"Respect Must Be Earned" – Leaders, Are You Comfortable Being Held to a Higher Standard?

by  Mary C. Schaefer  |  Leadership Development

Bosses, no, I really don’t intend on making you a target of disrespect.

Earlier this year I expounded on how much this phrase, “respect must be earned,” bugs me, in the context of a manager to employee relationship — mainly because it can be misinterpreted and give license to immature or unscrupulous managers to treat people without respect.

My reaction in that previous post was based on reading a popular business blog, which featured a post titled, “10 Things Good Bosses Do.” Here’s the relevant excerpt:

“Treat employees the way they deserve to be treated. You always hear people say they deserve respect and to be treated as equals. Well, some may not want to hear this, but a) respect must be earned, and b) most workers are not their boss’s equals.”

I got some additive responses to the last post, so I decided to expand my reach and see what other audiences might think.

Whoa. I have to admit the vehemence in which disagreement was expressed in other forums (i.e. not my blog) was enlightening. I will summarize opposing points of view like this:

Respect for the position of manager is inherent in the superior-subordinate employment relationship.

  • It need not be earned.
  • The workplace ethic has regressed to the point the worker feels “entitled” to demand personal respect in all things from all people.
  • Employees demanding respect often translates into a demand for tolerance of “entitled” behavior by everyone, including the manager.

I found it interesting that criticism of employees was described as entitlement, and at the same time, a feeling of entitlement from these bosses is exactly what I was perceiving. The work environment of today and the future is going to require supervisors to face exactly this mindset, and assess its true effectiveness.

Just to be clear…

I am not advocating managers putting up with bad performance, blatant and dangerous insubordination, abusive or destructive behavior or policy violations. I’m sorry if employees have not shown you respect simply because of your position.

It’s a balancing act. “Leaders” know that this all of this is part of the job, and as a leader, you are held to a higher standard of extending respect even when you are not receiving it or feeling it. And, extending respect to an employee does not mean you have to give an employee a raise, a promotion, a plum job assignment or a higher performance appraisal if they have not earned it.

In these scenarios I describe, you may say that you don’t “respect” these employees, or they have not earned it, but be real careful about the context in which you are using that word. As a leader, it is your responsibility to extend respect and preserve human dignity in carrying out all of your responsibilities to your employees, whether or not the actions are received as positive or negative.

Some Leadership Wisdom on Respect

I could say a whole lot more about this, but to wrap up, I think I will borrow the words of Dennis Childs, a colleague I met on LinkedIn.

“The most important attribute that will most likely determine success or failure as a leader is the ability to be a good person, …to control their most destructive humans emotions, tell the truth, [and] do what’s right… If you want employees to be decent and honourable, you must be decent and honourable.”

Originally posted at Mary’s blog: www.reimaginework.com


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About The Author

Articles By mary-schaefer
Speaker, coach and trainer Mary Schaefer’s expertise is in creating work cultures where organizations and human beings can both thrive. She is a former HR manager. Find out more about how Mary helps managers empower themselves to make the most of their human resources with this special collection of articles selected for LCG readers: http://www.reimaginework.com/LCG/  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Shawn  |  20 Jun 2011  |  Reply

Wow, some interesting nuances explored in your online conversations. I like to simplify this for myself: I give respect (and trust) to those whom I meet. Its when there are behaviors, even words, that show negligence, bias, gossip, pettiness, favoring, and over/covert sabotage from employees when I withdraw trust and/or respect.

There is entitlement in organizations (public and private). But it is hardly reason to disrespect an employee. To dismiss entitlement behaviors and use it as a way to judge employees unfairly is like saying “It’s not worth my time to help this employee know how this behavior is limiting their potential.” To be balanced, only after repeated attempts to coach an employee to grow from entitlement-related behaviors does a manager begin to question his or her trust and respect for the person. This, however, is not a one or two-shot deal.

A bigger question we must ask ourselves is, “when do we turn our back on another human being that needs coaching?”

Great conversation. I hope others join in.


Mary C Schaefer  |  20 Jun 2011  |  Reply

Wow Shawn. Thanks for adding your comment. I especially liked: “To dismiss entitlement behaviors and use it as a way to judge employees unfairly is like saying “It’s not worth my time to help this employee know how this behavior is limiting their potential.”

AND, “A bigger question we must ask ourselves is, “when do we turn our back on another human being that needs coaching?”

Love that you brought potential and coaching into the conversation.

Let’s drum up some more responses!

David Locke  |  21 Jun 2011  |  Reply

It is this transition from expected respect to earned respect that one moves from manager to leader. I get tired of managers thinking they are leaders. Sorry, for a manager to become a leader, they must lead, and that is vastly different from just managing.

Mary C Schaefer  |  21 Jun 2011  |  Reply

Thanks for commenting, David. I couldn’t have said it better myself.


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