All I'm askin' is for a little respect when you come home
(Just a little bit)
- Otis Redding (made famous by Aretha Franklin)
Do you feel that you’re not getting the consideration you feel you deserve at work? Do you have a nagging feeling that some of your working relationships are slowly deteriorating? Or both? The problem might be about respect.
Whether you manage others and want to know how to use respect as a powerful tool, or whether you’re thinking about how others treat you, you should find something useful here.
Respect is critical to working relationships.
Respect may not sound important, but, like oxygen, it’s something we can’t live without.
In my work as an executive coach and as a chief people officer, I’ve been noticing more and more that when people express unhappiness at work, it often comes down to the fact that they don’t feel respected. They may not feel heard; they may not feel valued. The result of these feelings can be quite serious. Employees who don’t feel respected become disengaged, working with less and less commitment; eventually, they may leave for a place where they feel more appreciated.
Giving and receiving respect is fundamental to healthy working relationships.
Let’s look at why things go wrong and how to get working relationships back on track.
What is respect, and how can we tell when it’s lacking?
The Oxford English Dictionary says that “to respect” means “to treat with deference, esteem, or honour.” Deference, esteem, and honor are feelings we accord to things and people that are important to us. This kind of treatment enhances the relationship between the people involved.
Respect is an attitude, a belief about one’s relationship with others; it reflects emotions and is demonstrated in actions.
When we respect others, we show them that we see them as equals on the human level, even if we play different roles in society or in our organizations. When we believe other people are just as worthy as we are of respect - and that we are just as worthy of respect as they are - our relationships can find a solid footing.
Think of someone you respect - a mentor, a manager, a good colleague. How do you show them you respect them? Do you listen to them carefully? Do you conscientiously meet their requests? Do you go out of your way to make life better or easier for them? Do you ask them for help with difficult problems because you trust that they can help?
Now think of someone who makes you feel irritated or disrespected. What does that person do to make you feel this way? Do they put themselves ahead of you at work? Do they fail to acknowledge the things you do well, but consistently criticize your shortcomings? Do they neglect to make time for you, communicate things you need to know, or respond to your questions, emails, requests?
Some instances of disrespect I’ve seen in work situations:
A senior manager who never acknowledged an employee who sat right outside their office – not even saying hello in the mornings
Another senior manager who told their professional staff to stand at attention throughout a meeting in case a guest wanted coffee poured from the carafe on the sideboard
An employee who was always late for video meetings and rarely turned on their camera when they showed up
Colleagues who say one thing to one person and quite different things to others
An employee who felt that their manager was not only lying to them, but also asking them to lie to other employees
A colleague who sometimes took weeks to answer the team’s emails, if they answered them at all
A boss who made promises but didn’t deliver, because it wasn’t convenient or because it distracted them from working with people they viewed as more important
A peer who treated a colleague badly on a regular basis - and then asked for special favors.
There are, unfortunately, many more examples; you may well have some of your own.
Disrespect is common in the workplace, and indeed in many parts of life. And when our relationships are mediated by devices, as they so often are these days, it’s even easier to feel that you’re not getting the respect you want.
Think of a time when you felt disrespected.
What was going on beneath the surface for you?
Did you have any responsibility for the situation?
Did you do anything about it?
Did you treat yourself with respect, acknowledging how you felt and doing what you needed to feel right?
If you faced this situation again, what might you do differently?
Now think of a time when you failed to give someone the respect they wanted or expected.
What was going on for you in the situation?
What was the impact of your behavior on the other person?
Why did you act the way you did?
Is there anything you want to go back and address, after the fact?
Getting better at respect: First, respect yourself.
Like charity, respect begins at home. You can’t give others respect - or get respect from others - if you don’t give respect to yourself. If you do treat yourself with respect, however, you’re demonstrating to yourself - and to others - that this is the kind of treatment you deserve.
