Create a Respectful Work Environment

RBLP Staff – Building and Leading Resilient Teams Series

Create a Respectful Work Environment

Respect can be a highly charged term in the workplace, one that is often misunderstood and not infrequently abused under weak leadership. It’s up to leaders to ensure mutual respect between team members.

Modeling respectful behavior and ensuring that others engage in respectful behavior is as basic as kids in a sandbox. If you’ve got five toddlers digging in the sand together, it’s the adult’s job to make sure they don’t mistreat each other. How do we do that? “Jenny, we don’t throw sand at Miguel. Now please tell Miguel you’re sorry.”

Yep, it’s that basic and that simple. Whether Jenny actually is sorry is another matter. But your job isn’t to make Jenny like Miguel. It’s to ensure that the kids play nice in that sandbox–and learn to treat one another respectfully when in the sandbox.

Those who don’t will lose their sandbox privileges.

The leader must first set clear standards for interpersonal behavior on the team. Everyone must understand that there’s a line between respect and disrespect that must not be crossed.

Then you must be proactive in spotting disrespectful behavior and bringing it quickly to the attention of the perpetrator. It can be an uncomfortable position to be in. But successful leaders build their reputations by how they handle tough tasks. And this is one of the most challenging.

Let’s say you have a regular team check-in meeting every morning. The team has gathered. You overhear two men sharing a story that includes unflattering comments about women. You can see women in the group are distressed. But you don’t wait for one of them to complain. You take the men aside and explain that what they said was offensive to women. There’s no room for that in this workplace, you tell them. If it happens again there will be consequences.

The men may say they meant no offense. But you must emphasize the basic law of disrespectful behavior: It is “in the eye of the beholder.” If someone “innocently” offends another team member, let it be a learning opportunity for the offender. And make sure an apology–no matter how insincere–is delivered to the group.

By acting decisively and quickly, you have modeled respectful behavior and demonstrated that you will not tolerate breaches of the code. You may want to review your rules for a safe workplace for all at your next team meeting.

It’s important to remember that, as a leader, you cannot change a person’s inherent, baked-in prejudices. When you have mixed generations on the team, behaviors considered acceptable by one may be offensive to another. You can’t “fix” those automatic tendencies (think: older male hugging younger female, comments on how someone looks, etc.) But you can demand that people follow your rules of respectful treatment of one another.

Or they may have to be banned from the sandbox.