If you have ever felt yourself being disrespected at work, or at least not getting the respect you feel you deserve, you are not alone. These actions can create a toxic work environment that don’t help anyone, but why does it happen and how can it be curbed? Well Gregg Ward has studied the subject and has an interesting take that we would like to share.
Gregg Ward is the Executive Director of the Center for Respectful Leadership, and the CEO of Gregg Ward Group. Gregg has been helping leaders develop their respectful leadership, emotional intelligence, and executive presence skills for over 25 years; working with Fortune 100 and 500 organizations around the world to inspire respect and leadership, emphasizing the measurable, bottom-line benefits they bring to leaders and their organizations. Gregg is the author of the best-selling, award-winning business book The Respectful Leader, as well as the Human Resources and Management handbook Bad Behavior, People Problems, and Sticky Situations.
By Gregg Ward – Executive Director of The Center for Respectful Leadership
Starting in the late 1990’s and for the next 20 years, researchers at Georgetown University and Arizona State University surveyed American employees to determine the amount of incivility, disrespect and rudeness they were experiencing at work. Shockingly, 98% of those surveyed said they had experienced it, and 99% said they had witnessed it. What’s even more troubling is the lasting impact of disrespect on individuals and organizational cultures.
Most of us assume that respect and disrespect are things we think about rationally. Rational thought occurs in the cognitive areas of our brains, within what scientists refer to as “the neocortex.” But recent findings in neuroscience indicate that our responses to rudeness, incivility and disrespect are much more emotional than rational, and are rooted in the primitive parts of the brain, called the “reptilian brain.”
Imagine you’re in a meeting and your boss continuously interrupts you (a not uncommon experience for many), dismissing your ideas as unworkable. Even though you “think” you shouldn’t be bothered by this behavior, you actually experience it anyway on a basic emotional level, regardless of what you tell yourself. This is because your brain perceives these interruptions and dismissals as threats, and almost instantly sends a threat alert to your Amygdala (the center of the Limbic system) which in turn triggers the release of stress hormones into your system including Adrenaline and Cortisol (aka “the stress hormone”).
These hormones are part of the fight-flight-freeze response that all of us experience to some degree when we’re under threat. Researchers have found that increased levels of these hormones resulting from constant exposure in the workplace to even small micro-threats (like being constantly interrupted) can have significantly negative impacts on our health, well-being, productivity and even our ability to think creatively.
Research also shows that respect and disrespect are contagious. You’ll know this to be true if you’ve ever walked into a meeting after it’s started and immediately felt a sense of energetic enthusiasm or chilly iciness between the participants. You can sense that something’s up even though they haven’t said anything to you about what’s actually going on. This awareness is driven by our unconscious brains constantly seeking information to determine if we’re under threat, or not. This is simply the human condition and has nothing to do with us being too sensitive or politically correct. It is simply how we are.
Organizational leaders ignore our fundamental humanity at their peril. A “toxic” work culture, wherein many are experiencing disrespect, rudeness and incivility on a regular basis, can seriously impact performance, productivity and partnership.
In 2016 researchers published a scholarly paper that clearly highlights the negative impacts that disrespect and incivility can have on entire organizations including increased complaints, absenteeism, turnover, mistakes and bottom line performance metrics. If you’ve ever worked (or currently work) in such a toxic culture, you know how uncomfortable this is, and how much of a detriment it can be to your well being.
What can leaders do to ensure their organizational cultures are respectful and civil? First, leaders can set the tone themselves by consistently treating people with decency and respect. Practicing what is often referred to as “common courtesy” is a great way to start, by saying “please” and “thank you,” regularly; greeting people cordially; using “reflective or active” listening, and never raising a voice in anger or upset.
Another effective “respectful leadership” practice is to quickly “nip disrespect in the bud” whenever it arises; demonstrating to the rest of the team that being disrespectful won’t be allowed. At The Center for Respectful Leadership, we refer to these and other related practices as the “RespectfulDo’s,” and they are part of the global movement we call Embrace Respect.
Recent neuroscience is teaching us valuable lessons about our working selves – especially in regard to the power of respect and civility. The question is, will we listen to the research and deliberately act upon it, or stay unconscious and risk the fallout from a toxic culture?