Communicating Respect: Is the Language of Your Leadership Engaging?


Respect…is appreciation of the separateness of the other person, of the ways in which he or she is unique.” Annie Gottlieb

  • As managers everything, we do/don’t do, say/don’t say, communicates to our reports. Are we conscious of what we are communicating?

Last week I re-posted a piece that was intended to focus attention on the need for management “authenticity” as one crucial element in the apparently elusive equation that paves the pathway for employee engagement. This week I look with you at another…

Respect; it may be more central to engagement than authenticity and it is certainly trickier to tackle since it hides cleverly within the folds of the enigma that is diversity.

Some years back I was approached by the CEO of an independent telephone company regarding a challenge he said he was experiencing motivating certain employees to “engage” with a new direction senior management wanted to be going. When I asked for specifics he said (Remember, this is a few years back!) that in an effort to capitalize on newly developed residential phone options management had decided that customer service representatives should begin making sales overtures to customers when they called in about their bills, service or whatever.

Once he described the situation he had my full attention. Putting myself in the position of those customer service reps. I asked him, “So this was your idea, right? This was not the reps. coming to you and suggesting they might take this on?” He confirmed my suspicion about the origin of the idea which led me to express my assumption that the reason for the call was that the plan was not unfolding as hoped for. “You got that right” he said, “We put in place what we think is an attractive incentive program but all we seem to be getting is a lot of pushback from the employees. We thought they would jump at the chance to make more money.”

So I asked him, “So in effect you were saying to the reps. that you know they are just like you, the managers, and are motivated by money. In other words they speak the same language as you do. What made you think that these reps. many of whom have been doing the job for over fifteen years, would find the extra money attractive or see themselves as just like you only doing different jobs? Did it occur to you that if money was a prime motivator they might have moved on by now?” Silence! Then he began, “I guess we just assumed that what motivated us as managers would motivate them as well. What can we do, the idea seems to make a lot of sense?”  After a pause I said, “If it was me I’d start with an apology to the reps for assuming that they see themselves as the same as managers, they don’t.I also don’t think you can plan for the reps to love this idea, more likely than not they are service minded not sales minded. I suspect that some work needs to be done to demonstrate that the products are a benefit to the customer as much as the sale benefits the company. The other thing I suggest is to put the plan on hold for a bit and talk with the reps. about both the need the business has and your interest in knowing what would be an incentive for them.” So the CEO went back to work with his managers and developed a communication program for the reps. based on the mutual benefit premise I had suggested. They had a “grown up” conversation about recognizing that the reps may not like the plan but it was what they were going to be asked to take on anyway for the best interest of the company. They also sat down with the reps and asked about what incentives might make a difference. He reported back that he and the managers were surprised to find that the reps. said that additional time off, a Friday afternoon or trip to one of their kid’s assemblies or going with them to the dentist in combination with some monetary compensation would be a much more attractive plan. As I suspected the majority of the reps. reported that they were probably never going to like the idea but if it was what the company needed they would give it their best as a function of their dedication.

I know, this probably seems like too simple a story or something from another time, not now. Not so fast my sophisticated friends! Do you see that this story was rooted in a lack of respect? I know we tend to think of disrespect as something intentional. In fact it may be something unconscious as in this case. And we continue to make many of the same errors of assumption today, even those companies that have put in place recognition programs.

Respect is not necessarily polite, civil or even courteous. You can be politely, civilly and very courteously disrespectful…as I am sure you have experienced yourself.

Respect calls for knowledge of the other, curiosity for what matters to them, a willingness to frame a conversation in terms that are familiar, safe and meaningful. Do this and I can promise attentive listeners, don’t do this…well you may already know how that goes!

  • Where may the language you are using with your employees be filled with assumption and offending rather than engaging them?

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