By Kelly Vandever
A friend was telling me about a conversation he was about to have at work.
He’s a manager of managers. One of the managers who reports to him has two employees who aren’t doing what she asks.
“I was in the meeting when they said they’d do it,” my friend told me. “But now that the work deadline is fast approaching, there’s evidence that they haven’t done what they committed to.”
“They don’t respect her,” my friend continued. “So she’s asked me to step in… which is just going to undermine her further.”
I can’t speak to the details about how this manager lost the respect of her employees. But the conversation got me thinking about what it means to be respected by an employee you manage, especially knowledge workers like developers and other IT professionals.
Does respect mean that people do what you tell them? Maybe. Maybe not.
A colleague was telling me that as a college professor teaching sociology she gave her students instructions to stand in the school’s courtyard in the pouring rain, and they did it without question or hesitation. She was shocked.
“Why did you do that?” she asked incredulously.
“Because you told us to.”
With her positional authority, she was able to ask them to do something that made no sense and they followed her orders simply because she said to do it.
Is that what we really want in the work place?
For most of us in the technology industry, probably not. As leaders in IT, we are probably not as knowledgable about the technology as the people who work for us. We need people to do what we ask of them. But we also need people who will use good judgement as they’re using their specialized knowledge and supporting our organization’s mission … and not just blindly follow our directions.
When our employees respect us and use good judgement, they’re more likely to help us meet our organization’s goals.
So how do you gain respect?
Explain the Why
My friend described the employees in his situation as being hard-charging, “Type A” people. While not technologists, they are highly educated knowledge workers.
My friend indicated during our conversation that they “problem employees” didn’t think they should do all the things being asked of them. Their experience was that it wasn’t necessary. As an outsider, it sounded to me like the “problem employees” didn’t understand the “why.”
Type A or not, most people, and particularly smart, educated knowledge workers want to understand why they’re doing something. It benefits employees to understand how their contribution fits into the big picture of what the organization is trying to accomplish. But it’s especially important to explain the “why” if what you’re asking doesn’t make sense to them.
As managers, we need to be able to look people in the eye and tell them a real, legitimate reason why we’re asking them to do what we’re asking them to do. “Because I said so” is not a legitimate reason.
If you can’t come up with a reasonable explanation as to why you’re asking them to do what you’re asking them to do, then of course they’re going to lose respect for you.
That’s not to say that the employee has to agree with your reasoning. But they will certainly respect you more if you have a solid reason and willingly share your why.
In my friend’s situation, not understanding the “why” doesn’t excuse those two employees from committing to doing what was asked of them and then not doing it. This leads to the next aspect of gaining respect…
Make It OK to Push Back
Let’s say you’re speaking with your employees, you’re explaining your why, and they either don’t get it or don’t agree.
What do you want to happen next?
Our initial urge might be to say, “I just want them to do it anyway. After all, I’m the boss! They need to respect that I’m the boss!”
But consider instead really listening to what they have to say.
You hired them because you thought they were smart and could do the job, right? So listen to what they have to say.
They may have a better approach.
They may point out a flaw in your reasoning that you can’t see.
They may have reasons for wanting to do it a different way.
When you listen, you show them respect. When you don’t make it OK to push back, they feel undervalued and unappreciated, especially if they are smart, educated, Type A people. If instead, you listen to what they have to say, acknowledge feelings or frustrations, and they feel heard, then they’re more likely to respect you because at least you listened. That’s not to say that you’re not still the manager and can insist on doing it your way. But they’re more likely to respect you and help you in the future if you’re willing to listen to what they have to say and make it OK to push back.
What irked my friend the most was that the employees didn’t push back. I’m guessing that there probably wasn’t an environment that made it OK to push back. Which is also related to the next point…
Be Respectful of Your Employees
Let’s say you’ve explained your “why.” Your employees don’t get it. You genuinely listened to their ideas. You even acknowledged that they may have a point. But you want to still do it your way. That alone may not cause them to lose respect for you.
What will cause them lose respect is if you never (or almost never) let your employees try it their way. Or if you only give in on inconsequential matters and never on an issue of substance. In other words, if you never respect that there may be another way other than yours, you’re not showing respect to your employees. Why should someone respect you if you don’t respect them?
I know, I know. It’s hard to let go of making decisions. You’re being held accountable. If you let an employee do it their way and they fail, you’re going to be the one to answer for the consequences.
But if you make it OK to push back but then never change your mind or admit there may be a better way, it’s like saying what your employee has to say doesn’t matter. Who wants to stay in a place where what you have to say isn’t valued? Certainly not a Type A, cracker jack employee!
Sometimes, you may need to take the chance and be willing to do things a different way.
That’s not to say that you can’t push back, too. You had your reasons for wanting it the way you want. Play out the “what if” scenarios with your employees. Ask them how they’re going to address those worse case situations should you follow with their approach. You may not be 100% comfortable with their solution, but maybe you can live with your level of discomfort if they address the concerns you have which caused you to choose your approach in the first place.
How to Gain Respect If You Don’t Have It Currently
The advice above may help when you first take over as a leader of a group. But what if like my friend there is already history. How do you un-ring a bell that’s been clanging for some time?
State Your Intent
It’s not the mistakes we make but how we handle them that says the most about our character. Open a dialog with your team and let them know that you recognize that you aren’t the leader that you want to be. Let them know that you’re trying to get better.
Let them know that you want to help them understand the “why” behind what you’re asking them to do.
Tell them you want them to push back when what you’re asking doesn’t make sense to them.
Inform them of a change that you’re going to make based on their recommendation.
State your intent, tell them why you want to make the change, then start walking the talk.
Ask for Their Support
After you’ve stated your intent and started making changes, ask for your staff’s support.
Ask them to speak up when they see you slipping back into an old pattern.
Maybe even make it playful like David Marquet did. In Episode 10 of the Permission to Speak podcast, David explains how he gave his staff a yellow warning card (like they use in soccer) to hold up when he fell into behavior that goes against the change he was trying to make. It’s a fun and meaningful way to give feedback to someone in a senior position.
Plus ask your team to let you know when you’re doing better so you can see the mutual respect returning.
Give it time. You didn’t lose their respect overnight and you won’t rebuild it instantly either. Show that you’re trustworthy and deserving of their respect in your continued actions and words.
The authors of the Crucial Conversation participant toolkit made this profound statement that I’ve never forgotten in the more than 10 years since I took the class:
Respect is like air. You don’t think about it until it’s gone. Once it’s gone – it’s all you think about.
If you’re a leader who feels you’ve lost or never had the respect of your staff, it may be all you can think about. But if your employees don’t feel respected by you, that’s all they’re thinking about, too.
As their leader, you’re the one who has to facilitate the change. Suck it up. Make the change. Then watch what a difference you and your team can make in meeting your organizational goals.
Kelly Vandever is a leadership and communications expert who helps leaders and organizations thrive in today’s attention-deficit, entertain-me-now, wait-while-I-post-that-on-Facebook world. Connect with Kelly and discover how being professionally human can bring you better business results.
Contact Kelly by phone at 770-597-1108, email her or tweet her @KellyVandever.