All the research ever done shows that what matters most to employees is feeling respected by their superiors. The correlation can never be stronger – Employees who feel respected are more grateful for—and loyal to—their firms.

So this begs this question as to why many employees feel they are being disrespected?

Research points to an interesting find. Many business leaders have an incomplete understanding of what constitutes workplace respect—so even well-meaning efforts to provide a respectful workplace may fall short. Research indicates that employees value two distinct types of respect:-

  • Owed respect is accorded equally to all members of a work group or an organisation; it meets the universal need to feel included. It’s signaled by an atmosphere suggesting that every member of the group is inherently valuable. In environments with too little owed respect, we typically see alot of micromanagement and a sense that employees are interchangeable.
  • Earned respect recognises individual employees who display valued qualities or behaviours. It distinguishes employees who have exceeded expectations and, particularly in knowledge work settings, affirms that each employee has unique strengths and talents. Earned respect meets the need to be valued for doing good work.

One of the subtler challenges in creating a respectful atmosphere is finding the right balance between the two types of respect. For example, workplaces with lots of owed respect but little earned respect can make individual achievement a low priority for employees, because they perceive that everyone will be treated the same regardless of performance. That could be the right mix for settings in which goals need to be accomplished as a team, but it risks reducing motivation and accountability. By contrast, workplaces with low owed respect but high earned respect can encourage excessive competition among employees. That may serve a purpose in environments, where workers have little interdependence or reason to collaborate. But it could hinder people from sharing critical knowledge about their successes and failures, and it often promotes cutthroat, zero-sum behavior. When they understand these nuances, leaders can craft an environment that is right for their situation—in most cases, one with high levels of both kinds of respect.

Because people’s jobs are often central to who they are and how they perceive themselves, respectful cues in a professional setting are important signals of social worth. What’s more, employees often join organisations in the hope of developing their identities over time, by growing professionally and becoming better versions of themselves. Respect is therefore an important feedback mechanism and catalyst for this growth.

A respectful workplace brings enormous benefits to organisations. Employees who say they feel respected are more satisfied with their jobs and more grateful for—and loyal to—their companies. They are more resilient, cooperate more with others, perform better and more creatively, and are more likely to take direction from their leaders. Conversely, a lack of respect can inflict real damage. Research indicates that 80% of employees treated disrespectfully spend significant work time ruminating on the bad behaviour and 48% deliberately reduce their effort. In addition, disrespectful treatment often spreads among coworkers and is taken out on customers.

Building a respectful organisation does not demand an overhaul of HR policies or any other formal changes. Rather, what’s needed is ongoing consideration of the subtle but important ways in which owed and earned respect can be conveyed. Here are some insights that business leaders and managers can use to make an impact on workers:

Establish a baseline of owed respect. Every employee should feel that his or her dignity is recognised and respected.

Know how to convey respect in your particular workplace. Business leaders that delegate important tasks, remain open to advice, give employees freedom to pursue creative ideas, take an interest in their non-work lives and publicly backing them in critical situations are some of the many behaviors that impart respect.

Recognise that respect has ripple effects. Leadership behaviours are often mimicked throughout an organisation, and just as disrespect can spiral, so too can respect. The cascade from the top down is also likely to shape the way employees treat customers.

Customise the amount of earned respect you convey. Beyond ensuring a baseline of owed respect, leaders can identify and tailor the mix of respect types that will best enable their employees to thrive. Although it’s likely that a higher level of both owed and earned respect is needed, you might have reasons to emphasize one type or the other. Perhaps you’ve set a goal that requires a lot of collaboration and cohesion, warranting greater emphasis on owed respect. Alternatively, if your culture focuses largely on individual contributions, you might emphasize earned respect while ensuring that performance standards are transparent and direct employees’ attention to objective deliverables rather than to subjective comparisons with peers.

Think of respect as infinite. Deciding when to bestow respect is not like making a judgment that requires dividing up a fixed pie (as when allocating time or pay raises). Respect is not finite; it can be given to one employee without shortchanging others. This is true of both owed and earned respect: All members of an organisation are entitled to the former, and all employees who meet or surpass performance standards deserve the latter….. and an employee’s place on the organisational chart makes him or her no more or less deserving of respect.

See respect as a time saver, not a time waster. Conveying respect doesn’t necessarily come at the expense of critical tasks. The small additions to your day needed to convey respect could save you substantial amounts of time. Dealing with the aftermath of disrespectful behaviour, consumes at least seven times more time that showing respect.

So in conclusion, whilst finding the right people for the right jobs and coordinating day-to-day operations are a manager’s solemn duty, research shows that the responsibilities don’t end there: Managers must also build a workplace of respect that allows employees—and, as a result, their companies—to become the best possible versions of themselves.

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