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The Respect Effect
How to Use the Science of Neuroleadership to Inspire a More Loyal and Productive Workplace
By Paul B. Meshanko
McGraw-Hill EducationCopyright © 2013 Paul B. Meshanko
All rights reserved.
A Transformational Power
While there have been many proud moments in my career, one of the most memorable was a three-month period in 1987. I was in the second quarter of a two-term internship with the Bendix Heavy Vehicle division of AlliedSignal Corporation. I was fortunate to report to a man named Larry Taylor, who remains one of the best managers I can ever remember having. What made Larry special as a manager was that he never treated me as anything other than a fully competent associate, even though I was still a college student. His management style was to probe the outer edges of my intelligence, problem-solving skills, and creativity on a continual basis.
One particular assignment still makes me smile every time I think back to it. One day, Larry said that he had an important project for me. The company was considering an acquisition, and he wanted me to prepare a full strategic analysis of the companies being considered. More importantly, he asked that I come back to him with a recommendation once my analysis was complete. I remember feeling both excited and frightened. For a kid still in college, this was the kind of project that would require me to pull from every business discipline I had been exposed to up until that point.
The project took almost two months to complete. In the end, I presented a full analysis of three potential acquisition targets, including their financial strength, market position, reputation within our industry, and range of products and services. While all three companies were attractive candidates, there was one that stood out to me as clearly being the best target. My analysis and recommendations, including multiple graphs and charts, took the form of a 60- page report with my name squarely on the cover page. I still remember walking into Larry's office, handing it to him, and proudly saying, "Here you go." At that time, it represented not only a meaningful departure from term papers and case studies, but it was also the best work I was capable of producing.
Later that afternoon, my desk phone rang, and Larry asked me to come to his office. He said, "I have reviewed your report and recommendation, and it is excellent. It's so good that I have already sent it to Dave and would like you to present it to him in person tomorrow." Dave was Larry's boss and responsible for all aftermarket strategy and marketing for our group.
This level of recognition for my work, and its implied confidence in me, was somewhat unexpected. What an impact it had. The euphoria and motivation it instilled in me lasted for years. It set the stage for me to accept the company's offer to work for it as a fulltime employee once I graduated from college even though I had two offers at slightly higher starting salaries.
Looking back through the 25-year lens of my experiences, it's only now that I fully appreciate the complex and powerful forces put into play that year. More than anything, Larry primed my emotional pump by treating me in a manner that made me feel smart, capable, and important. He also helped me feel like I was part of the team and see how my contributions played an integral part in the long-term strategic and financial success of the business. While he probably didn't realize it at the time, his intentional and consistent demonstration of respect for me as a person and young professional helped set in motion the productive and rewarding trajectory for the first 10 years of my professional career. Because of his communication of confidence in me, I developed a powerful emotional tie to both my boss and the company. Whether it's a project, acquisition, or purchase of equipment, either mentally or physically businesses map their return on investment (ROI). In this case, the investment was in me, and the return was the maximum engagement of my skills for the betterment of the company. What can a company do to maximize the return on investment it's made in its employees? A good starting place is to make respect an integral part of the company's corporate culture.
Connected Through Evolution
One of the most illuminating perspectives on human interaction that I've read recently was in Daniel Goleman's book, Primal Leadership. Goleman refers to human beings as "open loop systems." From an evolutionary perspective, our species is more connected to each other than most people realize. Over the course of millions of years, our ancestors developed highly specialized brain circuitry that constantly monitored other people when we were in their presence. In psychology, there's a concept called theory of mind which refers to the ability to identify mental states (beliefs, desires, intentions, perspectives, etc.) in ourselves and others, and to realize that the two states are often different. Grasping this basic difference in orientations was a remarkable and uniquely human adaptation. In a world of limited resources, it was the equivalent of developing our own personal threat detection systems.
From an evolutionary perspective, this makes complete sense. The ability to predict accurately the peaceful or hostile intentions of new people or animals literally promoted the longevity of our species. What is fascinating about this circuitry is that it's forever in the "on" mode. What this means is that we're always monitoring other people around us, and they're doing the same. Our conclusions about the intentions of others have a profound effect on how the rest of our brain functions. Informed by inputs from our five senses, our brains perform a delicate and instinctual dance every day in the name of self-preservation.
