Creating a Culture of Respect

When the pressure is on, you begin to notice that the people you work with change. The work demands placed on individuals influences how they behave. This affects their relationships. And so you begin to experience the domino effect that your fast-paced work environment has on you and those around you. It becomes your new reality. This new reality, filled with speed, electronics, pressure and more, elicits new behaviours and an increased incidence of harassment, bullying and isolation. You may have experienced one or all of them within your workplace and if you have, you will know first-hand the effect this has on organizational culture. The antithesis of this is creating a culture of respect — a culture where diversity is valued, where individuals feel that their contributions are recognized and acknowledged, and finally, a culture where expectations regarding behaviour are clearly articulated and modeled by leadership.

This can be a tall order for the types of organizations we have created, organizations that move at breakneck speed, with technology in the driver’s seat and face-to-face human interaction relegated to the back seat. Despite the evolution of the modern workplace, human needs have not changed. If you have your ear to the ground you will still notice that what people want most is respect and appreciation. These are two fundamental human needs and according to the Gallup Poll’s How Full is Your Bucket, the key ingredients in creating an engaged workforce.

Creating a Culture of Respect

While on the surface respect may seem like a simple concept, I suggest that if you as an organization want to create a culture of respect, there are three significant areas that need to be addressed. These are:

  • Self-respect
  • Relationship respect
  • Organizational respect


Author Ayn Rand once wrote that if one doesn’t respect oneself, one can have neither love nor respect for others. This is the starting point of any respectful relationship and is perhaps the most difficult conversation to have with employees.

Basically it goes like this: If you, as an individual, are constantly complaining that others do not respect you, then you need to assess your relationship with yourself first. What specifically do you look at? You listen in on the conversations that are rolling around in your head and assess the degree to which you berate yourself and the extent to which you are acknowledging yourself. If the voice of your self-critic is getting most of the air time, you will see that you are not in a respectful relationship with you. I often ask my clients if they would say to others what their self-critic says to them. The reaction is usually spontaneous and forceful: “Are you kidding me! I would never speak to others the way I talk to myself.” Exactly. So why are you telling yourself this story?

Self-respect is born from an unconditional high regard for oneself. It is formed on a foundation of recognition, seeing yourself for the contributions you make every day and the skills and experience you possess. It is forged from an understanding that making mistakes is how you learn, rather than something to be punished. Most important is the realization that you cannot gain the respect of others unless you truly believe in yourself. As the Law of Attraction suggests, what happens on the outside mirrors what is happening on the inside.

I hear many complaints these days of workplace bullying. This needs to be addressed, and not glossed over. I encourage individuals to notice, however, that if they have a bully in their life, they need to take a look at where they are bullying themselves. It may not be taking place in exactly the same way, but trust that it is there. Once you excavate what is happening behind the scenes, within yourself, and decide consciously to begin changing your relationship with you, you are taking important action in changing your relationships with others.

Relationship Respect

The important relationships within organizations are forged among members of a team or colleagues within the same department. You cannot assume that because this grouping of individuals exists, that respect will naturally occur. Creating a culture of respect requires definition and guidance.

My suggestion is to assume nothing and to create a forum for dialogue where respect is discussed, defined, and normed. Respect comes in many shades and you will notice that each individual’s perception of respect is different. Get these different definitions on the table and ask your peers what respect looks like and feels like.

Organizational Respect

At the 2010 Your Workplace Thrive Awards ceremony, I had the good fortune to sit with one of the award winners, Level5, a marketing consulting company. Over dinner I asked their Vice-President why the nominees were nominated. As he shared their success story with me, I took note of the many actions he had put in place that promoted organizational respect.

Key among these was that they Level5, as an organization, knew why they existed, the kind of service they wanted to offer clients and what made them unique, and the culture they wanted to create within the organization to meet client expectations. He stressed how everything was linked along the human chain of events. That is recruitment, hiring, training and follow-up with staff were consistently linked to their organizational “why” and their core values. Every potential employee was measured against these important principles and whether there was a perfect match.

Organizational respect begins with knowing your important “why”. The organization’s “why” is the compelling reason the organization exists. Simon Sinek, in his book Start with Why, defines why as an organization’s core purpose, the reason your company exists. He suggests that most organizations articulate what they do and how they do it, rather than focusing on “why” they do it. Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently.

Apple’s “Why”: The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use and user-friendly. And we happen to make great computers. 

What does “why” have to do with respect? Individuals, like organizations, also have a why, the driving force that gets them out of bed every morning and that makes them want to jump in their car and drive into work. “Why” is what people hang their hat on. It gives individuals meaning; this in turn builds self-respect.

The organizational “why” is often articulated in the company mission statement. Your organization probably has one. Now ask yourself how this mission comes alive every day, how it is lived, shared and breathed into every policy, meeting, or activity.

The second key ingredient to creating that culture of respect is the organization’s core values. Organizational values, while often defined, may not be well-shared. To bring them alive, they have to be embedded in the recruiting, hiring, and orientation process, assuring the organization that they are attracting employees who are aligned with their core values. Respect does not just happen, it must be guided. Likewise any subsequent performance review or coaching occurs through a filter that represents these values and the organizational “why”.

Final Thoughts: Does It Matter?

Creating a culture of respect does not happen naturally. It is built from intention, a desire to build an organization where individuals truly are valued and from a place where leaders not only walk this talk, they live it. Respect is not a matter of the head, it is a matter of the heart. It cannot be dictated — it is a way of being.

Respect grows simultaneously at three different levels: the ability of each individual to develop a respectful relationship with him or herself and having access to the tools for this to happen; the commitment of each team/ department to be clear about how they want to work together every day and hold one another accountable; and finally, the extent to which an organization defines, communicates and lives its core values and important “why”.

These are the essential ingredients in creating a culture of respect. Is it worth it? Will it add value to the bottom line? A respectful workplace is a place where employees feel valued. If they feel valued they will be engaged. If they are engaged the productivity soars. If productivity soars, profitability does too. You decide.

There are a five simple, yet powerful actions an organization can take to promote respect.

  1. Frequent town hall meetings: use these occasions to highlight the organization’s “why” and the many “how’s” and “what’s” that are happening across the organization. Encourage participation in developing the future plans of the organization, the expression of opinions and ideas.
  2. Recognition and Awards: when you recognize contributions do so by demonstrating how the individual modeled the company’s values or live the organizational “why”. In their book Encouraging the Heart, authors Kouzes and Posner stress the importance of personalizing any act of recognition.
  3. Use inclusive and respectful language within your organization. Notice the “but” language and bring this to the attention of your employees. The “but” word makes people wrong. It is not inclusive. Encourage use of “and” instead and notice how this allows individuals to build on the ideas each person offers. This models respect.
  4. Embrace diversity and diverse points of view. Offer employees opportunities to learn about themselves and those with whom they work, helping them to see, value and respect different communication styles and approaches. Give your employees the tools they need to develop self and group respect.
  5. Clarify expectations with regard to both work performance and accompanying behaviours. Give regular feedback that both builds self-esteem and respect, as well as reminds individuals of these expectations.

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Head shot of Betty Healey

Written By

Betty Healey, M.Ed., coaching people and teams back to life. Betty is a certified Lumina Learning affiliate and the co-creator of conscious communication programs designed to help individuals, leaders and teams see themselves through a strengths-based lens.


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