The Psychology of Asking for a Little Bit of Respect in the Workplace

We pay a lot of lip service to respect. At an early age, we start talking to children about showing respect to parents, family members, teachers and adults in general. There if even the thought that when a child respects a parent then they will obey out of love instead of obligation.  We also, more recently in history, teach children to respect themselves.  Overall, in society, we note that respect comes with a show of deference, lack of rudeness and the nice treatment of others.  Most people want to be treated with respect. Most cultures have a code for displaying respect. Supposedly, respect for tradition and legitimate authority is one of five fundamental moral values shared to a greater or lesser degree by different societies and individuals (Haidt, et al., 2007). The need for respect appears to be a fundamental part of a world order.  Why would Aretha’s R.E.S.P.E.C.T. anthem strike a chord with millions upon millions otherwise? 

We all want respect and we all feel aggrieved by lack of respect at one point or another.   Even when you walk down the streets of New York City and you are subjected to catcalls, if you ignore such hoots and hollers, you often get called out for dissing (and disrespecting) the person. Yes, really.   Can you believe even pimps have it hard these days?  Ask Three 6 Mafia who asserted that it is hard out there for a pimp these days; surprisingly way back when that used to include James Lipton from the Actor’s Studio.  Respect, whichever way you look at it, seems to be losing some of its cache.  If I can be so bold, I will posit that we are losing our respect for respect.

All I’m askin’ (oo)
Is for a little respect when you come home (just a little bit)

Respect is something everyone expects, but many have no willingness to show it. We place posters touting the benefits of showing respect at schools, neighborhood parks and centers as well as television show sets hoping to counter bullying, animosities and self-centeredness. As a society, we lament the decaying of respect and reverence.   Look at the internet noise that occurred last year when a woman by the name of  Lindsey Stone, posted a photo of herself on her Facebook page giving the middle finger while pretending to yell next to a sign that read “Silence and Respect” at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier while on a work-related trip.  There was major outcry about the lack of respect she showed our troops and there were petitions for her to be fired from her job. Collectively, she became the poster child of what a disrespectful lot we have become. She eventually stated that she was just railing against authority.  She, as well as her co-worker photographer, were soon no longer employed and issued an apology that stated: “We never meant any disrespect to any of the people nationwide who have served this country and defended our freedom so valiantly.”  Oops. When will people learn that even when you share a photo with just “friends” on Facebook you will not be protected from national condemnation if you do something disgraceful or illegal.   An act of disrespect gets amplified to the hundredth degree on social media and your so-called online friends will not shield you from the consequences of disrespecting others.  Well, at times it will. But there is a thin line you have to tip toe around. Sometimes the show of disrespect is so distasteful that outrage becomes contagious and viral.   We are fed up with disrespectful behaviors that permeate every part of our being.


According to a 2011 survey of workers, researchers found that 50% of workers reported that they had treated rudely at least once a week, up from a quarter in 1998 (Porath &Pearson, 2011). In another national survey over a decade ago Public Agenda Research Group, 2002), 80% noted that a lack of respect and courtesy is a serious national problem; 61% agreed that there was more rude behavior than in the past.    What has happened?  Many would say that parents are to blame for not instilling courtesy in their children. I mean what child nowadays is afraid (in a respectful way) of their parent? Others will note that popular culture widely encourages rude behavior. I mean, wasn’t the television show Seinfeld one long glorification of rude, disrespectful behavior?  The main characters eventually did get theirs but the ending was so contrived in its retribution that it just annoyed the viewer and served as no guidance on the morality of engaging in continuous disrespectful behavior.   I was just reminiscing at a business meeting about a Seinfeld episode where the character of George Constanza pushed his way ahead of women and children to get out of a burning building.  The scene was funny in that George was just such an extremely selfish character. But is his character really that far off? Is he merely an extreme caricature of ourselves?  As you know, a caricature serves to accentuate what is already there.   Anyway, during the last 10 ten years or so, the rise of social media and far-reaching technology has led to a rise of a gargantuan monster: a respect-free workplace (and overall world order).  Civility seems to be going to the wayside, out with yesterday’s trash (or more accurately with yesterday’s deleted emails).  Respect doesn’t appear to be part of our emotions arsenal.

