Recently, I worked with nine people from five different organizations, ranging from large to mid-size employers to a small business.

We were focused on a second phase of exploration around issues connected to respect in the workplace. Prior to our morning together, each of the participants had prepared in advance for it by taking the 90-minute online program Respect in the Workplace.

There were several reasons for doing this, but the most important of all related to a key principle of culture change.  Whenever we seek to move a group toward any action plan or any attempt to generate broad support for change (including workplace culture change) we need to establish a common start point. This is best accomplished by ensuring that everyone is speaking the same language created through one vehicle.

In this case, the 90-minute online program established the definitions and illustrations of what constitutes respectful and inappropriate behaviours.  There was no longer any uncertainty about where one person’s teasing ends and another person’s view that they have been bullied begins.  The shared base of understanding was critical to moving forward quickly into understanding what actions needed to be taken toward for change.

Let me underline this point with an example that arose during our discussions.  I asked each person in the group to talk about the one idea they thought was most important to them that they were taking away from our discussions. Two of the most senior people in the room called it their aha moment.  They walked away with a profoundly deeper understanding of the more subtle forms of inappropriate behaviour, not just the patently obvious forms of physical or verbal abuse. They realized that the emotional impact or harm from teasing, joking around, embarrassing people in front of others or even just being ignored can be every bit as undermining to a person or a culture as the other stuff!

Earlier in the morning I asked what other words or thoughts people associated with the word “respect”.  As an aside, I would recommend this as a very useful discussion to have in any work group.  Within fifteen minutes such a question can deliver great insights about the values and attitudes most people see as important to them in a respectful environment.  But it was the follow-up question later in the meeting that told me something I had not so deeply understood before.

I asked everyone in the room to consider what “disrespectful” meant to them. The answers came in different forms – but all connected to one simple principle that was most certainly, at least from this small sample group, fundamental to a respectful organization: people want to know they matter.

This surfaced in many ways:  “I say something to someone about an issue and I never hear back – nothing happens”; “I sent an email and I didn’t get an answer back”; “I pass by someone and they totally ignore me”; “I get a blank look when I am talking to someone and I know they aren’t really listening.”  And more of the same, but all based on the same issue

I have always understood that as human beings we all have a desire to make a difference, to matter, to be able to tell ourselves at some point that we know we did something that means something to someone else or to others. What I didn’t quite realize was how universally pervasive the other side of that equation must be.  If we are so busy, so overwhelmed with daily tasks, so introspective around our own concerns and workload that we fail to lift our heads and let people know we are listening, the result is an environment where no one feels they matter anymore. That is a recipe for a dysfunctional culture. It is also a key issue to address in a respectful culture that wants to see its people motivated to perform at peak levels.

The cure, the prevention of this condition, is absolutely within anyone’s reach.  It simply must be cultivated, promoted, demonstrated by example and built into performance expectations as a measurable behaviour.

It is not rocket science. With determination and focus, it is doable, plain and simple.

Paul Kells

Workplace Respect and Safety Champion, Culture Change Expert and Inspiring Speaker

Reach new standards for safe and positive workplace cultures