Show a Little Respect

Jessica Seburn

When my three children were young, there was no shortage of arguments around who would get the first cookie or who got to choose which game we would play. I sometimes wondered how they would relate to each other as adults. Would they be kind? Would they appreciate each other’s perspectives? Would they listen to each other? Would they be respectful?

As they were growing up, my husband and I tried to model respect as we knew that we were their primary influencers. We didn’t always get it right, but it was a high priority and we strived to do better each time we missed the mark. My children are now adults and have matured into thoughtful, caring, and respectful people.

I believe that our behaviour models what’s acceptable and what isn’t to those around us. Like parents, we don’t have to be perfect, but we all have the responsibility to set expectations and model how respect will be lived out in our workplaces. However, this is no easy task.

We all have the responsibility to set expectations and model how respect will be lived out in our workplaces.

In building a respectful workplace, it can be easy to resort to speaking in platitudes like “Everyone matters on our team,” “We work to maintain an environment of respect,” or “We aspire to be respectful in all our interactions.” Although these statements are not inherently bad, they don’t give us any tangible markers for how to be respectful. That is why it is far more important that we become practical about what respect is by naming what the target behaviours are and then demonstrating and living out respect in both our actions and words.

A quote by Mahatma Gandhi on my office wall reminds me of how I understand my role in creating a respectful workplace: “You must be the change you want to see in the world.” I believe that when we set a positive example, we are creating an environment where we are contributing to the change we want to see.

Here are four ways to build a respectful workplace by being the change you want to see in your organization:

Be Patient

Our ability to be patient means that we should anticipate growing pains as we build a respectful work environment. Rather than seeing the mistakes people make along the way and the resulting need for a difficult conversation as indicators that we have fallen short, we should see them as opportunities to have a conversation and to work towards a positive change. We want to model and practice patience as we support those around us to build a workplace where everyone feels safe and cared for.

Respect requires us to welcome differences and recognize that they contribute to a vibrant workplace.

Celebrate Differences

Respect encompasses more than just tolerance of or putting up with certain individuals or behaviours – it is rooted in the belief that human beings are innately valuable. It means showing consideration of others by leaning into and even exploring the differences we encounter. When we respect our staff, we safeguard their dignity and appreciate their differences, even when we don’t fully understand them. Respect requires us to welcome differences and recognize that they contribute to a vibrant workplace. We should be curious, ask questions, and get to know those we lead – not just learning what they do but also understanding who they are.

Remember That Intent Is Not the Measuring Stick of Respect

If our intent was not malicious but the effect was negative, we are still responsible for acknowledging, apologizing for, and changing our behaviour — even if we meant no harm. No one is perfect, and if we have not said sorry or checked in on the impact of our actions lately, we probably aren’t setting the example we want. It is the impact of our actions that matters, not only our intent.

Broaden Your Community

Respect is an active process of engaging people of different backgrounds, with the goal of increasing our awareness. We naturally size people up quickly because of their stature, ethnicity, gender expression, fashion choices, accent, and more, and then we put them into boxes because of these characteristics. The more we build relationships with diverse groups of people and listen to new ideas, the more accepting we will be in our workplaces and communities.

A respectful workplace contributes to everyone’s well-being and makes our world a better place in which to live and work. We start by embodying the change we want to see. When we do this, we set the stage to work together to build a respectful workplace where everyone is safe to contribute.


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Author: Wendy Loewen
Managing Director, ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership

Wendy is the co-author of ACHIEVE’s book, The Culture Question: How to Create a Workplace Where People Like to Work. The book is available on our website.

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