Respect towards others should be standard behavior in the
workplace, regardless of role, rank, or reputation. But as companies have
become more virtual, global, and stressed out, this assumption can break down
unless we focus on it more explicitly. Let me explain.
In the not-too-distant past, the majority of work was
conducted either face-to-face or through real-time conversations in the office,
factory, at meetings, or through customer visits. These personal interactions
allowed people to get to know each other and create human connections. They
also fostered a basic degree of courtesy since it’s awkward to have continuing
contact with someone who is rude, obnoxious, or unpleasant to be around.
But for many people today, the majority of communication
is neither face-to-face nor real time. In addition to the prevalence of email
and voicemail, teleconferences and videoconferences have replaced other
opportunities for in-person get-togethers. In addition, managers are traveling
more than ever to keep in touch with global contacts, which has further reduced
regular collegial contact (and made many offices look like ghost towns). The
net result of this shift is that much more of our work today is conducted
impersonally, which may mean that there may be less pressure to observe social
A couple of recent studies
support this possibility. One, from the University of Michigan, found that today’s college
students are less empathetic than those of past generations. The researchers
speculate that this is because they have grown up with more reliance on digital
communication. Separately, a study at Duke found that Americans had one-third
fewer friends and confidants than they had two decades earlier, possibly
because digital interactions were replacing personal connections.
In the absence of high-touch, personal connections many
managers are reporting breakdowns in courtesy and respect, many of which are
amplified by the stresses of the workplace. Some common examples I’ve heard
recently include a last-minute request for “urgent”
information without regard for what it will take to get it done; a
manager ignoring emails and voice mails which delayed resolution of a customer
problem; a team that worked all night to meet a budget deadline and then
received neither feedback nor thanks for their work; and a manager in Asia who
was required to attend regular teleconferences with a North American team that
kept her up through the middle of the night, with no acknowledgement of what
And these examples may be only the tip of the iceberg.
What’s worse is that the continuation of these behaviors will eventually create
a toxic environment that will reduce employee engagement and management
motivation, which is something we’re already seeing in some companies.
To prevent a further breakdown in courtesy and respect,
let me make two simple (but not easy) suggestions:
First, convene a meeting with your team, including
virtual members, and talk openly about the kind of workplace behaviors you
expect from each other. What does it mean to act courteously and respectfully?
Have there been incidences where that didn’t happen? Assuming that people
aren’t intentionally trying to be difficult, what provokes these kinds of
unproductive behaviors, and what are their consequences? Having an open
dialogue on this subject can powerfully re-orient your team, making them more
aware of workplace courtesy and when it’s lacking.
Second, encourage your team and your colleagues to
(courteously) push back on bad behaviors when they occur. The reality is that
most people don’t plan to be mean or insensitive; it just happens in the heat
of the moment without them realizing the impact on others. So if you can find
the right ways of calling out these behaviors, it may be possible to reduce
their impact and prevent them in the future.
Most of us want to work with colleagues who treat us with respect and
courtesy. These days, however, we might have to put in some extra effort to
make that happen.
Ron Ashkenas' blog post on Forbes. Join the discussion.