Mutual Respect in the Workplace

Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.

One of the big changes over the years is that the great majority of employees insist on being dealt with fairly, treated with respect and acknowledged as being good at what they do. The market for authoritarian leaders who treat employees with contempt is continuously shrinking.

The data are clear and powerful: employees are far more likely to make a commitment to the organization if they like and respect their boss and feel that they are liked and respected in turn. To a very large extent gaining commitment and engagement requires relationships of mutual respect and trust between bosses and their subordinates. But since non-peer relationships at work always involve a boss who has to make judgments about a subordinate’s abilities and potential, these relationships can be friendly, but they don’t involve friendship. In friendships, people feel that they are peers despite differences in education or status or power. A subordinate doesn’t and shouldn’t forget that even a friendly boss – is a boss.

Relationships between bosses and subordinates should involve reciprocal trust and respect akin to that between a teacher and an able student. But the difference in decision making power and responsibility can never be ignored. Sometimes a boss must be a boss and give orders and deliver a critique. But that doesn’t mean its okay to humiliate a subordinate or manage through fear. Humiliation and fear are normally breeding grounds for subversion and sabotage.

A friendly relationship at work means the people connect at a level that’s comfortable for them. In all likelihood it won’t involve disclosure of anyone’s deepest thoughts nor will it be totally honest because work is usually a political place. There will be great differences in the style of how people connect: many men use “male humor,” short bits of sarcastic humor that are really cutting but are also really funny. Many women connect by telling stories about things that happened to them. And lots of people use charm and wit so they’re fun to be around but they’re careful to never reveal anything like an opinion.

The best of relationships at work involve:
• Enough disclosure about where a person stands so people know enough to trust that person and take him or her at their word.
• Enough empathy so people connect emotionally – they like and care about the other person.
• Enough admiration for a person’s skills and personal qualities so the person knows they’re accepted.
• Enough commitment to the importance of good relationships so pressure from peers and management doesn’t allow narcissistic, manipulative behaviors.
• Enough good will and training so really listening is basic to every conversation.
• Enough mutual respect so disagreements are the beginnings of discussions and not the end of conversations.

It’s very common that people don’t speak up in important personal or work relationships because they’re afraid of alienating someone. While people always have to think about how much to say and how to say it, the absence of honest communication always jeopardizes trust for the simple reason that people don’t know where you’re coming from. Trust is a great asset because it makes it easy to get people on board. But trust is based on “What you see is what there is,” and that requires candor and effective communication. Trust always requires some level of transparency.

While communication at work should never be dishonest because that creates mistrust, it often does not involve total disclosure. Realistically, despite what many successful people say about wanting the raw truth, many bridle when criticized. Every member of an organization needs to learn the powerful but unstated and unwritten rules about what’s okay to say and do and what isn’t – and to whom.


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