What does ‘respect’ really mean?

How to build a culture of respect

Respect. Everybody from Aretha Franklin to José Mourinho has demanded it. And following the #MeToo movement, respect at work – or a lack thereof – is a huge talking point. Over 200 high-profile people, from politicians to celebrities to CEOs, have made the headlines since April thanks to accusations of harassment against them. And this endemic lack of respect goes further than sexual harassment. As many as 75% of employees have experienced or witnessed workplace bullying, costing companies an estimated £18.9bn per year.

It’s easy to put this down to a handful of bullies who abuse their power. But, just as we all know how it feels to be disrespected, we can all think of occasions when we’ve treated others unfairly. Bullying isn’t necessarily linked to status: 28% of the time, jokes made at someone’s expense come from their peer or direct report.

While individuals are responsible for their behaviour, it doesn’t occur in a vacuum. An organisation’s culture determines whether bullying is dismissed as ‘just a bit of fun’; whether people turn a blind eye to harassment; and whether victims and witnesses feel like they’ll be listened to and believed. Focusing on fixing this culture is at the root of building a culture of respect.

Eleven years ago, psychologists Padilla, Hogan and Kaiser coined the term ‘toxic triangle’ to describe the triumvirate of factors that create a harmful work culture: dysfunctional leaders, susceptible followers and a permissive environment. These factors are just as valid today.

‘Dysfunctional leaders’ doesn’t just refer to those at the top: being in a position of power, however fleeting, reduces our empathy and can make us more prone to inappropriate behaviour. And we can all become susceptible followers, no matter how #woke our intentions: biting your tongue in the face of bad-taste ‘banter’ endorses the behaviour just as much as laughing along.

People cross the line, knowingly or not, all the time for all sorts of reasons: a permissive environment means they get away with it. A culture of respect is one where everyone knows exactly where the lines of appropriate and inappropriate behaviour lie, and feels confident enough to speak up when somebody – no matter what their position – crosses it.

The leaders that get this right, and who’ll benefit from increased productivity, engagement and loyalty as a result, are those who shift their focus from weeding out the bullies to sowing the seeds of respect across the entire organisation.

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