respect owned or earned

Respect: is it owed or earned?

Respect is a two-way street. 

Respect your elders.

Give respect, get respect.

We grow up hearing all kinds of things about respect, but what is ideal in the workplace? Is respect owed because of achievements, abilities, and status? Or earned because of qualities and reciprocity? Or should it be a combination of both owed and earned?

I recently read a very interesting article that Kristie Rogers, an Assistant Professor of Management at Marquette University, wrote for the Harvard Business Review about respect and employees.

In her article, Rogers says that her research shows that two types of respect are valued in the workplace:

Owed Respect – which should be given to all members of a company, where everyone is valued and accorded a basic level of civility

Earned Respect – which is given to those team members who have done work well or exceeded expectations and are rewarded for their success with admiration and sometimes in other ways as well (financial or other incentives)

Rogers and her fellow academics argue that companies whose employees feel valued and respected are more successful. Finding the right balance of owed respect (which meets the universal need to feel included) and earned respect (which meets the need to be valued for doing good work) is the tricky part for leaders. 

You’ve probably seen workplaces where there is a focus on earned respect but not enough owed respect: Only the shining stars are appreciated. In this environment, you’re thanked or appreciated only if you deliver the big client or the successful project. Good, solid effort every day toward ongoing needs gets overlooked. 

I once worked for a boss who was seen to “play favorites.”  He *loved* Joe in sales because of the clients Joe brought into the company but showed no respect, at all, for the folks in HR who kept Joe staffed with sales staff when he went through people like Kleenexes because he was so hard on them. There was no respect for everyone in finance, who made sure billing to clients was timely and followed up when payments weren’t received. 

This boss created an environment where earned respect and owed respect were badly out of balance. When only earned respect matters and there is very little owed respect, team members who aren’t superstars become very, very discouraged.

Soon, you’d overhear shorthand lingo around the office like, “well, if you want him to agree to do that, you better get Joe to pitch it to him.” Or, “I saved us thousands last year on delayed payments but, I’m no Joe so, of course, I didn’t get so much as a thank you.”

Contrast that with a director at a health authority I heard about from a staffer who raved that this director knew everyone by name on her team at the health unit and on the ward at the hospital. Everyone respected this director, who moved into management after years as a nurse, because she recognized not only the big important things, but the day-to-day dedication of various support staff. She was genuinely interested in everyone, took the time to check in with everyone on her team and even celebrated the smaller successes of support staff. You didn’t have to be a NICU nurse or helping to deliver babies to feel valued and want to go above and beyond.

This director is an example of a leader who offers both earned respect (the good job individual nurses did with moms) and owed respect (treating everyone with quiet dignity and setting a tone and an expectation for a baseline of respect for everyone on the team). We can see how respect, as one of the key leadership behaviors, has a ripple effect and is copied throughout the team when it comes from the top.

It’s a balance that can be tricky to achieve because too much of one of the two types of respect can be detrimental because the fallout is frustrated team members. 

What happens when there isn’t enough owed respect?

  • Only recognizing the high fliers can leave others feeling unmotivated and demoralized
  • An abusive culture, a culture of disrespect and incivility 
  • Overall mood drops, people feel unhappy with their job or role
  • Micro-managing

What happens when there isn’t enough owed respect, yet lots of earned respect?

  • All of the above, plus
  • People who should be working together see each other as competition (and excessive competition is quickly toxic)
  • There could be temptation to steal credit from peers

What happens when there isn’t enough earned respect (either all respect is absent, or owed respect overshadows or eclipses earned respect)?

  • People feel their extra effort isn’t recognized and some will begin to question whether their effort is worth it (reduced individual motivation)
  • High fliers will look elsewhere for work
  • Major contributors may feel frustrated and unappreciated
  • A culture of “minimum required effort” may develop

What happens when there is a base of owed respect shown to everyone and healthy earned respect in place?

  • A positive culture of people supporting each other and interacting with civility
  • Overall employee satisfaction increases
  • A relatively consistent level of effort and output is achieved
  • High fliers are challenged, but cooperative, and everyone is motivated to contribute to company success

Before you dismiss an imbalance or lack of respect as merely creating some sour grapes, consider the impact on productivity. In her HBR article, Rogers said, “80% of employees treated uncivilly spend significant work time ruminating on the bad behavior, and 48% deliberately reduce their effort.”

Respect really matters and workplaces that get it right reap many benefits:

As a leadership coach, I firmly believe that it always comes back to learning how to manage different personalities. When you understand personality, you get what makes each individual feel motivated/complacent/unmotivated. 

Here are some tips to help you build the right balance of owed and earned respect:

Make sure everyone feels respect in your workplace. From the most junior to the most senior and everyone in a support role, all people need to feel valued and worthy of basic dignity. This can be accomplished by something as simply getting to know your team members by name because you build stronger teams by developing relationships

I remember someone saying once, “You treat people on your way up the way you would if you were on the way down.” How you treat those who work under you will affect how your team members treat their subordinates and your clients or customers. Do you make time to answer questions? Do you listen, really listen to people? Do you see the little things as well as the big things? Other actions that cultivate respect include delegating and supporting your team through tough situations.

Recognize that there could be variations in respect behaviors. What works in one environment could be perceived as rude in another so the approach has to fit the reality (and it could vary between departments at your workplace). How you apply the elements that build relationships and foster respect and trust have to make sense within the norms of the workplace. For example, you don’t want to disrupt the rhythm of the workday by making small talk during a time or period that everyone needs to be focused and working. Be aware of different personality styles, and things like who thrives with quiet, private conversations and who likes to be part of a more animated and open discussion.

Once you have owed respect figured out for your workplace, consider earned respect. The researchers have demonstrated that the balance has to be right to be effective, so how you reward team members for performance is ideally fair and tied to deliverables. In practice, this could include things like celebrating success, praising exceptional contributions, awarding bonuses or other incentives. (Note: the research is clear that praise and attention from a leader frequently mean more than money.)

There’s always enough of both owed and earned respect. Consider respect from an abundant mindset, and you’ll agree that it’s impossible to run out of respect. You can offer owed respect to everyone, across all levels and departments. Similarly, you can still offer earned respect when and if it is due for meeting or exceeding expectations. Sure, you might have a finite bonus budget or salary pool, but you can still celebrate the big successes by building a company culture of growth and happiness

You’re never too busy to acknowledge team members with respect. When owed respect is the default behavior, it’s going to be there even under heightened stress (things like listening to understand, offering common courtesies and showing gratitude for help). It’s also well worth making time for moments to offer earned respect because failing to do that, as we’ve discussed, has serious repercussions for motivation and even retention of the high fliers on the team. 

The best gestures of respect are authentic. Feigning interest or half-hearted attempts at offering praise will be seen as such and become meaningless. Similarly, if praise is too lavish and constant or if everyone gets the same reward for varied effort, team members won’t feel valued. Have you ever worked with leaders who only offer owed or earned respect when others are watching (especially more senior folks)? Insincerity is never received well. Having said that, a little fake it til you make it can get you started if acknowledgement and respect feels foreign.

Coach’s Questions:

Have you ever worked where respect (or a lack thereof) was a problem? Are there ways you can improve how owed respect and earned respect are shared in your workplace? What is something new you’d like to try this week?

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply