Studies show that work conflict impacts us in pretty significant ways—often even more than personal or family drama. That’s because our identities are often tied to our work. So feeling disrespected can affect our self-esteem and trigger anxiety, stress – and often lead to conflict.
It’s easy to say we should act respectfully in the workplace. But what does respect look like when we’re stressed and facing a big deadline? Or, when we are out of the office having fun with co-workers?
You might think “Respect is easy—because I’m a good person.” But good people make poor choices all the time. So what’s the difference between being “good” and being “respectful”?
Is respect a skill or quality? Being respectful is intentional and takes practice and skill.
Creating a shared language of respect
Before you can start building your respect skill, you need to have a shared language and common assessment of behaviors. Without this, when respect issues arise, conversations become emotional and can quickly escalate. We developed The Workplace Color Spectrum® as a tool to do just that. The Workplace Color Spectrum® describes conduct as existing on a spectrum that ranges from respectful to toxic.
Ensuring our actions are on the respectful end of the Workplace Color Spectrum® takes intention, patience, and lots of practice to successfully navigate different types of situations and different people with different points of view.
No matter how good of a person we may be, our first impulse or reaction isn’t always to be patient, widen our lens and switch perspectives. Learning how to do that is really a new work skill—a “workplace respect” skill.
How do we develop our workplace respect skills?
There are four key ways you can start to develop and hone your workplace respect skills:
First, we must think about whether there’s a power imbalance between co-workers. Why? Because the more powerful person often forgets that the other person is vulnerable.
How many times have you heard an executive say, “well, [the offended person] could’ve refused.” Spoiler alert: the person probably didn’t feel comfortable refusing. The many stories in the press lately unfortunately illustrate this fact all too well. To develop our respect skills, we have to consciously switch our perspective to see a situation from a co-worker’s view, and think about the possible impact of our actions and comments to those around us.
Second, we check to see if in-group/out-group dynamics are is at play. In-group/out-group dynamics is the degree that the ‘us vs. them’ mentality and behaviors drive employee acceptance, inclusion, and perceived value. In-group behaviors alienate employees and thwart productive behavior. Strong, positive cultural norms can combat these dynamics. We’re all guilty of it at times, but it very quickly creates barriers and undermines cultural health.
- liberal v. conservative
- men v. women
- citizen v. immigrant
… you get it. This dynamic creates conflict for anyone who’s not “in the group.” In the workplace, a culture of respect grows when we treat each other as members of the out-group.
Third, we identify the social intelligence of the people around us. Let’s face it. Some people are less aware of situations and context than others.
Unfortunately, folks who have lower social intelligence often struggle to find the right thing to say in a given situation and can inadvertently put their foot in their mouth—causing conflict.
Fourth, we assess the strength or weaknesses of the workplace culture.
Some organizations have pretty clear expectations about behavior—reinforced through the actions and comments of senior leaders. Other organizations are less intentional and allow peoples’ actions—including disrespectful conduct—to become the workplace culture.
In organizations with weaker workplace cultures, there’s no “true north” or common values that guide everyone’s behavior. This is why those environments are more likely to have respect issues.
Build your culture competency one day at a time
The important thing to understand about the four steps I’ve outlined here is this is not a one-and-done process. These are steps we need to take every day, as part of our interactions with each other in the workplace, to build our respect skills as part of a commitment to cultural competency. The good news, however, is these behaviors become reflexive over time, the more we do them.