The Need for Respectful Leadership

Trust and respect, rather than micromanagement, is what makes a workplace effective

Respectful Leader Book Gregg Ward

If you think about it for just a moment, you'll realize that everyone -- every single person, no matter who he or she is -- wants respect.

Don't you?

People want to be treated politely, with courtesy, consideration, and genuine regard everywhere they go, in any situation. At work, people want to be treated with common courtesy and to be respected for their skills and experience. They want their personal and life choices not to be judged, denigrated, or criticized. They want to be treated fairly and honestly by their bosses; and when they make a mistake, they want to be told about it respectfully, in private. In short, everyone wants to be treated respectfully.

I've never met or heard of anyone who has actually wanted to be disrespected, ignored, denigrated, micromanaged, and treated rudely by a boss or colleagues in public or in private. Have you? In reality, no one -- and I mean no one -- wants to be disrespected. And yet, as you've probably realized from your own experience, disrespectful behavior in the workplace is all too common.

You've probably heard of the management and leadership style called "Command and Control," which roughly translates into "Do as I tell you, because I'm your boss." Managers and supervisors who use the command-and-control style prefer to tell subordinates what to do and how to do it, sometimes in great detail, and then closely supervise to ensure their orders are carried out.

In the workplace, command and control came into common usage at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, when bosses needed to ensure accurate repetition of tasks in a short period of time in order to maintain quantity and quality. It's also a technique many people learned when they were children: "Do as I say because I'm your parent." Regardless of its origins, command and control is a very common management style that can be found in many, if not most, organizations.

A slightly subtler derivative of command and control is the practice of using the "carrot and stick" technique to drive performance. In other words, "you'll be rewarded if you do your job as commanded, and punished if you don't." Maybe you had or have had a boss who operates using the command-and-control/carrot-and-stick approach, or maybe you practice it yourself.

Here's the fundamental problem with this management style: decades of research and study, along with millions of employee surveys and mountains of anecdotal evidence from all over the world, make it abundantly clear that the vast majority of human beings who are on the receiving end of this approach simply don't like it.

Most people resent being bossed around, told exactly what to do, and micro-managed by their boss. And they feel the carrot-and-stick approach is demeaning and ignores the possibility that they might actually want to do a good job out of personal pride, or because they genuinely care about doing the right thing and creating good outcomes -- not just because they're being rewarded and punished.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm fully aware that command-and-control management can be a very useful and effective technique in certain types of organizations -- for example, the military or emergency services. If we're in the middle of a firefight or trying to stop a house from burning down, we don't have time for a respectful discussion about how we're going to respond. Someone's got to be in charge and say, "You, do this" and "You, go there." There's nothing inherently wrong with the command-and-control style when it comes to effectively responding to life-and-death situations. But when no one's life is on the line, then most people consider it disrespectful. As we've established, no one wants to be disrespected.

Command and control's direct offspring, carrot and stick is also usually considered disrespectful by those subjected to it. Studies tell us that when faced with a choice between a higher wage job working for a manager who consistently uses the carrot-and-stick approach and the same job at a lower wage under a manager who practices Respectful Leadership, most employees will choose the latter if they have the option.

In the final analysis, the command-and-control/carrot-and-stick management style foments fear and stress in the workplace because it is disrespectful, demotivating, intimidating, and occasionally humiliating. If subjected to it repeatedly, the odds are good that, rather than continue to put up with it, most employees will eventually rebel, shut down, or move on. In this context, the old saying "People quit their bosses, not their jobs" has a powerful ring of truth to it, doesn't it?

So what's the point? Despite what legions of management consultants may claim to the contrary, I'm convinced that there really are only two management styles in use in the world of work: (1) command and control/carrot and stick and (2) Respectful Leadership. The first is considered disrespectful by most people; the second isn't. The first is also considered by organizational experts to be unsustainable, demeaning, and a waste of human creativity, generosity, and potential; the second isn't. Unfortunately, the first is very common; the second is relatively rare. Respectful Leadership is defined as giving others - regardless of their (or your) rank or status -- the same kind of genuine regard and consideration that you want them to give to you. If you boil it down, being a Respectful Leader is about following the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." It's also about following the Platinum Rule: "Do unto others as they would have you do unto them." I would simply add that all of this "doing unto" needs to be done as respectfully as possible.

