Workplace Culture

Why Treating Others With ‘Respect and Dignity’ Doesn’t Work

By Susana Rinderle

Aug. 28, 2014

WF_WebSite_BlogHeaders-12My last post, “Why Cultural Sensitivity Training Is Ineffective and Insensitive,” got more attention on social media than my typical Diversity Executive posts. One of the feedback themes was “How about treating everyone with respect and dignity?” It troubles me that such comments all came from D&I or intercultural professionals. We practitioners have a responsibility to develop a more sophisticated understanding of the concepts of our field than the public and our clients. Therefore, I will explain why the admonishment to “treat everyone with respect and dignity” is well-intended but limited, old thinking that’s even disrespectful and dangerous.

Everyone knows we’re supposed to treat everyone with respect and dignity.If this were all we needed, we wouldn’t have so many problems with people not feeling, or being, respected in our workplaces and societies at large. If you believe treating everyone with respect and dignity is a solution to our D&I (and human) problems, what evidence do you have that lack of respect is a cause of those problems? How many people have you met who do not have this value or intention? Are you 100 percent sure that was the cause of their unpleasant behavior? Does Donald Sterling not have this value? Do the white police officers in Ferguson, Missouri, not have this value? How about straight people? Men? Immigrants? Are you sure?

Personally, I’ve been in some pretty rough situations and I can’t be certain the entirety of our D&I problems can all be traced to the maybe five fearful, damaged people I’ve met in my life who might fall into that category.

Besides, values and intentions aren’t the problem — behavior is. Thus, treating everyone with respect and dignity doesn’t get at the root of the problem. I’ve come to three conclusions about the problem.

1. We don’t always know how to behave to comes across as respectful to others.Because what does respect look like? Dignity? This isn’t as simple as it sounds, and good intentions aren’t enough. This is where the Platinum Rule (do unto others as they would have done unto them) is far more effective than the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule works to teach basic empathy in a community where people are generally similar. That is no longer our reality, and the good intentions of the Golden Rule can have devastating negative impacts.

One of my main examples is from a tension-wrought neighborhood of the 1990s of my native Los Angeles, where an older female Korean shopkeeper gave her young male African-American customer his change by not touching him and pushing the coins across the counter. This was the most respectful way to interact with a customer in her cultural context, but this came across as deeply insulting to him, sparking community outrage and violence.

Workplace training programs that focus on respect, dignity and sensitivity weaken the more powerful, inspirational, evidence-based truth that should be the goal of all diversity and inclusiveness efforts: D&I gets us better results in what matters. Such programs are a lost opportunity and contribute to the “eye-roll” factor among our clients because this approach implies that people are childish or bad and don’t know or believe in the basic human value of treating others with respect. They don’t need a sermon or finger-wagging. They need concrete information about effective behaviors, help understanding why those behaviors are effective, opportunities to practice new behaviors and tools to develop ongoing self-awareness and the ability to be nimble and flexible with whatever shows up in their interactions.

2. We don’t listen or respond effectively to feedback (direct or indirect) saying that we are not coming across as respectful.When we get this feedback, we usually react defensively, trying to justify our good intentions and why the other person shouldn’t feel that way. We respond that they should feel grateful. We might imply they’re imagining things or exaggerating. We don’t believe that their experience is real, and patronize them by categorizing their reality as perception and ours as fact. Ferguson is just one more example of the myriad ways the African-American community has been giving the white, European-American community feedback about how disrespectful our behavior is, and most of us have yet to truly hear, believe their experience is real and change our behavior.

3. When a human’s reptilian “downstairs brain” is triggered by a perceived threat, our brain’s higher functions literally go offline, and we often behave in a way that is neither respectful of others, nor an expression of our best selves.Knowing such behavior isn’t OK doesn’t keep us from doing it. Reminding us we’re supposed to be more respectful doesn’t help. What helps is developing emotional intelligence and self management skills. What can also help is holding each other fiercely accountable and co-creating cultures — in the workplace and beyond — where clearly defined disrespectful behaviors are not tolerated.

Let’s evolve the conversation about respect to a more effective, inclusive — respectful! — level and assume that people already know they are supposed to treat each other with respect and dignity. Instead, let’s get curious about why it’s not happening. Let’s focus on improving our behavior in ways that make a real difference by developing our communication skills, improving our ability to hear and respond to feedback, honing our emotional self management and holding each other accountable.

Susana Rinderle is a principal consultant with Korn Ferry, and a coach, speaker, author and diversity & inclusion expert. Comment below or email

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