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Leaders: Disrespect Your People at Your Own Risk

By: John Rutkiewicz

disrespectful boss 


Ray, the vice president of operations, stood up suddenly from the conference table, his chair flying back into the wall. His managers in the room went silent. Ray pounded his fist on the table and yelled, "When the hell are you people going to get your act together? I'm sick and tired of seeing numbers like these. I've got a good mind to replace every last one of you idiots!"


Sally walked into the office of her manager, Margaret, for their monthly one-on-one meeting. For the full 30 minutes, as Sally talked about her accomplishments and challenges from the last month, Margaret looked at her computer screen and answered email, uttering the occasional, "Mm-hmm."


Disrespect from leaders shows up in myriad ways. Both of these real-life examples from clients of mine demonstrate just two of the ways a boss can be disrespectful. The first example is direct and abusive; the other is more subtle yet still damaging.


recent study in the Harvard Business Review showed that 54% of employees report being treated disrespectfully by their leaders. If that's the case, then we have a huge problem in American organizations – a problem that interferes with the very thing we're trying to create.


Disrespect Hurts Productivity


The bottom line on disrespect is...disrespect erodes the bottom line.


First, as you might imagine, disrespect creates a climate of negative emotion. When we're beset by negative emotion, it handicaps our access to the very things necessary for high productivity, such as our focus, creative thinking, openness to learning, decision making.


Further, disrespect creates disengagement. Why? Because a climate of disrespect and negative emotion puts us into survival mode, where our focus shifts from performance (doing) to self-preservation (surviving). When such disengagement occurs, we fail to enjoy performance measures linked to high employee engagement, such as profitability, low turnover, high quality, and customer loyalty.


A fundamental responsibility of your role as a leader is to maximize the results and productivity of your team. So if you want good results and high productivity, then treating people disrespectfully is not a smart strategy.


4 Strategies for Being a Respectful Boss


I recommend four basic strategies to the leaders I work with who behave in disrespectful ways. As starting points, these strategies are designed to help you get the ball rolling toward new habits that can serve you and your team well, now and into the future.

  1. Start paying attention to what you do and say. Your people pay attention to you, so you do the same. When you're the leader, your team takes its emotional cues from you. Pay attention to the negative and disrespectful ways you may be showing up – even unintentionally – in word or deed.
  2. Stop disrespecting. If you yell, pound your fist, or act in otherwise physically aggressive ways, STOP! If you say things to team members that can be construed as mean, hurtful, or threatening, STOP! In fact, watch your jokes. If you want to be self-deprecating, fine. But never hurl a "funny" barb or slight at a team member. 
  3. Give more positive feedback. The greatest antidote to negativity is positivity. Praise, acknowledge, and recognize your people for their contributions regularly. Such positive experiences drive employee engagement and unleash performance
  4. Ask your team for feedback. Ask your people, one on one: "What, if anything, do I do or say that might be seen as disrespectful?" Respect, after all, is in the eye of the beholder. Learn from your team members what could be triggering disrespectful feelings or experiences in them or others.

Armed with these simple strategies, any leader (or employee, for that matter) can reverse the negative impact of disrespect.


Tell me: What kind of disrespectful treatment have you seen from leaders?


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