Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Encouraging Relationships of Respect


Al Switzler

Al Switzler is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Conversations

Q Dear Crucial Skills,

I’d like to know more about how to improve mutual respect. Currently, my immediate boss does not respect the group he supervises. He manages in a paternalistic manner. The staff is not informed or is misinformed about pertinent information concerning the department. Our opinions are generally ignored and we do not contribute to virtually any departmental decisions. He is a self-admitted control freak. His management style encourages apathy and everyone races to leave work early. I define respect as treating others the way you would want to be treated. One of our facility mottos is that lack of respect leads to poor patient care. We do not practice what we preach. How should we develop mutual respect?


A Dear Stumped,

Your question is very complex—it’s hard to know where to start. Let me try to unravel a couple of issues, tell a couple of stories, and offer some advice.

Treat this as a “we” problem. As a team, ask, “What can ‘we’ do to be more effective?” Here’s a story. One corporate cafeteria was so overrun with in-fighting, bickering, and gossiping that a film crew from the local news showed up. The employees couldn’t hide the contention and disrespect for even one day and the embarrassing antics were broadcast on the evening news. This is when I was invited to help. What was my approach? I facilitated a meeting where the team created some ground rules—three or four behaviors that everyone is capable of doing and can commit to uphold. Too often, teams do not clearly identify the behaviors that would make them effective. Ground rules clarify what team members need to do habitually and voluntarily to contribute to an effective team. The ground rules our unruly lunchers opted for included statements like: “When you make a mess, clean it up or acknowledge it.” “When you use a tool, put it back where it belongs—clean.” And, “When we have disagreements, we will talk to the other person quickly, privately, and professionally.” As you create your list, remember that “respect” is a descriptor and a value, not a behavior.

Coach each other. Now that everyone knows and has committed to what is expected, hold each other accountable when infractions occur. When someone fails to do the behavior, rapidly, privately, and professionally say, “We committed to putting our tools back clean. I noticed you left the toaster out and it was not clean. What happened?” Make it safe to openly address incidents like tardiness, anger, or sloppiness, etc.

If at this point, you’re thinking, “You don’t know my boss. He wouldn’t do it, wouldn’t approve it, and wouldn’t live up to it.” Then keep in mind that these steps are a good opening point, but if they still don’t work, here are some additional options.

Diagnose differently. Often when working with someone who prefers to have a lot of control, others interpret their style as a “lack of respect” and react with behaviors that create consequences. Those consequences may be bad feelings, minimal effort, leaving early, or “poor patient care.” When this occurs, try different diagnoses. Ask yourself why the boss is controlling. Could it be that he has had bad experiences in the past when he tried to involve others more? Could it be that he is actually protecting your team from another source of control? Perhaps your team’s performance is lacking and this is the only way he can see to meet standards. My point is to start by focusing on the boss’s needs and see if these needs can be met in ways that won’t compromise respect. Ask the boss what areas he is most concerned about and then address those issues with your team. Focus on management needs. Focus on manager-staff interactions. Focus on processes and results—not just respect.

Focus on respect. Before focusing on respect, first get your motive right. What do you really want for you, for the other person, and for the relationship? If you enter a dialogue with a potentially selfish or short-term motive (and people can read your motive) then the two of you will engage in verbal games rather than dialogue—like debate or pretending. But if your motive really is aligned with learning and sharing, then you will reach dialogue. Second, create safety with a private conversation—even bosses want to save face and will act differently in front of an audience. Third, contrast what you are not trying to do with what you are trying to accomplish. And lastly, specifically state what you observe and ask if you could talk together. This point about being specific is vital. In your question, you shared many more conclusions than you did specific behaviors. Be careful to choose one specific action such as an example of where your boss didn’t inform or misinformed the team, or did and didn’t respond. Then say, “I’ve noticed this& and I expected this . The reason I’m bringing this up is that I’d like to improve how I and our team interact with you. Can we talk?”

Your issue is a tough one. The key is to try several options that allow you to evaluate our own actions and continue to be proud of your behaviors.

Best wishes,

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