Understanding the value of respect in the workplace

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Employees can feel either motivated and valued or discouraged and neglected. The difference often boils down to respect, according to Kristie Rogers, an assistant professor of management at Marquette University.

In an article by Harvard Business Review, Rogers warns that lack of respect or an imbalance in the way employees are treated can create dysfunction in the job site. However, when employees report feeling respected, they tend to be more loyal to their companies and grateful for their jobs.

It might seem simple, but successfully creating a culture of respect in the workplace takes an understanding of the different types of respect, how to deliver it, and how it will be received.

“When you ask workers what matters most to them, feeling respected by superiors often tops the list,” Rogers writes. “In a recent survey by Georgetown University’s Christine Porath of nearly 20,000 employees worldwide, respondents ranked respect as the most important leadership behavior. Yet employees report more disrespectful and uncivil behavior each year.”

Part of the problem, she notes, is that “leaders have an incomplete understanding of what constitutes workplace respect — so even well-meaning efforts to provide a respectful workplace may fall short.”

First, managers should understand that there are two types of respect: owed and earned. Owed respect, Rogers explains, is the type accorded to all employees. Earned respect is accorded to employees who go above and beyond.

The challenge is finding the right balance between the two types of respects. Owed respect without earned respect can deflate employees, who will sense that their efforts won’t be recognized or rewarded, while a focus on teamwork may, however, warrant more owed respect as a bonding tool.

Second, efforts to convey respect should be consistent across the workforce.

Rogers notes that this is especially important for lower-level workers, pointing to a study of being valued or devalued at work: “In this study many hospital cleaners described seemingly subtle cues that prompted them to feel that their worth was enhanced or diminished. Some cleaners were never acknowledged by other staff members, making them feel invisible or as though they were looking in on hospital operations from the outside. Others reported a boost in energy and worth from a doctor’s simply greeting them or holding a door.” (Remember the image of President Obama fist-bumping the custodian at the White House?)

Third, be sincere. “Because employees see honesty as one of the most valuable expressions of respect, insincere compliments, however well-intentioned, are likely to be counterproductive,” she warns.

And, most importantly, management needs to set the tone.

“Finding the right people for the right jobs and coordinating day-to-day operations are a manager’s solemn duty,” Rogers concludes. “As my research shows, however, 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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