Lets just get right to the bottom of this: What exactly do employees want in their leaders the most?

In a study published in the Harvard Business Review involving close to 20,000 employees around the world, there's one thing that leaders need to demonstrate. Aretha Franklin sang it 50 years ago:


That's the conclusion posited by Christine Porath, associate professor of management at Georgetown University. She, along with Tony Schwartz, president and CEO of The Energy Project, conducted the global survey to determine how your workplace experience compares with that of others across five categories: health and well-being; trust and safety; enjoyment and satisfaction; focus and prioritization; and meaning and significance.

Porath tells HBR that "when it comes to garnering commitment and engagement from employees, no other leadership behavior had a bigger effect on employees across the outcomes we measured. Being treated with respect was more important to employees than recognition and appreciation, communicating an inspiring vision, providing useful feedback -- or even opportunities for learning, growth, and development."

The Power of Respect

The numbers are staggering. Employees who reported getting respect from their leaders experienced positive outcomes across all five categories, including:

  • 56 percent better health and well-being
  • 1.72 times more trust and safety
  • 89 percent greater enjoyment and satisfaction with their jobs
  • 92 percent greater focus and prioritization
  • 1.26 times more meaning and significance in their work.
  • 1.1 times more likely to stay with their organizations than those that didn't.

People who said leaders treated them with respect were also 55 percent more engaged at work.

The Flip Side

The study found that over half (54 percent) of employees claimed that they don't regularly get respect from their leaders, suggesting less engagement, more turnover, and less focus and productivity at work -- all costly factors stemming from disrespectful behaviors that Porath says are "contagious."

To dig deeper into why so many people feel like they're disrespected, Porath conducted a separate survey asking 125 employees why they behaved uncivilly. Over 60 percent claim they are "overloaded and have no time to be nice," which Porath quickly dismisses as "a hollow excuse since respect doesn't require extra time; it's about how something is conveyed -- your tone and non-verbal communication -- not a separate action."

More eye-catching from that small study was this: 25 percent claim that they don't have a role model for respect at work; they're just behaving as the leaders do -- monkey see, monkey do.

Porath, who authored the book Mastering Civility and has studied its effects for 18 years, drives home her argument by pinpointing where disrespect really comes from:

I've learned that the vast majority of disrespect stems from a lack of self-awareness. Only a masochistic 4 percent claim they are uncivil because it is fun and they can get away with it. More often people just do not realize how they affect others. They may have good intentions, but they fail to see how they are perceived.

The Path Toward More Respect Doesn't Happen Alone

For leaders who firmly grasp how respect leads to business outcomes, but may struggle with a lack of self-awareness to display it day to day, Porath offers them the following steps:

1. Ask for focused feedback on your best behaviors from 10 people (coworkers, friends, family): After compiling the feedback, organize the data into themes. Look for patterns such as when, where, how, with whom are you at your best? Use those insights to reinforce what you're doing well.

2. Discover your shortcomings. Identify a couple of trusted colleagues who you believe will provide direct and honest feedback. Ask for their views about how you treat other people. What do you do well? What could you do better? Listen carefully.

3. Work with a coach. Coaches can uncover potential weaknesses and unearth some of the underlying assumptions, experiences, and personal qualities that make one prone to uncivil behavior.

4. Ask, specifically, how you can improve. Once you get clarity on which behaviors you want to improve (first), use the "feedforward" method (popularized by Marshall Goldsmith) to gather information, suggestions, and creative ideas from others about how best to go about this.

5. Repeat by asking additional people. Enlist your team in keeping you accountable. Choose one change that could improve your behavior and then experiment with them, asking team members to help let you know when they see improvement.

6. Make time for reflection. Keep a journal to provide insight into when/where/why you are your best and when you are uncivil. Identify situations that cause you to lose your temper.