Armed with this complex warning system, the human brain is the world's most sophisticated survival computer ever developed. Whenever our senses pick up cues that could indicate that we are or could be in the presence of danger, ancient neural pathways become activated to get us out of harm's way as quickly and effectively as possible. This is the realm of fight or flight. So powerful are these impulses that they literally commandeer the brain and order all other nonessential thinking functions to go dormant. This means that all our higher-order brain capabilities, such as problem solving, reasoning, evaluating alternatives, planning, socializing, and empathizing, are subordinated to protecting ourselves in the presence of perceived threats. This includes more than just physical threats; it also includes threats to our emotional well-being, social status, financial security, and future opportunities.
Conversely, when we interpret cues from others to mean that we are safe in their midst, our higher-level thought processes go back online, and we return to a normal level of thinking and intellectual/operational output. This "all systems safe" mode of brain function is hopefully where most of us spend the majority of our waking hours getting things done for our employers, our families, and ourselves.
From a workplace perspective, there is a mode that's more beneficial and desirable than "all systems safe." It is the mode in which we function when we perceive ourselves to be free from danger and in the presence of those who appreciate us, value what we contribute, and deem our best effort as being essential to the overall success of the group. It is also the mode in which we are constructively challenged, given opportunities and resources to be successful, and can share in the rewards of our collaboration with others. When we operate in this type of rich, stimulating, and emotionally nourishing environment, our brains are more productive than normal. They release powerful neurotransmitters that stimulate our creativity and our desire to work collaboratively; they also allow us to find deep personal satisfaction in our work. This is the respect effect.
The Neurology of Human Interaction
Human evolution and biology play significant roles in determining how we interact and behave around each other. Our brains are wired for speed and efficiency and powered almost exclusively by glucose, which is the form of sugar our bodies metabolize from carbohydrates. Because we have limited supplies of glucose available throughout the day, one of our natural, and often unacknowledged biases is to stay in environments that are familiar and use neural pathways that are already well-developed. When we're surrounded by people who are like us (or at least very familiar to us), we expend less glucose (energy) to understand their actions and predict their intentions. This preference for familiarity, predictability, and safety is likely one of the underlying factors that drove our ancestors to form tribes.
When we're around people for whom we have no first-hand reference points, our brains immediately try to match what we can perceive about them (visually, audibly, and through our sense of smell) to patterns that already exist. According to authors Marsh, Mendoza-Denton, and Smith:
Neuroscience has shown that people can identify another person's apparent race, gender, and age in a matter of milliseconds. In this blink of an eye, a complex network of stereotypes, emotional prejudices, and behavioral impulses activates.
These mental shortcuts allow us to quickly evaluate people and our relative safety around them. There is strong evidence that they also permit the brain to consume less of the body's precious supply of glucose. When we have no existing reference points for a person, event, or situation, the brain must work harder and burn considerably more energy to program new neuronal reference points and synaptic pathways. Think of it as the difference between driving down a highway versus having to build that highway in the first place. Once our "highways" are built, we are comfortable staying on them as much as possible. To a degree, this analogy helps underscore the power and persistence of stereotypes to influence our perceptions and initial interaction behaviors with others.
What Is Respect?
The word respect has its origins in the Latin noun respectus, which translates literally to: the act of looking back, and the Latin verb, respicere, which means to look back. Today, the actual word, as it pertains to people, has evolved to be defined by Merriam-Webster the following ways:
Respect: noun - 1) the act of giving particular attention: consideration, 2) high or special regard: esteem, 3) the quality of being esteemed.
Respect: verb - 1a) to consider worthy of high regard: esteem, 1b) to refrain from interfering with, 2) to have reference to: concern.
Respect is a word with enormous scope that has gradually morphed to mean different things since its first use in the fourteenth century. What makes the word so important is that, when experienced, it triggers powerful, positive emotions that not only feel good but change our behaviors. Of critical significance is that these emotional responses seem to be universal. While the actions and decisions that trigger the feeling of being respected will vary from person to person and culture to culture, the core emotion is experienced identically in all human beings. Respect feels the same, no matter your age, race, gender, religion, or level of intelligence or ability. Similarly, the neurological responses to being treated with respect appear to be universal. We will explore these later.