A good place to start is with your physical needs. The Roman poet Juvenal made this point when he wrote the phrase mens sana in corpore sano, “a healthy mind in a healthy body.” You can’t be at your best when you’re not taking care of your physical being.
Are you getting enough sleep? Are you eating well? Exercising? Respecting your body is a foundation of self-respect, and it also lays a foundation for everything you do. Getting enough sleep, in particular, builds resilience, improves mood and judgment, and contributes to general well-being.
Next step: understanding your capabilities and limitations. A lot of things go wrong when people promise more than they can deliver, or when they’re asked to do things they can’t really manage and then overstretch themselves or fall short. If you’re not honest with yourself, you’re always at risk for overcommitting, doing a less-than-great job, missing deadlines, or being tired and irritable because you can’t really do what you promised.
When you are honest with yourself and others, you open the door to making things better. Some approaches:
Look out for warning signs. Are things not getting done? Are you tired, irritable, or worried all the time? Are you avoiding tasks - or people?
Ask for help. This requires you to admit that you can’t do everything, of course, but it’s much better to admit it up front than to disappoint yourself or others, or turn in low-quality work that can hurt the team or damage your reputation
Adjust timing and reprioritize to make it possible to do the most important things first, and well
Get the personal support you may need - from a mentor, a coach, a friend, or a therapist - to help see things clearly and be your best self.
Then respect others.
No one can be successful without good relationships. We usually pay a lot of attention to how we interact with bosses and people senior to us, and we are most sensitive to how they show respect for us - or don’t. But many people pay far less attention to others of lower status - whether it’s their family, their teams, or those they interact with in the course of the day. It’s true that some people are able to make headway at work using the “kiss up / kick down” approach, but in general this approach doesn’t work sustainably, and when others get wind of this kind of behavior, you are likely to lose their trust - and, ironically, their respect, as well.
Here are some suggestions on how to build respect into your interactions with others.
Take the time to be kind - especially in email and other interactions. It doesn’t take that much longer to include a salutation, make a personal connection, and, especially, to reread the communication from the recipient’s point of view and edit it before you hit send. We’ve all sent emails we regret. The time it takes to review and improve an email that hasn’t yet gone out is far less than the time and trouble it takes to undo a careless or harmful message that you've launched into the wild.
Remember that things look different to other people. What’s critical or urgent to you may not be a priority to them. It’s always useful to apply the “What’s in it for them?” principle - find ways to make what matters to you matter to the other party.
Don’t be efficient at the expense of treating other people badly. You might get what you want right now, but it will cost you later.
Give honest feedback, both affirmative and constructive. When you don’t give feedback, it indicates that you don’t value the other person. Tell the truth, appropriately and kindly, both about things you think are working and things you think aren’t. By doing this, you’re both helping the person get better at what they do and showing that you care enough to spend your time on them.
Call out the good stuff! I recently told a consultant that I found him consistently cheerful and positive and that, as a result, I really liked working with him. He told me that few people give him praise, either because they find it easier to criticize or because they figure that continuing to hire him is praise enough - but he really appreciated the compliment, and we both left that conversation with a stronger working relationship.
Examine your motives. Are you annoyed at someone? Angry? Frightened by them? Emotions leak out into communications even when you don’t intend them to. If these feelings are present, find a way to address them, either on your own or, appropriately, with the other person. Talking openly about things makes them much easier to deal with.
Set your colleagues up for success. Give them the information, support, and time they need to do a good job. You’ll both be happier with the results.
When you make mistakes, acknowledge them, apologize, and do as much as you can to make things right. Everyone makes mistakes sooner or later. If you’re honest about them and try to make things better, you’re showing that you acknowledge your impact on others and want to do what you can to get the relationship back on track.
I hope this is helpful to you in your work - and in your life outside of work, too. As with anything else, it takes practice to get good at these behaviors, but the payoff for yourself, for your working relationships, and for your career will be well worth the effort.
Hey, and take 2.5 minutes and listen to Aretha Franklin tell us how it's done.