On the last day of March, a wake for Morvin Andre at a North Miami, Fla., funeral parlor was interrupted by gunfire. By the time the shooting ended, two people were dead and 12 more wounded.
Morvin, 22, had died earlier in the month while fleeing from store clerks after attempting to charge a purchase using a stolen credit card. He had run up four flights of stairs in a parking garage, and, hearing the store clerks on the floor below, decided to jump to the ground. He did not survive his injuries.
While he was not known to be a member of any gang, several local gangs attended his funeral. Apparently, someone at the service had reached into the casket to touch Morvin’s body. One of the gangs interpreted that gesture as a sign of disrespect and responded by spraying the mourners with bullets.
This kind of response to an incident of perceived disrespect is a descent into the twisted alleyways of social logic, where mortal combat can be touched off by imaginary as well as genuine slights.
And just as the meaning of “honor” was mangled by centuries of misuse, “respect” is being abused by our modern culture.
Lots of words have been abused in recent years but none more thoroughly than “respect.” It wasn’t just gangs who roughed it up. The result is that respect has come to mean so many things that it could be a one-word dictionary.
Most people do not worry about the different perceptions and interpretations of respect, and simply use U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s pragmatic definition of pornography, which he said was hard to define, “… but, I know it when I see it.” Unfortunately, that’s not good enough for managers.
Everything in our society eventually ends up in the workplace and respect, with all its different meanings, is making its presence known there, too. And, like all things in the workplace, it’s up to management to make sure it feels welcome.
In managing a business, one of the easiest, and worst, things you can do is to enshrine “respect” in a mission statement. If respect is not an integral part of your business organization, then putting it into the mission statement will not change things. In so many organizations, a mission statement is where words go to die.
There are many good, practical reasons to ensure that respect is an inalienable part of your business. Certainly in terms of efficiency and profitability, the first is that respect can offset a lot of personal and managerial shortcomings.
Most members of an organization will put their whole heart into their work — if they believe it is important and that they are valued and respected by management. Unfortunately, there are far too many mediocre and bad managers in organizations, and they often bolster their self-esteem by undervaluing and demeaning the contributions of others. This drains the energy, productivity and profitability of a business so invariably that it is really an “internal recession.” It is a greater threat for many businesses than the competition.
When moving to integrate respect into a business, substance is more important than style, but we should not ignore or underestimate the importance of style. It can be a useful, constant reminder of how and why to show respect.
No component of style is more significant or more revealing than language. Years ago, for example, UW professor John Gottman discovered that he could accurately predict a couple’s divorce likelihood by analyzing how the husband and wife interacted with each other — most importantly, what they said to each other and how they said it. The largest single predictor of divorce was contempt, the terminal stage of disrespect.
Managers who want to improve the level of respect in an organization can look first to the words and expressions used to describe their customers, workers, products and each other. These are the origins of style, and of respect, too.
Excessive formality is not necessary, but a little civility goes a long way. Show up on time for the meetings you call. Don’t interrupt people; their work is important. Even in private conversations — or what you think are private conversations — don’t refer to individuals or groups in disparaging terms. It’s contagious, and not helpful.
Respect is the closest thing to a magic potion that a manager will ever see. Your customers will appreciate it, your workers will love it and your business will become the efficient, productive powerhouse that you always thought it could be. Best of all, despite the continued abuse of respect as a word, there is no downside to increasing it in the workplace. It’s all good.
James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and small-business consultant. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.