The Role Of Respect In Keeping Your Employees Motivated

As businesses search for new and better ways to keep their employees motivated, could respect be the key to greater performance, efficiency and retaining the best talent?

Respect in the workplace is not only a “feel good” requirement but has a direct impact on employee productivity and the company bottom line – this was the result of extensive research by Georgetown University’s Prof. Christine Porath.

Thrive By Design: The Neuroscience That Drives High-Performance Cultures Hardcover
Thrive By Design: The Neuroscience That Drives High-Performance Cultures Hardcover

Porath is also the author of the book Mastering Civility: A manifesto for the workplace. Her research focus on the absence of the respect in the workplace and also in a business set-up and her findings underline how crucial this element of company culture is.

“We’ve interviewed employees, managers, HR executives, presidents, and CEOs. We’ve administered questionnaires, run experiments, led workshops, and spoken with doctors, lawyers, judges, law enforcement officers, architects, engineers, consultants, and coaches about how they’ve faced and handled incivility. And we’ve collected data from more than 14,000 people throughout the United States and Canada in order to track the prevalence, types, causes, costs, and cures of incivility at work. We know two things for certain: Incivility is expensive, and few organizations recognize or take action to curtail it,”

she explained her research in an article published in Harvard Business Review.

Their findings include that a lack of respect saw 48% of employees intentionally decrease their work effort and 47% decrease the time they spent at work. Another 38% admitted to doing lower quality work while 80% said they lost time at work thinking about a project that showed a lack of respect and 66% of respondents to her survey said their performance declined after they were treated in a disrespectful manner.

In 2015 the Society for Human Resource Management released a report highlighting the importance of respect in the workplace and adding that it was the number-one contributor to job satisfaction followed by trust between employees and senior management.

When you ask workers what matters most to them, feeling respected by superiors often tops the list

In an article published in Harvard Business Review last year assistant professor at Marquette University, Kristie  Rogers write that respect has been ranked as the most important leadership behaviour in a large survey done by Porath, including nearly 20 000 employees.

Disrespect stifles creativity

A 2009 study by the University of Florida showed that there was a marked decrease in new ideas and creativity when employees were subjected to a lack of respect.Rudeness, the study found, casted a wide net. Not only did it stifle creative thinking and solutions but it also affected the performance of routine tasks and made employees less helpful towards one another.

Porath said they found that one of the most effective ways to foster this culture of respect is to express appreciation and ask for feedback.She also advises companies to hire for “civility” and reward good behaviour.

The role of HR

The rise of technology in the human resources sector allows HR professionals to reduce the time they have to spend on administrative tasks, by using systems like CakeHR and allow them to focus on more strategic issues that require hands-on attention, like fostering a culture of respect in the work place. By spending less time on paperwork that can be automatic it also becomes possible for HR professionals to drive these crucial initiatives.

The importance of creating a company culture with marked characteristics like respect is also underlined by Porath who found that many leaders reported that they have learned their (disrespectful) behaviour from their manager or leaders.In an article published by the Forces Human Resources Council several experts stressed the role that HR professionals can play to foster respect in the workplace.

In the article experts point out that it should be a priority for human resource professionals to shape the company culture, make it sustainable and create an environment where employees can thrive. The article further reminds HR professionals that building and maintaining a company culture should involve everybody and not only management and that these values should be an integral part of hiring and training.

It is not about being nice

HR expert Greg Ward writes in an article for Forbes Human Resources Council that showing respect is not he same thing is being nice.“Conflating niceness and respect is a mistake,” he writes. He argues that being respectful is a choice that managers can make and that this choice will have marked and measurable positive impacts on a team and specifically on productivity.

“In fact, some people have trouble trusting a boss who is nice, thinking, ‘They’re being so nice; they must want me to do something I don’t want to do’”,

Ward writes.

“But the converse is almost never true: It’s unlikely that employees will not trust a leader who is being genuinely respectful. In short, being nice and being respectful do not automatically go hand in hand. It’s entirely possible to be very direct and even blunt and still be respectful in ways that few would ever label as nice.”

He says he advises clients to find out how others prefer to be treated and “respectfully honoring those preferences.” This, Ward writes does not mean compromising on standards. It is a way to adopt a leadership style and get the most out of employees and team members.

“Research I’ve done tells us that the leader who practices this adaptive, flexible and respectful approach is much more likely to experience consistent, positive results, performance, collaboration and loyalty. And, as a bonus, these leaders are, for the most part, genuinely respected in return. Respect is usually reciprocated with respect; the same cannot always be said for being nice,”

he added.

Types of respect

Rogers distinguishes between two kinds of respect in her work: owed and earned. Owed respect, Rogers writes, is given in equal measure to all members of a team or an organisation. It speaks to the human need to feel included and its presence is known by civil behaviour and a culture respecting team members. In its absence, she adds, over-monitoring, micromanagement, a lack of inclusivity, abuse of power and a sense that employees are interchangeable will thrive.

The second type of respect according to Rogers’ definition is earned respect. This is defined as recognizing employees who excel and exceeds expectations and affirms the notion that each employee has their own unique strengths and talents.

