American soul singer Aretha Franklin made it a feminist anthem in a slightly different context. But the essence of today’s question is the same – does respect imply weakness, especially in the workplace? Gulf News decided to find out what it means to people.
When I first asked about the idea of respect at the workplace in my circles, I got a series of rather cynical and grim replies. Some had rather painful stories to share, about being taken for granted by colleagues they trusted, employees not fulfilling their responsibilities even when the boss was respectful and polite. In short, they feared that being respectful was a weakness at the workplace and one must maintain a forceful image to survive professionally.
“People are used to a transactional mode of relationships,” says Mostefa Stefane Kabene, a professor at the Department of Social Sciences at the Canadian University Dubai.
“Climbing the ladder becomes a priority in many societies, and there is no space for real respect. If you show your care for people, you are perceived as weak and people tend to not give importance to what you think,” he says. People prefer “fake” care that does not require opening themselves up to others and risking getting hurt. “So, really caring and respecting people in a workplace is seen as a weakness, which can bring people to disrespect you, reject you and abuse you.” This lack of respect can result in people feeling psychologically unsafe in their work surroundings, reduced productivity and ineffective team collaborations and finally resulting in a demoralised workforce, along with pent-up frustration on both sides.
Climbing the ladder becomes a priority in many societies, and there is no space for real respect. If you show your care for people, you are perceived as weak and people tend to not give importance to what you think...
Thirty-eight-year old Devlina Singh has similar feelings. An Abu Dhabi-based marketing manager, she has seen too many employees and colleagues trying to take her for granted. “When I first got a managing position, there would be people who would just keep delaying on deadlines, upsetting clients or do their work shoddily, because I never yelled and was always understanding. It was exhausting to constantly follow up with them. I became firm with them, but still being gentle. That didn’t work. So, finally I had to show some aggression, or else it was all our jobs on the line. People have a natural tendency to take others for granted, or relax, when they feel that nothing is at stake.”
Singh doesn’t quite think respect is a weakness, but sometimes, she feels that you have to give as good as you get. “Normally, I would like to believe that everyone’s a grown up and that they don’t need to be micro-managed. Clearly, that doesn’t work in most workplaces. There’s a fine line between being respectful and allowing yourself to become a doormat,” she says.
‘Be supportive, but don’t be a pushover’
There are many layers to the concept of respect at the workplace. For many, it’s a crucial building block in the creation of a safe workspace.
“Respect is more than just being polite and friendly to your colleagues and employees,” says Dubai-based forty-two-year-old Elisa Mayor, who works in corporate communications as a senior manager. “I think it’s the understanding that everyone has feelings and certain skills, and they have the space to develop themselves. A healthy work environment understands the contributions of everyone. People should feel valued for what they do,” says the British expat.
Respect does not mean “this manager controls my paycheques and so I need to respect them". t means that you know what you are doing, and I can trust you, and if you don’t, you have the freedom to come back and receive feedback, and vice-versa...
For Mita Srinivasan, a business owner in Dubai, respect is about understanding boundaries. “It’s a mutual understanding. You can be supportive, but without being a pushover,” she explains. Srinivasan explains that a work environment needs to be an open and safe space, where respect and trust is mutual. “You cannot demand respect, but command it. In doing so, you also have to say a simple ‘no’ to people, even if you don’t want to,” she says. “Respect also means that I need to have that amount of trust in my team that when something goes wrong, or in that odd moment of vulnerability, no one decides to take advantage,” continues Srinivasan.
Respect does not mean “this manager controls my paycheques and so I need to respect them”, she emphasises. “It means that you know what you are doing, and I can trust you, and if you don’t, you have the freedom to come back and receive feedback, and vice-versa. You can make mistakes, everyone does, and you know that you won’t be penalised. But that also means you look for a solution and work towards not making the similar mistake again,” she says.
How do we ensure respect in the workplace?
“There is no real team without trust,” says Kabene, a social sciences professor. “Using a transformational form of leadership to help team members to grow and trust each other, is the best warrant for better productivity and success. However as said earlier some societies are not open to that approach, which require a deeper emotional involvement and hence there’s a risk in getting hurt.”
Kabene explains that the word authority itself conveys an image of strength and pressure. “Leadership is about trust and motivating the followers through example not through fear or coercion,” he says. Hence, there needs to be more open discussions between people, and a fostering of psychological safety
‘It’s a two-way street’
Natasha Hatherall, the founder and CEO of TishTash Communications, a public relations organisation, provides a different perspective. “It is said that respect is earned. However, in the workplace we have to understand that it is an initial ‘right’ to defer to management and leaders by default,” she says. Not every leader is worthy of respect, and this is discovered through their management and communication skills, explains Hatherall.
“It’s a two-way street. While leaders must respect all their employees and humans as they are, it is important to have process, policies and procedures clearly defined as well,” continues Hatherall. “When they have a job to do, it’s expected that it will be done. Being kind, fair and considerate is not a weakness, if it is coupled with decisive communications and rational behaviour from the management.”
Being kind, fair and considerate is not a weakness, if it is coupled with decisive communications and rational behaviour from the management...
According to Hatherall, a manager who fails to earn this kind of respect in the workplace needs to understand why this might be happening and counteract with appraisals, procedural meetings, training and honest conversations. “If there is a mismatch between a job description and an employee, then this needs nipping in the bud as soon as necessary for a happier and more productive workforce all around,” she says. For example, if there is a crucial deadline to meet, the employee needs to understand what’s at stake. It has to be communicated to them clearly.
Rebecca Miller, a former teacher, based in Dubai, believes that everyone generally, deserves a minimum level of respect. “That being said, if you’re in a managerial position, you also need to show that you’re worthy of that respect and trust. I once knew a teacher who was sweet and respectful to everyone, but could not get any work out of her students, because they took her for granted. They would convince her to let them play cricket during her classes and would create a ruckus, because she never wanted to raise her voice at them,” says the Canadian expat.
Miller believes that there is a way to be respectful to people, without being passive-aggressive or insulting them. “You can still be respectful to people and get your work done. You don’t have to go to the other extreme of hollering, shouting, abusing and humiliating someone if they don’t do their work. I think people really need to look for their midway when dealing with others, rather than oscillating between two extremes,” she says, in tandem with Hatherall’s views. “Be polite, but firm. For example, watch your voice, when someone doesn’t do their work on time. Look at a way to rephrase your words, but still letting them know about the consequences, without intimidating them, or threatening them. Both the manager and an employee have to strive to create that safe space for themselves, where one can trust the other.”