Building a Culture of Respect


In December, I wrote a blog about why you should conduct your people, not manage. This blog walks through the leadership structure of a symphony. I briefly discussed the unique culture of respect musical organizations hold. This topic has struck a chord with many people and opened conversations, which has lead me to expand on the topic.


Firstly, yes…it does exist

Just about every company professes to have a culture of respect. But unfortunately for them, most people lack self-awareness too. Saying you have a culture of respect doesn’t mean you actually have one. There are tells in conduct that show how respectful your organization really is. These are few of the big warning signs:


Preaching the “Good News”

In high school, I will never forget my first pep rally. I sat watching the principal trying to be cool and likable, preaching team spirit and school pride. Asking everyone to cheer and support their sports team, wear school colors, and be excited.

I couldn’t help but think, A) we are forced to be in this room so there isn’t a choice but to appear supportive; B) the administration is telling us we are all loved and valued when it supports their agenda, like getting us all to buy tickets to the football games; C) worst of all, asking us to somehow muster school pride for public events, knowing that pride doesn’t already exist. Personally, I find such behavior audacious.

Sadly, this approach of fanfare, empty words, and falsities are adopted by professionals too. The big speech is common in toxic work environments. It is the moment when leaders try to motivate people to adopt company pride (because they know it doesn’t exist already) or encourage people to become innovative and share their ideas (because they know people like being heard and valued and it’s not too bad actually listening maybe once a year)… and then it moves into the professing of care for all of the people; the nail in the coffin. This is the, “we know we can do :::insert goal::: because we have the best people!”


Why is this bad?

When a company has a culture of respect, they don’t need to hold a motivation pep rally because their people are always motivated and excited to work, innovate, and collaborate. People will lift themselves when they feel valued and feel they are free to lift…to contribute. Good leaders don’t need to request ideas because they receive them regularly. Because they have nurtured such relationships and true collaboration. This is the same situation as the principal asking people to support their football team. If the support already existed, the conversation would be different.


Focusing on the individual rather than the team

A musical group has no choice but to focus on the team. The violins MUST come to a consensus to sound like one instrument. The entire symphony MUST agree on the direction and interpretation of the music for it to sound amazing. They are forced to focus on the team and help each other as individuals.

In business, this is harder to see or understand until you have actually experienced this shift in perception. A key concept here is coming to a consensus. In order to have a consensus, you must first have discussions and sharing ideas, thoughts, philosophies, stories, experiences of what works and doesn’t work. This openness is critical in optimizing processes and tapping into the intelligence of those around you. People say two heads are better than one. When the team has a truly collaborative culture, you can develop a strong team consensus rather than a sink or swim strategy. Because if half of your people are sinking, so is the ship.


A tricky one: the quality of the hires

It is near impossible to achieve a culture of respect if the quality of those hired isn’t there. Such hiring practices are a sign of a weak leader; someone who fears for their leadership role because they are not confident in their ability to keep their role or move forward. They hire under-qualified people so they need to tell everyone what to do and how to do it. With this, the leader feels needed and valuable; a true contributor keeping things moving the way they think is best. No one can contradict them either, because their team doesn’t know enough to know better…YET.

These are the micro-managers of the world. You know them from hiring unqualified people, and then tend to squash the spirit of those who begin to gain mastery. They typically give criticism of those rising up as “insubordinate” or “questioning authority” even “failure to follow simple directions” and my personal favorite “loses focus on the task assigned.” Here is a translation:

  • Insubordinate = Too much independent thought and creativity
  • Questioning Authority = innovating better ways of doing things
  • Failure to Follow Direction = skill mastery
  • Loses Focus on the Task = masters efficiency to allow time to innovate


No work-life balance

My final major warning sign of a toxic workplace is no work-life balance. I have a friend whose manager worked Monday-Friday, 9:30-2:30. This was so she could drop-off and pick-up her kids from school. It allowed her to be a super mom and wife and eat right and rest and exercise…all of those things everyone wants for themselves, right? BUT, when it came to the people she managed, God help you if you were in the office after 8:00 or left before 5:00. She was so notorious for assigning projects at 4:00 pm on Fridays that would be due by 8:00 am Monday morning, that her team developed a betting pool around it. While this doesn’t directly ask people to work the weekends, it also doesn’t give them any other choice. If anyone ever complained or questioned this practice, she maintained plausible deniability. And if she ever needed the evidence to fire someone, she could furnish evidence of missed deadlines by always assigning impossible deadlines.

But her major objective wasn’t torturing her people so much as it was self-preservation. By keeping her people constantly tired, mentally depleted, malnourished, under-rested, and filled with stress reactions, she had the power to stay as the visionary. She presented herself as calm, clear, and brilliantly creative. By overworking her people, she could kill their creativity and hold herself as the valuable, irreplaceable, gem.

While some of this is her lack of leadership skill, this is also a sign that she herself doesn’t feel like she can grow in her career. If she did think she had potential to move up, she wouldn’t be so worried about training her replacement.

Naturally, there are other signs of toxic workplaces that range in severity, but one thing is clear:

When your organization has a culture of respect, it is unmistakably different.




Braedi Leigh