Disrespectful Behavior at Work: When the Facts Offend
Recently, I gave a talk at a major HR conference where I referred to data demonstrating that, while the frequency of and sensitivity to disrespectful behavior at work has been steadily increasing over the last 20 years, there appears to have been an uptick following the election of Donald Trump. I concluded this segment of my talk by saying, “I think we can agree that from an HR perspective, this [increased disrespect] is not a good thing.”
A few weeks later, while reviewing the written evaluations, I noticed one participant wrote that my statement was offensive, saying I had “disrespected the President,” that I “could have made the point without mentioning the President,” and added that I had undermined my credibility.
As you might imagine, I was somewhat taken aback. My first, rather defensive, reaction was to assume that this person is a Trump supporter and is hypersensitive to anything that could be perceived as critical of the President. “You can’t please everyone,” I concluded somewhat dismissively, and besides, “the facts are the facts.”
Putting Myself in the Other Person’s Shoes | After my initial reaction to the review, I realized more introspection was required as someone who claims to be a proponent of respectful leadership. How is it, I wondered, that someone could perceive the facts I cited, and my conclusion, as offensive? To answer this question, I chose to look at it from another perspective, to engage in an exercise of emotional intelligence that I encourage my leadership clients to do on a regular basis: I put myself in the other person’s shoes.
I immediately realized that if I am to be honest and fair, then I have to admit that the amount of open and public disrespect for President Trump is palpable. If I were a Trump supporter, I too would be offended by what many are saying about him. Truth is, I have heard people say extraordinarily offensive and disrespectful things about President Trump; just as I’ve heard other people say extraordinarily offensive and disrespectful things about President Obama and Secretary Clinton. I’ve even heard these things coming from the mouths of people I respect and who consider themselves decent, respectful people.
Still, some argue Donald Trump himself has publicly behaved, and still behaves, disrespectfully toward all sorts of people, and says and does things that only a true zealot would deny are offensive. He gets, they contend, as good as he gives. But, as my mother frequently reminded me, two wrongs don’t make a right. And, as I tell my clients in Respectful Don’t #1, don’t try to stop someone from being disrespectful by being disrespectful yourself.
A Conundrum | What then should I do during my talks; not cite the facts? Can I really make my point about increasing levels of disrespectful behavior at work without mentioning that people’s emotions surrounding the election that have contributed to problem?
I’m not sure I can. To do so would be to ignore what’s going on right now, as it directly relates to the work I do. Let’s remember that one of the most important jobs of a leader — as guru Jim Collins points out in his seminal book Good to Great — is to “confront brutal reality.”
But, I’ve realized that sometimes people find the facts – the brutal reality – offensive, simply because those facts spark feelings; raw, negative, heartfelt emotions that many of us would prefer to avoid, especially in the workplace.
Finding Balance Through Compassion | So, after careful consideration, I’ve decided that rather than avoid the facts, I must learn to balance them with compassion, to accept that there are some who are simply worn down by all of the public disrespect towards our elected leaders, and to acknowledge that sometimes the facts, no matter how relevant, make some of us very, very uncomfortable.
As we examine our workplace cultures in the light of our national reality, it is important to remember that respectful leaders intentionally choose not to offend, not to insult others or be deliberately disrespectful. But, they also don’t shy away from speaking out about uncomfortable, relevant truths. This means that the tightrope they will consistently need to walk is to speak those truths with care and compassion for those they lead. I’ll be aiming to more carefully walk that tightrope in all the talks I deliver from here on.
For more on respectful leadership, please watch my new video: https://vimeo.com/257456882