Radical Respect describes the culture in workplaces that honor everyone’s individuality, rather than demanding conformity; and that optimize for collaboration, not coercion. What makes it radical is that it rarely occurs.
Collaboration is essential to any great human accomplishment. Designing organizations that promote healthy collaboration requires proactive efforts to combat coercive behaviors from individuals and groups, such as arbitrary, ego-driven, fact-ignoring biased decision-making, bullying, harassment, and physical violence. When we build management systems that put checks and balances on the power of leaders, they can be held accountable for their behavior and their results. Employees are not silenced.
There is growing consensus that coercion, even by otherwise visionary leaders, neither gets the best results out of people nor generates the innovation necessary to thrive in the modern economy.
If we want to benefit from each person we’re working with bringing their full potential to our collaborative efforts, we need to honor one another’s individuality rather than demanding conformity. None of us except actors can do their best work while pretending to be somebody they aren’t. Yet too often we look for “culture fit” rather than “culture add” when we hire, making it difficult for our organizations to evolve, and excluding people who could make an important contribution. We often believe we want people who “think different,” but we’re more likely to punish outliers. Telling people to bring their best to work while discouraging them from being their true selves at work seems obviously ridiculous. But we do that all the time, usually unconsciously.
Successful collaboration requires diversity of thought and experience. Part of the benefit of collaboration is that “many hands make a light load.” But the more important benefit is that it allows us to challenge each other because each of us has a different point of view, different life experiences. If we were all exact clones, we’d lose that benefit.
This seems so simple, so obvious. Why then is the combination of optimizing for collaboration and honoring individuality so rare that I dub it radical? What gets in the way? What can we do to make it less rare? Let’s start by identifying what moves us in the wrong direction.
What Gets in the Way of Radical Respect?
Many things get in the way, but the three big ones are bias, prejudice and bullying. People often conflate bias, prejudice, and bullying, treating them as though they are synonymous. For example, the term “microaggression” is useful in pointing out small injuries that add up to repetitive stress injury. The problem is, there are three different reasons why microaggressions happen: bias, prejudice, and bullying. You need to figure out what you’re dealing with in order to figure out what to do about it.
To help parse the problem, let’s start with some simple definitions of each of the three different problems.
Bias is “not meaning it.” Bias is unconscious. It comes from the part of our mind that jumps to conclusions, often reflecting stereotypes that we don’t believe if we stop to think.
Prejudice is “meaning it.” It is a consciously held belief, often rationalizing flawed assumptions and stereotypes.
Bullying is “being mean.” There may be no belief, conscious or unconscious, behind it. Often it is the instinctive use of in-group status or power to harm, humiliate, dominate, or coerce others.
Depending on one’s perspective these three problems carry different weight. For example, we are all biased, and bias usually doesn’t come with bad intent. So it’s tempting to dismiss bias as less severe than other infractions. However, many report that bias happens so often that it becomes a repetitive stress injury that does more damage to them in their careers than either prejudice or bullying. Others have found prejudice or bullying looms larger in their experience. The point is that these are all problems that we need to solve, and comparing which one is “worse” than the other isn’t helpful.
Furthermore, one often bleeds into another. There’s a fuzzy territory between unconscious thought and conscious belief. For example a woman I know is a nervous flier, and when her pilot is a woman, she feels more nervous. She rejects this intellectually, and is aware of the irrationality of her emotional response, but it still happens.
Also, belief, be it conscious or unconscious, tends to guide our actions. Sometimes there’s no belief, conscious or unconscious, behind bullying. It’s just an instinct to dominate. But bullying and worse can be emboldened by conscious prejudice, as occurred in the Jim Crow South. Or, a person might bully with biased language.
To get some perspective on these problems, Wesley Faulkner and I discuss this passage with our podcast guest Laura Holmes. You can hear it wherever you like to get your podcasts, or here: https://www.justworktogether.com/podcast-season-2.