But how do you fight fire? With fire, of course. Interestingly our neighbors to the north created the “You’re So Rude” app will tell people off for you — supposedly politely and anonymously There is also the “Had to Say” website that delivers varying messages anonymously and lets you get a response as well  One question, though. Will the NSA be monitoring those messages as well? Better yet, is that PRISM system tracking the current state of disrespect?  If so, I have a list of people …just saying.


Over 60% of people, when asked why they were rude (or uncivil), they said that it was because they had no time to be nice (Harvard Business Review). Wow. Being nice and showing respect takes time and effort.  Instead we feel stressed out and reactionary. It is apparently much easier to send a series of nasty emails, or perhaps even send a message about rude behavior through an application than to be respectful in person.  Talk about not having time to be respectful. Consider this scenario.  Have you ever walked away from an employee who is giving you very important financial information that needs to be carefully processed in order to make a budgetary decision that impacts staff livelihood? And better yet, after walking away did you blame that individual for making a decision? Many of us have experienced such situations. And that is why we are collectively losing our sense of respect.

That’s me in the corner
That’s me in the spotlight
Losing my religion (REM)

We are becoming fed up with colleagues whose eyes barely leave their cellphones when we’re having a conversation. We are becoming fed up with those that believe that their latest trauma is required employee reading material. We have become fed up with individuals that demonstrate that a Facebook posting is more interesting than learning what needs to be done for the current project; after which they complain about clear lack of project direction.  We have lost respect for those that claim to be a leader for all, but can’t be bothered to look up from a newspaper when a client crisis comes up. We have lost respect for those that send random office-wide emails (e.g. OMG Kim Kardashian is having a girl) instead of actually answering pertinent, need immediate-action emails.  We have lost respect for those that pit one against the other in the workplace as if the everyday workplace were a Game of Thrones.  We have lost respect for those that plain old lie to our faces as if we didn’t know any better; thus disrespecting our intelligence and years of experience.

Everybody wants to be respected. Even the government. Everybody wants to look smart.  You may ask for respect, but only others can bestow you with respect as a result of their perceived treatment by you.  However, an actual heartfelt “thank you,” or your undivided attention can show a level of respect that over time will form a more equitable respectful relationship.   To those that have shown disrespect to someone one second and then noted how smart the person is the next second, note that such whiplashed actions do not fly.  As Toba Beta noted in his book titled Master of Stupidity it “sounds naive respecting someone who doesn’t give a shit about you.”  That is partly why, we have collectively lost our sense of respect.  Tell me when is the last time you felt an overwhelming sense of being human in the workplace? Positive and warm emotions such as respect are emptying out of the workplace faster than a video of a wide-grinned kitty cat doing a jig goes viral on the web.

We are constantly trying to advocate for both sides of respect: you have to earn it and you have to demonstrate it.  Respect is both given and received. We note that oftentimes fear is the new respect. As noted by Soderberg way back in 1905:

We want to be loved; failing that, admired; failing that, feared, failing that, hated and despised. At all costs we want to stir up some sort of feeling in others. Our soul abhors a vacuum. At all costs it longs for contact.

Despite the hustle and bustle of modern life, let’s go back to earning respect instead of instilling fear to feel something.



Aretha, in all her glory singing, RESPECT:


8 replies »

  1. I really like this and I think all you’ve said is so true! Everything nowadays is made to be so fast-paced we don’t remember to take the time just to be nice to people.


  2. Your blog echos the sentiments I’ve shared in the workplace over the last 15 years. There has definitely been a steady decline in the level of respect shown between managers and workers, and among colleagues. Thanks for sharing. I truly do hope that someday the “Human Factor” will once again, have a much higher value in the workplace and society in general.


    • Thanks for reading the post and sharing your thoughts and experience. Sometimes i wonder if i have become a curmudgeon. But i do feel respect means something totally different now. Im glad (but sad) im not alone in that sentiment. Hope you have a great work week ahead! 🙂


  3. Aw, this was an exceptionally nice post. Taking a few minutes and
    actual effort to generate a very good article… but what
    can I say… I hesitate a whole lot and don’t manage
    to gett anything done.


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