Feeling invisible, or like a cog in the machine, is a surefire way to make you hate your job. That’s because as human beings, we need to be seen by our peers, and our superiors. We need to feel we matter, or we lose our sense of self, and slip into the existential void.
This isn’t just a millennial, “special snowflake” phenomenon: Research repeatedly proves that feeling individually valued has a big influence on employee satisfaction, motivation, and productivity across industries and age groups. In a survey of 20,000 employees around the world, conducted in 2013 by Georgetown University’s Christine Porath with Tony Schwartz and Harvard Business Review, respondents indicated that the best way for leaders to communicate that sense of value is through respect. Being treated with respect, Porath noted, “was more important to employees than recognition and appreciation, communicating an inspiring vision, providing useful feedback—even opportunities for learning, growth, and development.”
Not all respect is the same, though. And when you’re missing one type, it’s nearly impossible to feel valued at work, according to Kristie Rogers, a management professor at Marquette University. Writing in HBR’s July-August 2018 issue, she explains:
“My research indicates that employees value two distinct types of respect. Owed respect is accorded equally to all members of a work group or an organization; it meets the universal need to feel included. It’s signaled by civility and an atmosphere suggesting that every member of the group is inherently valuable. In environments with too little owed respect, we typically see Tayloristic overmonitoring and micromanagement, incivility and abuse of power, and a sense that employees are interchangeable.
Earned respect recognizes individual employees who display valued qualities or behaviors. It distinguishes employees who have exceeded expectations and, particularly in knowledge work settings, affirms that each employee has unique strengths and talents. Earned respect meets the need to be valued for doing good work. Stealing credit for others’ success and failing to recognize employees’ achievements are signs that it is lacking.”
While no company can function without “owed respect”—the bare minimum for a civil workplace—“earned respect” is far easier to overlook, especially if you’re a manager concerned with keeping the peace.
“For example, workplaces with lots of owed respect but little earned respect can make individual achievement a low priority for employees, because they perceive that everyone will be treated the same regardless of performance,” writes Rogers. This can benefit teamwork toward a shared goal, but risks reducing individual motivation and accountability. And as Rogers and Arizona State University’s Blake Ashforth wrote in a recent paper, an imbalance between owed and earned respect can frustrate workers.
“By contrast, workplaces with low owed respect but high earned respect can encourage excessive competition among employees,” Rogers cautions. “That may serve a purpose in environments, such as some sales forces, where workers have little interdependence or reason to collaborate. But it could hinder people from sharing critical knowledge about their successes and failures, and it often promotes cutthroat, zero-sum behavior.”
Understanding these nuances is key to creating a workplace that, ideally, is high in both owed and earned respect. The first step is letting go of the notion that giving one employee specific, public praise will negatively influence their teammates. As long as there’s equal opportunity to have your accomplishments recognized, public displays of earned respect can have a positive butterfly effect on other workers.
Take it from the members of England’s soccer team, who unexpectedly made it to the 2018 World Cup semi-finals—largely because their manager, Gareth Southgate, and team psychologist, Pippa Grange, began prioritizing public, earned respect, as Emine Saner recently explained in The Guardian. “Singling people out for praise in a group setting can be tricky, as people can think one player is the favorite. [But] Southgate doesn’t play favourites; everyone feels as if they have a chance,” she writes.
Of course, this is easier when you’re working with a team that’s all men. Well-documented gender and racial biases make it likely that managers will express earned respect more often to men (especially white men) than to women, or people of color. The key to countering this effect—beyond openly acknowledging and interrogating why such biases exist—is thinking of respect as an infinite resource.
As Rogers notes, “Respect is not finite; it can be given to one employee without shortchanging others. This is true of both owed and earned respect.”