Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

How to Restore Respect in Your Workplace

Dear Justin,

I have employees who have respect issues with their peers and leaders. Some issues relate to things that have happened in the past, while others relate to leadership abilities or lack thereof. This lack of respect causes a lot of drama that saps focus and detracts from our mission. While I may not be able to change the past or repair relationships, how can I as a manager lead everyone to work with respect and understanding for others?

Restoring Respect

Dear Restoring Respect,

Respect is so important. The authors of Crucial Conversations wrote, “Respect is like air. As long as it’s present, nobody thinks about it. But if you take it away, it’s all that people can think about.” Dr. John Gottman, the famous researcher at the University of Washington, can observe a couple’s behavior and predict with about 93% accuracy whether they will stay married. He has said that contempt (a symptom of disrespect) in a marriage is the most important sign that the marriage is in trouble.

Let me share some steps I would take if I were sitting with one of your team members. This is how you can help people move from emotions of disrespect to a place of understanding and dialogue, because you can’t solve problems you can’t talk about.

Help Them See Their Stories

The truth is that other people don’t make us mad, we make ourselves mad. Our emotions are not a function of what other people are doing, but of the stories we tell ourselves about what they are doing. The best way to dislodge strong emotions is to stop focusing on the emotion and instead focus on the source of the emotions—the story. What stories are your people telling themselves that cause them to feel so much disdain and disrespect?

Help Them Separate Facts from Stories

Clearly their respect issues are based on something they observed. Help them challenge their disrespectful narratives by asking “I understand you feel about . What did you hear them say or watch them do that led you to feel this way?” If you can help them see the facts behind their stories, you can help soften their emotions.

Ask Them if They Need to Hold a Crucial Conversation

People often complain and vent instead of dialogue. Your employees likely have some issue they need to address with others. And unless and until they address it directly, they’ll probably continue to complain. So when your employees come to you complaining, you can set a new norm by asking “Have you talked with yet?” If your team member hasn’t had the conversation, don’t have it for them—and don’t tattle to the other person’s boss. Coach and encourage them to have open and direct conversations.

Teach Them to Challenge Negative Stories

Stories can be bad, but collective stories can be worse. It’s not uncommon for teams to have stories about other teams. (“Those people in accounting have no clue.” “Those engineers are too lazy to fix the problem.”) And those stories can cause issues. When your people start telling a negative story about someone not in the room, what does everyone in the room do or say? Do they stay quiet? Do they agree? When we don’t challenge negative stories, people start to believe them as irrefutable facts. Teach your people to challenge negative stories.

Seek Solutions

When you hear someone on your team complaining about another person or leader, ask this question: “I’m curious, what’s your goal by talking about__ this way? I’m not trying to attack you or suggest you can’t complain, I’m just wondering what you hope to accomplish.” People complain because they want something to be different than it currently is. But complaining doesn’t change outcomes. Your employee might acknowledge this. “It makes me feel better for a little while.” You might say “Ok, well, how would you like things to be? And what is the next action our team can take to move toward that outcome?”

Create Commonality

When we feel disrespectful toward others, our tendency is to look at how they are different from ourselves in order to justify our disrespect. This is how we justify bad behavior, like ignoring concerns, labeling others, even attacking their character and ideas. This is the easy approach. This is the convenient approach. It’s also unproductive. If you want to effectively work with people who have beliefs or behaviors you disagree with, you need to do the opposite: look for commonality. Rather than emphasizing differences, focus on and emphasize common interests, goals, and values. Does this mean you have to agree? NO. Does this mean you have to ignore bad behavior? No. The point is, when you find common ground, you can find respect. You begin to see others a little bit more like you see yourself—a normal, reasonable, rational person with opinions, ideas, and flaws.

Remember, when it comes to your team, you set the tone. What you permit, you promote. So promote dialogue and action, and don’t permit complaining and stewing.

What else could you do? Share in the comments below.

Good luck,

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8 thoughts on “How to Restore Respect in Your Workplace”

  1. George R Wilhelmsen

    Unfortunately, there are some people in leadership positions that don’t recognize the need for respect. They just plow on, destroying morale.

    This was in spite of several crucial conversations trying to help. All I’d get in return was “I can’t do that.” or just silence.

  2. Richard Laubacher

    Regarding: “How to Restore Respect in your Work Environment”. This is an excellent and succinct piece of writing on a topic that directly impacts the productivity of an organization. I had the opportunity to visit VitalSmarts a few years ago, and I still remember the positive energy that resonated within their building and across their team. I remember being so pleased that the people that I interacted with were very much how they portrayed themselves in the videos they incorporate into their excellent training content.

  3. Steve Robinson

    Thank you Justin! Such an awesome post! I would love to take your “Commonality” paragraph as post it as my Facebook reply to all of my friends and family who are jeopardizing their relationships with bickering over silly political and social media content.

  4. Priti

    Hi Justin,

    I am going to borrow : What you permit , you promote 🙂

    Very insightful !


  5. Chad Whelsky

    Great article. In practice, however, how you mentor two employees when you believe only one is truly open to dialogue?

    1. KatyG

      I have the same question. Would love ideas on this as well.

  6. Marilyn Cooper

    Your question should be in any Crucial Conversation, what is your ultimate goal in the conversation for both parties.

  7. Darrell Harmon

    Great insights, Justin! You’ve provided so much wisdom in such a succinct way. Bravo!

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