Hearing about Donald Trump’s recent meeting in which he made disrespectful comments about immigrants and other countries reminded me of an incident I witnessed over 20 years ago, while facilitating a corporate leadership strategy session. I watched – paralyzed – as the CEO of a global company literally screamed obscenities and personal abuse at his direct reports for failing to meet their business goals. While it was a scene I hope never to witness again, it marked the beginning of a life studying and teaching others about the nature and power of respect.
How Far We’ve Come | What We Still Need to Face
Today, to demonstrate that disrespectful behavior is pervasive, I often refer to surveys conducted by Georgetown University and the University of Arizona, indicating that the percentage of American workers who feel disrespected by their colleagues has significantly increased over the nearly 20 years since the surveys began. And while this research supports my contentions about the value of respect, I am almost always asked the same question, “Don’t those surveys also show that people are just too sensitive?”
Although it’s possible this question could come from a place of legitimate concern, years of experience has taught me that the people who are asking it believe our culture has become too sensitive and “politically correct.” They believe “people need to grow thicker skins.” But, the question deserves an intelligent response, and here’s what I usually say…
- Some of us are old enough to remember when sexual harassment and inappropriate, degrading remarks and behaviors toward women in the workplace were the “norm,” just something women had to live with, ignore and get past in order to succeed. Then, after decades of increased media awareness, compliance training, and disciplinary actions – and now the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements – we’re finally coming to realize how destructive and costly sexual harassment is, not only to individuals, but to bottom lines and reputations. As a society, we’re finally trying to do something about sexual harassment; and while there’s plenty of disagreement about what should be done, there is little disagreement that action is needed.
- We are only just now also realizing that other disrespectful behavior, like bullying, name-calling, personal denigration and subtle discrimination can be as destructive, divisive, and costly as sexual harassment. I usually add that that’s why learning the concepts and practices of respectful behavior and leadership is the right thing to do.
What’s Beneath the Surface
As complete and satisfying as these responses may be, they don’t fully tackle the unconscious mental models of those who see disrespectful behavior as something only liberal snowflakes and the uber-politically correct care about. What to do?
First, we as a culture need to admit that the disrespectful behaviors many of us experienced as young people in our homes, neighborhoods, and schools are not only psychologically harmful, but are also often replicated in our adult workplaces. Secondly, while both of these facts repeatedly stand up to scrutiny, we need to own that our culture still doesn’t give them much credence. This is because many of us believe in the old maxim, “What did not kill me then makes me stronger and tougher now.”
This is certainly understandable. Most of us are convinced that we’re whole and normal, while very few care to admit that the disrespectful behaviors we experienced as children drove us to distraction, depression, unhealthy repression and even thoughts of suicide, and/or violent retaliation (all true for me). We’d much rather see ourselves not as wounded victims, but as tough, resilient heroes who’ve survived a long, terrible ordeal relatively unscathed. Coupled with the beliefs that disrespectful behavior is common and to be expected, and the conviction that people just have to “pay their dues,” it’s no surprise that so many see political correctness and over-sensitivity in those who express concerns about disrespectful behavior.
How Normalizing Disrespect Affects Business
What we fail to realize is that the disrespectful experiences of youth can not only leave psychological scars, but they’ve also given us the sense that this pervasive, negative and destructive behavior is somehow normal and “just the way it is.” But, decades of research and verifiable evidence make it abundantly clear that people and organizations who experience higher levels of disrespect have more negative outcomes, complaints, conflict, mistakes, absenteeism, presenteeism, turnover, and lower productivity, trust, and teamwork.
So, when it comes to dealing with skeptics who claim oversensitivity and political correctness, we should avoid the argument that disrespectful behavior is fundamentally wrong and hurtful. Instead, we need to focus on the high costs to individuals and organizations that disrespect incurs. The business case is clear: engaging in and/or tolerating disrespectful environments and the resulting negative impacts and poor outcomes is simply too costly.
We are not going backwards to a time where sexual harassment was just something to be gotten through and the cost of doing business. We shouldn’t go backwards on all of the other kinds of disrespect either.