Employees don’t need to be best friends, but there does need to be a level of mutual respect and understanding.
In the era of #MeToo, how employees interact with one another has come under greater scrutiny. And for good reason: one recent study by the Workplace Bullying Institute found that over 60 million Americans are affected (as perpetrators, victims, or witnesses) by workplace bullying. Bullying takes many forms at the office, such as berating employees (including direct reports or other junior staff), stealing credit for work or ideas, excluding fellow employees from critical meetings or communications, making sarcastic or snide remarks, giving unfair criticism, and speaking negatively about someone behind his or her back. And it takes a massive toll on employees, with “40% of targets . . . believed to suffer from adverse health consequences from bullying.”
How do things get so out of hand? Unfortunately, many organizations put so much emphasis on finding and hiring great people that they often give short shrift to helping their employees maximize their potential as colleagues. Instead, HR and hiring managers often just throw employees together and expect them to know how to get along with each other. Sometimes a company gets lucky, and that approach (or, more accurately stated, lack of approach) works. Often, though, it doesn’t work—and occasionally it can backfire spectacularly. Rather than take the chance that “everything will just work out” in these situations, managers need to work actively to create environments that foster respect and collaboration among diverse populations.
Inclusion and Collaboration
Different people have different opinions, and it’s okay to respect all of them.
When managers and company leaders respect differences and require collaboration, they create an environment in which employees are able to put their best selves forward to leverage their diverse talents, skills, and attributes in support of their organizations’ missions (rather than get bogged down in petty in-fighting, gossip, or other unproductive behavior). But that’s possible only when people respect each other, both as colleagues and as individuals with unique backgrounds and skills. Companies that promote and foster an attitude of respect position their employees to be more open to the richness of perspectives, ideas, and innovations that can emerge from diverse life and work experiences.
Note that respect doesn’t require always agreeing with other people’s perspectives. Complete agreement isn’t possible, nor does it make sense (consider how “group think” can kill innovation!). After all, a company’s workforce isn’t made up of a bunch of identical automatons. Rather, each employee within an organization is an individual with unique abilities, goals, motivations, and personality. These differences mean that every relationship (be it manager–subordinate or employee–employee) has to be negotiated on its own turns—there’s no “one size fits all” solution. This approach takes some work but has an immense upside, because positive workplace interactions can have a huge effect on a host of factors that influence a company’s bottom line, such as:
- A work environment in which everyone can reach his or her full potential
- Multiple perspectives on solutions to problems
- Better performance outcomes
- More successful hiring outcomes
- Increased productivity
- Increased retention rates
- Improved morale
- Improved customer relations
- Reduction in employee complaints and grievances
- Increased profitability
Creating an inclusive and collaborative work environment seems like a great idea, doesn’t it? But how does an organization accomplish that?
A New Approach to Leading
A culture of respect can exist only when interactions include positive and inclusive communication and an appreciation for what each person brings to the company. To accomplish this goal, managers need to encourage (and, if necessary, teach) employees how to engage in the following behaviors:
- Practice positive and constructive work habits: give credit to others (especially to introverts who may be overlooked); meet deadlines (without being hounded by others to supply information or respond to e-mail); don’t eat other people’s food in the refrigerator (something that many people don’t learn while growing up, unfortunately)
- Work cooperatively toward a common goal: focus on the solving the problem (not on being right); accept new ideas from any source (not just those suggested by a certain circle of friends); be open to change if it helps the organization (even at expense to you or your department)
- Be sensitive to others’ needs: think (and listen) before speaking; don’t interrupt others; actively seek out (and listen to) diverse opinions; during meetings, speak up for introverts (and manage strong personalities) to encourage everyone to contribute
- Be open to differences: ask tactful questions about how people want to be treated (and then follow those preferences); don’t assume that your idea is the only one with merit; assume positive intent (rather than assume that someone intended a slight)
- Commit to inclusivity: work to eliminate stereotypes, prejudices, and generalizations about others in the workplace (especially about physical appearances and other non–job-related traits); always remember that everyone is an individual striving to do a job to the best of his or her ability
If you want your employees to respect each other, help them develop the cultural competency they need to interact with people who are different from themselves. Help them learn how to respect others’ opinions and acknowledge differences without becoming defensive about them. Employees need to be open to learning about other cultures and ideas, and when a dispute arises, they need to give others the benefit of the doubt and try to understand different points of view.
These are, however, just rough guidelines. Like people, organizations, too, are unique, and each company needs to develop its own goals and strategies to achieve them. Fortunately, companies don’t have to figure all of this out on their own. With heightened awareness of the value of respect and its connection to collaboration, there’s been increased interest in developing tools that can help organizations improve in those areas. So if you’re ready to overhaul your organization’s approach to how respect issues influence the workplace, a little digging around will almost certainly turn up an expert who offers presentations, workshops, and other trainings to guide your company through this process.
Best of luck! If you’ve had success with a particular strategy for inspiring a collaborative and respectful environment in the office, please let us know in the comments. (And if you’re interested in learning about how I can help your organization in these areas, drop me an e-mail!)
(And for even more ideas on promoting respect in the office, check out my blog post from last year about being an inclusive manager!)