Show a little respect

Written by: Dave Waller Posted: 22/01/2018

Lack of respectThere’s an old saying about attracting more flies with honey than with vinegar – and it appears the same can be said when it comes to being respectful in business

It’s now just over 50 years since Aretha Franklin first spelled out her timeless call for a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Half a century on, and everyone from Hollywood’s Harvey Weinstein to the UK’s very own Football Association seems intent on demonstrating how far we still have to go in that respect.

But while the abuse of power quite rightly grabs the headlines, the issue of respect goes far beyond individuals vastly overstepping the mark in the workplace. Businesses are equally likely to disrespect clients and suppliers too. 

A lack of respect can manifest itself in myriad ways, from taking an age to respond to emails or settle invoices, to treating dealings with a particular client like it’s a massive chore. And disrespectful people may be perfectly happy to make unreasonable demands the other way – expecting people to be on call and to do whatever it takes to achieve what they feel they’ve paid for. 

“People will reveal how much they respect the other person by how they behave towards them,” says Rob Grundel, Founder of Somekind, a London-based change consultancy. “Often it’s implicit. If you ask whether they respect them, they’ll say they do, but their behaviour will demonstrate differently. So, does it matter what the other side thinks, or is it just about what you think about things?”

Grundel notes that these giveaway behaviours can often be subtle, such as how people treat other people’s time – whether meetings start and finish punctually, for example. But disrespect can be more overt. 

Phil Eyre, Founder of Guernsey-based consultancy Leaders, recalls working with one team that had developed a habit of giving each other nicknames – and then begun applying it ‘quite aggressively’ to the head of another business.

“They had an internal lack of trust and respect,” he says. “Their approach was disrespectful, even if this key stakeholder was totally unaware of it, and it began affecting the negotiations with him.” 

If a lack of respect isn’t exactly difficult to spot sometimes, neither are the reasons why it may have developed in the first place. The capitalist system still puts far greater emphasis on competition than it does on collaboration, creating a dog-eat-dog world where each party may feel encouraged to treat those it encounters along the way simply as a means of achieving the best terms for itself. 

“If the core of the relationship is purely transactional, and the other party becomes nothing but a facilitation for more money, you have the beginnings of a lack of respect,” says Eyre. “And there’s a strong chance trust has evaporated.”

From the top down

This seems a danger inherent in the system. And it only gets worse when the economy goes belly-up like the UK’s has. 

Shelley Kendrick, Founder of Jersey-based recruiter Kendrick Rose, says this has created a ‘concertina effect’, in which pressured employees simply pass their stresses on to their opposite numbers, who are themselves under greater pressure too. Respect suddenly slips a long way down the to-do list.  

“I’ve spoken to clients being cut to the bone in terms of service fees and what their client wants,” says Kendrick. “Everyone’s under pressure to deliver a bang for their buck. Lots of companies out there are very respectful and nice to deal with, but if people are under the cosh from their bosses, it all just spirals down.”

A lack of respect can be symptomatic of a wider cultural problem in how a particular business is run, and the clues people pick up from how their managers act. Even if individuals aren’t disrespectful, things may well turn toxic if a company isn’t deliberate about establishing and promoting its values. 

“If no one knows what everyone else’s values are, they won’t be brave enough to bring a higher virtue into the mix,” says Grundel. “And it’s a brave thing to stand up and say: ‘Guys I think we should be more like this’. They’ll probably choose to dumb down their values instead.”

So, what does all this matter? Is it actually important to be all nicey-nicey when it comes to turning the wheels of business? Actually it is. While some of this is going to manifest itself in small, daily niggles, it isn’t just another issue to be lumped in under the ‘snowflake’ banner. Disrespectful behaviour can quickly prove costly – both to your reputation and, consequently, your coffers.  

“A disrespectful business might get a very good short-term deal on the table – saving money, or poaching the best salesperson,” says Eyre. “So they can say ‘well done’ for about five minutes. But in the longer term, a second deal – a far more rewarding long-term partnership – won’t happen. And these can become financial costs quite quickly. A good reputation is built on trust. And trust is built on respect.”

Taking stock

The good news is that instilling respect needn’t require a full-scale cultural overhaul. A good first step is to look at how you set up your relationship with your clients and suppliers in the first place. “So little work is done around building contracts, agreeing up front how we’re going to work together,” says Grundel. 

He points out that even though he’s fully aware of the dangers here, even he can still fall victim to it – he recently realised that one client is starting to use him as‘a commodity’. 

“Some of the people there are so lazy with some of the work, they just go: ‘Well, Rob will do it’,” he says. “They’re holding me to a higher level of accountability than they are holding themselves. 

“I find that hugely disrespectful, so now I’m in a position of asking how I’m going to renegotiate the contract of how we work together. They’re not going to do it, obviously, so that’s on me to do.”

Much of this comes down to taking stock of behaviours and being proactive about sorting them out. When made aware of their patterns, Eyre’s toxic nickname team decided to make a point of resisting making comments about the external party, and instead viewing them in a more positive light. “They took out the personality from the equation and approached any negativity much more objectively,” he says. “And they got a much better outcome as a result. 

“We ended up creating a respect charter – providing this business with a dozen or so actual behaviours of what respect looks like in business. A key one was: ‘argue the point, not the person’.” 

Eyre admits that it did take a month for some people to “realise that true business success relies on the importance of relationships over numbers”. But the key thing is that people can learn. This is important, as respect certainly needs to come from the top – where attitudes can often be the source of the problem. 

“I met one senior director who was very abrasive,” says Kendrick. “He had no self-awareness and didn’t realise his own actions. But a couple of years later, we met up for coffee and he was a completely different person – pussycat nice and humble, when he’d been nasty and arrogant. He’d had executive coaching, which had helped him realise the impact of how he behaved on others. So it can work.”

And how can you deal with a lack of respect if you’re on the receiving end? It’s perfectly easy for relationships that were once healthy to slip and become less constructive. The reality is that the vast majority of us need to work with those we may not wholly respect. If that’s the case, it’s about finding common ground where you can connect. 

“Choosing to be respectful and behaving well with this other business, even if you have some concerns, is far better for long-term growth than being suspicious and treating them badly,” says Eyre. “It’s about becoming the bigger person.”

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