“Earned respect meets the need to be valued for doing good work. Stealing credit for others’ success and failing to recognize employees’ achievements are signs that it is lacking,”

she writes. Rogers cautions that while an imbalance between the two types of respect can create frustration for employees it is important to tailor the balance to suit the goals of a team or a business.

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

She writes that workplaces that are high on owed respect and low on earned respect can make individual achievement a low priority as people would perceive that they will be treated equally regardless of performance. This, Rogers argues, can be useful where a team must motivated to achieve common goals but it can reduce motivation. While it could be useful to create this kind of environment where team goals must be accomplished it can reduce motivation and accountability, Rogers added.Making the effort to treat your employees with respect is much easier than other more expensive forms of team-building, such as hiring teamwork speakers.

She further explains that workplaces that are high on earned respect can in turn create the risk of fostering excessive competition among employees. This might be a very useful device to employ in a sales team but not where collaboration is needed. She warns that this can also hinder the sharing of institutional knowledge and create “cut-throat, zero-sum behaviour.”

Enables growth

According to research done by Herminia Ibarra from the London Business School fostering respect in the workplace, Rogers added, can also motivate employees to try something new and grow by validating “trial behaviours” that can improve personal growth and also help them improve professionally.

Personal growth and team building specialists Inspire Me adds that this could very much impact on a business’ bottom line as disengaged employees cost the UK £348 billion a year in absence and unproductivity. Rogers add that employees who feel respected are more resilient, enabling them to keep on trying, cooperate more with others, perform better and more creatively, and are more likely to take direction from their leaders. She advises that to create an optimal work environment employers should establish a baseline of owed respect especially where lower-level workers are involved.

When does respectful engagement with one’s supervisor foster help-seeking behaviors and performance?

Research done by the Center for Positive Organizations on being valued at work has showed that respect between supervisors and subordinates facilitates help-seeking behaviours, and enhanced the job performance of employees.

Respect makes employees healthier   

Research done by Emma Seppälä, author of The Happiness Track and co-director of the Yale College Emotional Intelligence project write in an article published in Harvard Business Review that the latest developments in organizational research are providing some surprising answers about the role respect plays in productivity.

There’s an age-old question out there: Is it better to be a “nice” leader to get your staff to like you?

She writes that by putting more pressure on employees “tough managers” increase stress that in turn results in high healthcare costs and high turnover rates.

“Tough” managers often mistakenly think that putting pressure on employees will increase performance. What it does increase is stress—and research has shown that high levels of stress carry a number of costs to employers and employees alike. She writes that a lot of research in this filed points to fostering trust and fairness as great strategies to get ahead as a manager. She adds that these behaviors have been shown to increase productivity on individual employee level and for teams.

Such a culture can even help mitigate stress. While our brains are attuned to threats (whether the threat is a raging lion or a raging boss), our brain’s stress reactivity is significantly reduced when we add that respectful behavior and kindness in the workplace have also been shown to have a beneficial effect on the health of employees.

Seppälä adds that what constitutes a compassionate leadership style and workplace does not depend so much on “perks” offered as it does on the qualities of the organizations’ leaders, such as a sincere commitment to values and ethics, genuine interpersonal kindness, and self-sacrifice.

Key to getting the most out of employees

Writing for Forbes management expert Victor Lipman describes respect as “one of those subtle lubricants that keep the engine of management running smoothly. But when, like oil, it gets low, parts start grinding.”He adds that employee engagement is fragile and respect is a key piece of the puzzle to sustain it.

Employees want to do their best for people they’re respected by

Underlining how important employee engagement is he added that with 70% of the American workforce finding themselves in “various stats of disengagement” leading to billions dollars in lost annual productivity costs, engagement is a vital consideration.

Lipman offers three reasons why respect is crucial in keeping employees engaged. He writes that it makes employees feel a natural part of the team.  “Employees want to do their best for people they’re respected by,” Lipman adds.He said in the absence of respect employees feel disconnected and this creates a work environment where problems “fester.”

It is backed up by science

In the book Thrive by Design: The Neuroscience that Drives High Performance Cultures, author Don Rheem writes that to create a high-performance environment trust and respect are essential. He writes that a work environment with high levels of both will be a better indicator of high performance than monetary rewards.

He stresses the need for effective interpersonal communication, developing listening skills and learning how to “be present” when dealing with employees. He further advises that manager who are clear in their communication are viewed as transparent and this in turn increases trust.

He warns against making employees feel like they are replaceable by connecting core values with every day work. He also advises creating a shared sense of social identity; vision and target values; celebrating success; and validating effort.He adds that employees who feel that they are “looked down on” won’t produce their best work.

Domino effect

Research done by Porath showed that a lack of respect in the workplace has a powerful “knock-on” effect and even witnessing an incident of rude behaviour can negatively impact employees’ behaviour and make people less likely to be helpful.

In this way, something which may seem simple, like respecting your employees, can have large knock-on effects throughout the entire organisation. This, in turn, can have wide ranging impacts on the performance and success of your company.

Tom Buckalnd is the head of content at And Inspireme is an award-winning people development company that specialises in corporate employee engagement, workplace happiness and wellbeing.

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