Earning employee respect: the first key to engagement

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by guest blogger Deb Lavoy

Recently we conducted a survey to explore differences in how employees and executives view issues around employee engagement. We learned a lot and we shared our findings in a white paper. We observed that the strongest predictor of employee engagement turns out to be a tie between the level of employee respect for executive leadership, pride in working for the company, a positive feeling about the company culture, and a sense that your work matters.

That’s not very surprising. What may surprise you is that the presence of an employee engagement program is not nearly as strong a predictor of engagement as these other factors. In other words, we learned that you must invest your efforts in building leadership respect, pride, meaning, and a positive culture. That’s what makes the difference.

That’s easy to say. But what can you do about it?

Let’s take them one at a time. Respect for leadership first. Executives themselves are key to deepening the level of respect employees have for them. Reading, research, and personal observation suggest that there are four things that make leaders respected:

  1. Competence

Needless to say, people respect competence. But when judging their leaders, people are not necessarily (or at least not only) looking for technical competence. People are looking for competence in decision-making and problem solving. They would like you to be someone that remains calm and capable even when things get hard or complicated.

If you know you have some leadership skills that need work, be bold enough to acknowledge the gaps to yourself, if not to others. Find coaches and mentors outside your organization who either exhibit these traits you want to build, or find other ways to focus on your strengths while finding ways to work with your challenges. Be brave enough to acknowledge both your strengths and your weaknesses within your organization. Also be aware that you may be blind to some of your weaknesses. Talk to people whose insight you trust and respect. You will be all the more powerful for it.

  1. Integrity

If what you say in “private” contradicts what you say in public, you will not be trusted. If you are known to enable and promote political shenanigans in the workplace, people will disrespect you for it. If employees believe that you are not acting in your customers’ best interests or in theirs, you will not be respected. If you say diminishing or demeaning things about people, you may be feared, but you will not be respected.

All this may seem obvious, but realize that it’s very easy for people to misinterpret your good judgment. Even if you know you’re making decisions in accordance with a strict code of values, it’s important to make that known. In cases where decisions are hard, because all options seem to compromise one value or another, it may be a great opportunity to draw attention to the decision. Explain how you see the pros and cons. Let people see that you will make a hard or unpleasant decision for the right reasons.

  1. Humility

People rarely respect people who think they have all the answers. People who ask great questions earn more respect than those who believe they are right about everything. But the key issue here is that you want your team to offer you their best. If you never ask for their ideas and input, you’ll never get most of what you’re paying for.

Two of the world’s most respected leaders – the Dalai Lama and Pope Francis – are known for their humility. While religious leadership and humility seem to make sense together, a lot of business leaders are not sure about their relationship with humility. How can you be humble and command respect at the same time?

Two things. First, remaining open-minded is a form of humility that most leaders can be comfortable with. Open-minded leaders listen and ask questions. They allow for the possibility that they may not be the smartest person in the room every day and on every topic.

The second component of humble leaders is that they make a point of discerning and respecting the strengths in others. A leader who can sincerely, rather than patronizingly, see and acknowledge the strengths in others rapidly earns respect. Even better, he or she sets an example of behavior that builds a very positive culture and organization. Beware though. People are very good at discerning the difference between sincere respect and lip service. They can tell when you’re trying to check the box. Employee appreciation, when honest and sincere, is deeply appreciated. Half-hearted, insincere or hollow praise is toxic.

  1. Visibility and transparency

If you’re a great decision-maker, remain calm under pressure, remain open-minded, and make decisions with only the best of intentions – you’re certainly a leader who has earned respect.

You will, however, only be as respected as you are visible. As an executive you’re a role model to your entire organization. You need to ensure that people can see how you make decisions and understand your reasoning. This is not a matter of self-promotion. This is how you earn the respect you need for your employees to feel engaged and able to do their best work.

Distrust and disrespect grow in dark corners unlit by information and visibility into what’s really going on. When people are left in the dark, they make things up. They rarely invent good and noble visions of what’s going on behind closed doors or back at headquarters.

Be in front of your team every day. If not physically, then digitally. Post a note, a comment, an essay, a status update, or an interesting article to your intranet. Ask a question. Be present. Be visible. Be known. Be the leader, not just of a company, but of a community.

Earning the respect of your employees is a worthy goal in and of itself. But it comes with the added benefit of winning the loyalty and dedication of your workforce. A well respected leader – according to our survey – has an average of 15% higher level of employee engagement. That translates into lower turnover, higher customer satisfaction, and greater financial performance. It’s also what leadership is about.

It’s satisfying to know that true employee engagement rests on building better leadership and approach to people. It’s not about picnics and awards. Some of these factors we’ve identified may seem hard to nail down. We’re finding more and more, however, that we can examine these issues more rigorously than in the past. We will publish more thorough analysis and practical advice on each of the core topics we found have meaningful impact: respect, positive culture, meaningful work, and pride in company.

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