How to Develop Our Workplace Respect Skill

Janine Yancey

Studies show that work conflict impacts us in pretty significant ways—often even more than personal or family drama. That’s because our identities are often tied to our work. So feeling disrespected can affect our self-esteem and trigger anxiety, stress – and often lead to conflict.

It’s easy to say we should act respectfully in the workplace. But what does respect look like when we’re stressed and facing a big deadline? Or, when we are out of the office having fun with co-workers?

You might think “Respect is easy—because I’m a good person.” But good people make poor choices all the time. So what’s the difference between being “good” and being “respectful”?

Being respectful is intentional and takes practice and skill.

Creating a shared language of respect

Before you can start building your respect skill, you need to have a shared language and common assessment of behaviors. Without this, when respect issues arise, conversations become emotional and can quickly escalate. We developed The Workplace Color SpectrumŸ as a tool to do just that. The Workplace Color SpectrumŸ describes conduct as existing on a spectrum that ranges from respectful to toxic.

Ensuring our actions are on the respectful end of the Workplace Color SpectrumÂź takes intention, patience, and lots of practice to successfully navigate different types of situations and different people with different points of view.

No matter how good of a person we may be, our first impulse or reaction isn’t always to be patient, widen our lens and switch perspectives. Learning how to do that is really a new work skill—a “workplace respect” skill.

How do we develop our workplace respect skills?

There are four key ways you can start to develop and hone your workplace respect skills:

First, we must think about whether there’s a power imbalance between co-workers. Why? Because the more powerful person often forgets that the other person is vulnerable.

How many times have you heard an executive say, “well, [the offended person] could’ve refused.” Spoiler alert: the person probably didn’t feel comfortable refusing. The many stories in the press lately unfortunately illustrate this fact all too well. To develop our respect skills, we have to consciously switch our perspective to see a situation from a co-worker’s view, and think about the possible impact of our actions and comments to those around us.

Second, we check to see if tribalism is at play. Tribalism—behavior and attitudes that arise from loyalty to one’s own social group—is human. We’re all guilty of it at times, but it very quickly creates barriers and undermines cultural health. There are many tribes:

  • liberal v. conservative
  • men v. women
  • citizen v. immigrant

… you get it. It’s a tribal dynamic that creates conflict for anyone who’s not “in the tribe.” In the workplace, a culture of respect grows when we treat each other as members of the one workplace tribe.

Third, we identify the social intelligence of the people around us. Let’s face it. Some people are less aware of situations and context than others.

Unfortunately, folks who have lower social intelligence often struggle to find the right thing to say in a given situation and can inadvertently put their foot in their mouth—causing conflict.

Fourth, we assess the strength or weakness of the workplace culture.

Some organizations have pretty clear expectations about behavior—reinforced through the actions and comments of senior leaders. Other organizations are less intentional and allow peoples’ actions—including disrespectful conduct—to become the workplace culture.

In the organizations with a weaker workplace culture, there’s no “true north” or common values that guide everyone’s behavior. This is why those environments are more likely to have respect issues.

Build your culture competency one day at a time

The important thing to understand about the four steps I’ve outlined here is this is not a one-and-done process. These are steps we need to take every day, as part of our interactions with each other in the workplace, to build our respect skill as part of a commitment to cultural competency. The good news, however, is these behaviors become reflexive over time, the more we do them.

Janine Yancey

Emtrain founder and CEO Janine Yancey has been certified by both Federal and California courts as an expert in harassment training and investigations—she’s provided expert testimony on both topics. As a harassment investigator, Janine investigated allegations of harassment and misconduct within former Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown’s office. Prior to the passing of the AB 1825 harassment training regulations, Janine successfully defended the City of Roseville in a five-week harassment jury trial and used the City’s harassment training efforts to help persuade the jury to return a verdict for the City. Janine has served as employment law counsel to many Bay Area technology companies, including Google. She also authored The HR Handbook to help young technology companies successfully navigate workplace laws.

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