Respect in the Workplace Can Increase Safety and Productivity

Sept. 24, 2013
Leaders across all industries constantly are looking for ways to motivate employees and increase productivity, while simultaneously maintaining or even improving workplace safety. Fortunately, the two goals are not at odds with each other and, in fact, can be synergistic.

While there undoubtedly are many paths forward, I believe that when it comes to both getting the best out of employees and fostering a deep commitment to a mutually safe workplace, it centers on one element: respect.

Since respectful work cultures start at the top, let's first take a look at leadership. One of the most important benefits created by respectful leaders is a solid foundation of trust. Trust leads to the perception of safety, and the feeling of safety helps free organizational potential. Even though we can't control external factors such as the economy, changing technology or competition, trust that our leaders act with intelligence, integrity and in the best interest of their broad-ranging stakeholders fosters a stability that survives most external pressures.

One of the most compelling fields of research supporting the power of respect and trust is neuroscience. Studies conducted around the globe tell us is that the old "do as you're told" style of leadership is both outdated and destructive. Leaders who come across as domineering, threatening or intimidating actually diminish employee productivity by triggering the release of cortisol and adrenaline into employees' brains. This toxic cocktail of hormones and neurotransmitters shuts down the prefrontal cortex region of the brain (the part that actually performs work) and literally inhibits their ability to do their best work. It also creates a mental state that is ripe for process mistakes and accidents.

In contrast, when leaders create work environments that consistently value, esteem and nurture their employees, it triggers a collective brain chemistry rich in the neurotransmitters serotonin, oxytocin and dopamine. In addition to enhancing focus, collaboration and resilience, the presence of these compounds correlate with higher levels of employee engagement. This is significant because engaged employees become emotionally committed to the success of their organizations and are much more likely to give their highest levels of discretionary effort when they're performing their work. 

In the minds of engaged employees, the success (and safety) of the organization overall and their colleagues becomes entwined with their own personal success. This truly is the "holy grail" of organizational effectiveness.

As an added benefit, workplace environments rooted in respect tend to have fewer harassment and discrimination issues. According to statistics published by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, U.S. corporations paid $445.8 million to settle discrimination-related violations in 2012. Frighteningly, these figures represented only reported fines paid for those cases that went to court and did not include attorney and other legal fees incurred. 

These figures do not include money spent reaching settlements for claims that did not go to court, damage to corporate "goodwill" and lost workplace productivity. All told, some estimates put the annual total cost of disrespect at over $2 billion. You don't have to major in finance for that number to catch your attention.

I'll conclude with a final reason for focusing on respect: our individual legacies. Five or 10 years in the future, the people we interact with today aren't going to remember the exact things we said and did. Whether it was during a staff meeting, at a sales conference or on the golf course, the memories will fade. They also aren't going to remember how late we worked, what time we showed up in the morning or our spouse's name. That's not how most human brains work.  

While they're not great at details, our brains do a superb job of recording our emotional experiences as we go through life. We remember people from our pasts by how we typically felt when we were in their presence. If we were usually happy around them, we imagine they were smiling and kind to us. If we felt confident and proud, then we remember them guiding and supporting us. If we felt awkward, intimidated or inferior around them, we re-create their demeanor and behavior accordingly. Credit goes to the brain's limbic system for this unique methodology of remembering people and events.

Hopefully, the people with whom we've worked will remember that we cared about them (whether as leaders or co-workers), always encouraged them to do their best work and contributed to a safe, collaborative culture in which they could participate.  

Whether we realize it or not, how we engage others leaves a lasting imprint and literally builds our legacy in their minds, one interaction at a time. Having long since forgotten the details, most people simply will remember how they felt around us and then make up the rest of the story to match. When others think of you and me, will they smile and fondly reminisce or will they quickly "switch channels" and find a happier memory on which to dwell? 

How do you want to be remembered? More importantly, what are you willing to do to start responsibly building that legacy today?

Paul Meshanko is president and CEO, Legacy Business Cultures, and author of The Respect Effect: Using the Science of Neuroleadership to Inspire a More Loyal and Productive Workplace, McGraw-Hill, 2013. Legacy Business Cultures' workshops on resiliency, the respect effect, diversity and inclusion, plus train-the-trainer programs, have touched organizations' employees, managers and leaders across the world. For more information on workshops, training, employee surveys, coaching and keynote speaking, visit and or call 888-892-0300.

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