important to their work: being treated with respect. That concept surpassed all these concepts in terms of importance:

  • Recognition
  • Appreciation
  • Communicating an inspiring vision
  • Providing useful feedback
  • Opportunities for growth

All that stuff — all those bullets — was less important than simply being respected.

So how do you think the employees gauged their “being-respected-by-managers” level? Not well.

Are leaders truly respecting their employees, though?

54 percent claimed they regularly don’t get respect from their leaders.

54 percent — so basically 1 in 2.

Now here’s a part that might make you cringe, from the HBR article:

To learn why people are disrespectful, I conducted a separate survey asking 125 employees why they behaved uncivilly. Over 60% claim they are overloaded and have no time to be nice. This is a hollow excuse since respect doesn’t require extra time; it’s about how something is conveyed — your tone and non-verbal communication — not a separate action. Twenty-five percent claim that they don’t have a role model for respect in their organization, they’re just behaving as the leaders do.

Over the last 18 years I’ve studied the effects of civility (which I define as behavior involving politeness and regard for others in the workplace, within workplace norms for respect) and I’ve learned that the vast majority of disrespect stems from a lack of self-awareness.

That top sentence should make you weep for humanity. “60 percent claim they are overloaded and have no time to be nice.” What the ever-loving fuck does that mean? Be nice. Smile. Walk around, talk to people. Care about their lives, not just their deliverables. This isn’t that hard. Like the author says, it doesn’t require extra time. I get it — you’re sooooo fucking busy. But instead of going to that next pointless meeting, how about you stop and say “Hey Todd, great job?” Seems like a better way to spend your time.

Self-awareness is a whole different thing, and that’s a topic for another post. Very few people have that. I think I do, or at least I write like I do, but I probably don’t. That’s a societal white whale.

The costs of disrespect and how to show respect

There are costs to disrespect — some are outlined here — and then there’s this example:

How can leaders demonstrate respect to win employees and gain returns? Doug Conant, CEO of Campbell’s Soup, serves as a great example. When Conant assumed leadership in 2001, the company had lost half market value, sales were declining, the business was collapsing, and there had been a series of layoffs. The company’s toxic environment prompted a Gallup manager to describe the company’s engagement as “the worst [he had] ever seen among the Fortune 500.” Conant turned things around in large part by showing employee’s respect. During his tenure as CEO, he wrote more than 30,000 individualized notes of thanks to his 20,000 employees. He took every opportunity to connect with people and make them feel valued. And the results showed. By 2010, employees were setting all-time performance records, including out-pacing the S&P by five-fold.

A naysayer would look at that paragraph and say, “It has nothing to do with civility … it has to do with the product and its margins and the bottom line.” Maybe so. I’m sure they changed a few things about the product and its supply chain and all that between 2001 and 2010. (God, I hope they did.) But the civility aspect does matter. It does. It’s just like employee engagement. People think that’s not tied to sales growth. It actually is.

A personal tale of being disrespected

I’ll go ahead and tell a personal story here. I’ve felt disrespected by a lot of bosses in my life. After a while, you honestly stop giving a shit. If you’re always getting out-of-offices or no replies and your meetings are getting bumped, the perception is, “Oh well, I’m not important.” Why would I want to work hard and lay myself out there for someone who doesn’t give a shit or won’t notice or doesn’t care? Think about it like this: let’s say you’re in a relationship. Part of the reason you work hard for that person and try to do right by them is because they care, and you care, and it’s a reciprocal caring dynamic. If it only goes one way, you won’t work hard.

I had a boss back at ESPN, a nice lady, but she was utterly checked out and the area she was managing that I was in (online) wasn’t the area she preferred to manage (TV). She barely talked to any of else, and instead deputized two lieutenants to deal with online. Both of those people had other, competing interests and the whole thing was a fucking train wreck from the strategy/execution side. Eventually we all got rolled up into another division because what we were doing had no mission or concept behind it.

That sequence all started with a lack of respect. 

If you tell a leader to create a “culture of respect,” he/she will probably ignore you. Those words are too vague. Meanwhile, “Get your margin to this specific level” can be tracked and analyzed breathlessly. That’s where all this shit falls apart.

But honestly, think about respect. I know you’re busy, but it is important.


Ted Bauer


Reply If You'd Like