The H-O-W of R-E-S-P-E-C-T

The great soul singer Aretha Franklin taught us about R-E-S-P-E-C-T in the most powerful and memorable of ways–through music. I don’t know about you, but there are days when I just can’t get that tune and those lyrics out of my head. If you’re a movie buff, you might also recall the classic diner scene from the 1980 hit, The Blues Brothers, where Aretha’s character makes it clear to Jake and Elwood what matters most. Now, research has caught up with the arts.

Christine Porath, a professor of management at Georgetown University, and colleagues surveyed nearly 20,000 workers from a wide range of industries and found that the number one thing employees want from their leaders is respect. They also discovered that employees who get respect from their leaders report significantly higher levels of health and well-being, focus and engagement, and meaning and significance. Perhaps most importantly, in an economy where the competition for talent is heating up, employees who feel respected at work are twice as likely to stay at their current organization.

Unfortunately, Professor Porath’s research found that over half (54%) of those surveyed felt disrespected by their leaders at work. Not surprisingly, those disrespected workers were less engaged, absent more often, and more likely to look for another job. These data points make a strong case for more R-E-S-P-E-C-T in the workplace.

As a result, Professor Porath recommends an emphasis on basic civility, which she defines as “polite behavior and regard for others.” Through her extensive research, Porath has found that incivility in the workplace is most often driven by a lack of self-awareness (96%). Fortunately, only a few masochists seem to enjoy being a jerk to their colleagues!

It’s hard to argue against the importance of basic civility, but I have to wonder if there is more to it than simply being polite–saying please and thank you? And then, the even bigger question becomes, how do we address these issues in practical and meaningful ways so that new, respectful behavior becomes the norm? What does it mean to show true regard for our colleagues and invite their best effort on daily basis? If you’re a leader, you might be thinking about scaling more productive behavior to create organizational cultures of respect? All are important questions to consider.

Here are three ways to create more respectful working relationships:

  • Increase self-awareness. According to Porath’s research, a primary reason for incivility in the workplace is a lack of self-awareness. In other words, people don’t realize the effect they have on others. I endorse any assessment or activity that helps people understand how they are being perceived by others. In Core Strengths training, we do an activity that allows participants to line-up and receive feedback from teammates on how their behavior is being received by those at the other end of the line. It’s a way to answer the all-important question: what’s it like to be on the other end of me–especially when I’m having a bad day? The classroom conversation is always insightful as people hear how some of their top strengths are received by others who value those strengths differently. This awareness is often an impetus for change–even though most people don’t intend to be off-putting with coworkers.
  • Adjust your approach. This should come as no surprise to anyone, but if you are having a deleterious effect on a person with whom you need to work well, then something has to change. And the easiest something is your approach.

Poet and activist, Maya Angelou, famously reminds us that above all else, people will remember how you made them feel. If your behavior is making people feel things that ultimately hurt workplace productivity, then you better make some quick adjustments to minimize the damage and change the course of that relationship.

The good news is that you have a lot of options. People who complete the SDI 2.0 see how they prioritize 28 relational strengths and consider more informed choices that may create better outcomes. The payoff from this relational insight is the ability to fine-tune your approach in specific ways that demonstrate respect for key stakeholders.

  • Recognize what matters most–to you and others. If you know what a person values, you can honor those values in your interactions. If you have no idea what matters to them and you’re not willing to find out, you limit yourself to simply being nice. Nice is fine, but it’s almost never enough to engage and energize a high-achiever. The ability to tap into those powerful internal drivers that unlock their full potential requires an understanding of their motives

To respect others, you also need to understand your own values. In short, you need to respect yourself. When you are clear on what matters most and where you find fulfillment, you become much more willing to adjust your how when working with people. Showing respect to others is then part of what you do to honor your own values. It becomes easy; a labor of love.

Sure, more R-E-S-P-E-C-T in the workplace is needed. But if you don’t know H-O-W, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to unlock the full potential of those around you. Move beyond civility by learning what it means to authentically connect and appreciate the people in your life.

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mike-headshot Dr. Mike Patterson is a principal at Core Strengths and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology. He is also the co-author of Core Strengths: Results through Relationships training and the highly acclaimed book, Have a Nice Conflict: How to Find Success and Satisfaction in the Most Unlikely Places. Contact him at

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