A Forward-Looking Definition
I suggest the following as a reference point for further exploring respect as a cultural component:
Respect is an active process of nonjudgmentally engaging people from all backgrounds. It is practiced to increase our awareness and effectiveness and demonstrated in a manner that esteems both us and those with whom we interact.
One implication of this definition is that it doesn't permit complacency or a status quo level of social comfort. The genuine pursuit of respect requires effort, takes time, and will likely feel awkward occasionally as we push ourselves to engage people from whom we have historically kept our distance. Neurologically, the more different from us others appear, the more energy our brains have to expend to categorize and make sense of the differences. Part of this mental effort is spent creating new neural pattern circuits. Another part is spent turning down the volume of our inner voices that want to use shortcuts to process the differences.
When defining respect, the inclusion of esteem also deserves discussion. Whether or not our interactions with others have been successful in conveying respect will depend on the emotional state of others after interacting with us. If our efforts have succeeded, the desired result is for those we interact with to feel valued in some way, as colleagues, coworkers, friends, neighbors, or simply as people. When we make ourselves partially responsible for the emotional well- being of those around us, it enhances our own sense of esteem. Think of it as the "pay it forward" effect.
What this definition does not mean is that all our conversations with others will be pleasant and that difficult situations can't be discussed. It's quite the opposite. This definition of respect actually requires that we engage in candid conversations with individuals with whom we have problems. If employees who report to us are not performing at the required level, it is critical that we share this information with them. In order to maintain or build esteem in a person whose performance is inadequate, it is important that we separate the person from the performance. We can give candid feedback about their performance, while letting the individual know that we value him as a person and want him to succeed. Even more impactful is making it clear that our intent is to do whatever we can to help them become successful. From the perspective of the people receiving feedback, they are more willing to hear critical feedback about their performance provided they feel cared about as a person and that someone is committed to helping them meet their requirements.
Respect Is Not Tolerance
Imagine that your spouse, partner, or significant other came home from work one Friday afternoon and, with a smile on his or her, enthusiastically declared that he loved his job because his boss and coworkers tolerated him. We would probably look at him as if he had a screw loose because the feeling of being tolerated and his expression of joy didn't match! Most people don't associate the feeling of being tolerated with overt happiness, smiles, and energy. That's not to say that tolerance is bad; it's simply a mediocre standard given the alternatives. Think of it as receiving a rating of "average" on your performance review. It's not an unsatisfactory, but it doesn't put your workplace performance at a level that can lead to a personal and/or monetary reward.
Whenever we interact with others, either at work or in our private lives, there is a broad range of possible behaviors that we can demonstrate (see Figure 2.1). Tolerating others is a neutral position. It is not positive or negative in its impact and requires little energy to initiate and sustain. This is why people typically perceive themselves as being tolerant. When surveyed, most people indicate that they are more tolerant than those around them (the "better than average" effect). We would find it difficult to refute these internal and usually unspoken, beliefs because the demonstration of tolerance has few behaviors or actions associated with it. The possible exception is when we are around others who we perceive to be annoying; then tolerance requires effort.
Once we move away from the relatively passive mode of simply tolerating others, we start exerting energy, typically mental and occasionally physical. We start behaving around others in relation to our perceptions of what their presence signifies. Those behaviors are predicated on our stored knowledge, including the stereotypes that we have about them or people like them. Here's where our evolutionary instincts enter into the equation. Our first genetically imprinted directive is to remain safe. People feel safest when they are around others who are like them. The problem is that given the vast range of dissimilarities among people, we perceive most people as different from us. A colleague suggested to me years ago that many of us unintentionally alienate ourselves from others merely by our self-perceived sense of "terminal uniqueness."
Excerpted from The Respect Effect by Paul B. Meshanko. Copyright © 2013 Paul B. Meshanko. Excerpted by permission of McGraw-Hill Education.
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