Respectful Leadership is not a new management style; it's as old as command and control/carrot and stick. It just takes a bit more intentionality, emotional intelligence, and conscious, consistent effort to do it sincerely and effectively.

Respectful Leadership is also sometimes known as "Servant Leadership," which is the practice of leaders serving as stewards or caretakers of their organizations and the people who work there. To me, the term Respectful Leadership seems more expansive than Servant Leadership, because being respectful is something you can practice all of the time -- at work, at home, anywhere -- and because using the word "servant" could be considered disrespectful.

Fortunately, these days, Respectful Leadership -- as a practice -- is more visible than ever before. This is partially due to the Conscious Capitalism movement, which has core tenets and principles that are closely aligned with the premise of Respectful Leadership.

If you're not familiar with Conscious Capitalism, I strongly recommend you learn more about it. I am convinced Conscious Capitalism and Respectful Leadership have the power to transform our work world for the better, far more effectively and comprehensively than any other business movements that have come before.

It may not come as a surprise to learn that practicing Respectful Leadership is personally uplifting, motivating, and ennobling. There's something very satisfying that comes from treating others with respect and being respected in return. Leaders who practice Respectful Leadership find that they are more at peace with themselves and feel more self-confident and resilient in times of crisis. They are better able, as the old saying goes, to keep their heads while others around them are losing theirs.

Respectful Leadership is also contagious. It appears that when one leader starts treating employees with respect and receives good results in return, others pick up on the trend and start emulating the behaviors. Managers start treating employees more respectfully; employees start treating each other and customers more respectfully; and pretty soon, a cultural shift occurs. My colleagues and I are convinced that once a majority of people (roughly 60 percent) within a particular organization practice Respectful Leadership consistently with integrity, then most others will follow suit or self-select out. It's entirely possible, with concerted and intentional effort over a period of time, for a few leaders to turn a disrespectful culture into a respectful one, with positive and sustainable outcomes. We've dramatized this idea in our fable in this book.

The primary story of The Respectful Leader revolves around two people: Des, the brand-new CEO of COR-Med, and Grace, who works in the company's maintenance department. Des' job is to "fix" COR-Med, to turn it around, to reduce expenses, and to make it, its products, sales, and profits better and sustainable.

Grace's job is to fix COR-Med's building -- specifically its old HVAC system -- and keep it up and running. The primary tool Des uses to try to do his job is command-and-control/carrot-and-stick management, which predictably causes some members of his leadership team to feel disrespected, to be disrespectful in return, and to eventually rebel. Another member of Des' leadership team, Spec, who is the head of R&D, openly engages in disrespectful behaviors in order to get his way. As for Grace, she consistently relies on one tool -- an old but reliable pipe wrench -- to get her job done. Unlike Des and Spec, Grace also consistently uses another old tool, respect, whenever she interacts with anyone in the company.

She consistently treats everyone with respect and insists upon being respected by her bosses. Even though she is a maintenance worker, Grace is able to make a powerful, positive difference at COR-Med. Fortunately for Des, her successful use of respect catches his attention. Facing utter disaster, with few other options, he decides to give respect a try, and it works.

The moral of the story is simple: Respectful Leadership may be an old and relatively simple leadership style. But it's also a tried-and-true, highly effective management tool. If you want to be respected and gain personal satisfaction from being respectful; if you want to successfully influence the people you lead without micro-managing them or using intimidation or humiliation; and if you want to obtain positive, measurable, and sustainable business results, then Respectful Leadership is for you.

Gregg Ward is the author of
 The Respectful Leader: Seven Ways To Influence Without Intimidation (Wiley & Sons, August 2016), and specializes in the areas of respect and workplace etiquette. A Certified Management Consultant and Adjunct Professor for San Diego State and Cal State, Gregg trained the U.S. Navy on issues of conflict resolution, emotional intelligence, and teamwork. Ward is the CEO of The Gregg Ward Group, a San Diego-based leadership consultancy serving Fortune 500 companies, universities and government agencies including Bristol-Myers Squibb, Lockheed Martin, Warner Bros. Studios, UCLA, NASA, The U.S. Dept. of Labor and many others. His first book,Bad Behavior, People Problems and Sticky Situations was republished in 2014.