“70% of change programs fail to achieve their desired impact.” – McKinsey Quarterly Transformation Executive Survey

Most change programs fail. Some produce short-term gains, but less than a third result in lasting change. Why? Pick your poison: insufficient vision, lack of buy-in, poor communication, failure to engage middle-management, not enough training, too fast (or slow) of a roll-out, inability to sustain focus in the face of set-backs and distractions, failure to incentivize new behaviors, conflict with the organizational culture, etc. What if there was another, simpler reason? What if the success or failure of your next change effort came down to one thing?   What if your next initiative hinged on a single attribute of your organization. Respect. I believe most change efforts fail because organization have insufficient respect: the organization lacks respect for employees, and employees lack respect for the organization. We can use other words to describe the problem – disengagement, mistrust, lack of buy-in, low-morale, disempowerment – but at the heart of the matter is respect. Without respect, relationships wither, communication breaks down, cynicism, skepticism and self-protection rule the day. In an environment like that, your change program doesn’t stand a chance. So what to do? The only way to repair respect is to do things that require, demonstrate and generate respect. You can’t talk your way to respect! Action, by yourself and your team, is the only way to learn and earn respect. Creating Respect In our work, we have found three activities offer higher leverage than others when it comes to building respect within an organization. Leaders who make a personal commitment to creating change in these areas see dramatic results. Not only does respect improve, a host of other skills and habits emerge – capacities that enable change and improvement initiatives throughout the organization.
  1. Worker safety. The single most-powerful way to demonstrate respect for your workforce is to make a sincere, authentic commitment to eliminate on-the-job injuries. Safety is the ideal issue around which to rally your team — no one is opposed to safety; everyone wants to go home safely. Creating a safe workplace develops capacities critical to high-performance and teamwork: mindfulness, attention to anomalies, willingness to give and receive feedback, ability to detect, express and correct concerns. But most importantly, creating a safe workplace establishes a foundation of care and concern for all team-members.
  2. Housekeeping / Workspace Quality. The cleanliness, orderliness and quality of a workspace express an expectation to all who work there. It says, “We care. The work we do here — our people, our products, our tools and equipment and the way we work — matter.” The habits necessary to maintain an orderly workspace apply to everything your organization does: discipline, follow-through, attention to detail, pride, and craftsmanship. And the management skills necessary to improve the physical workspace are useful addressing all manner of issues: attending to employee perceptions, soliciting input, coming up with creative ideas to do more with less, deciding if and when to spend money and explaining the decision to the team. An unwavering commitment to the quality and cleanliness of a workplace both demonstrates and generates respect within an organization.
  3. Enforcement of ‘cardinal rules’. Nothing undermines respect for and within an organization like the perception of double standards, hypocrisy and willingness to bend rules or look the other way depending on who is involved. High respect organizations identify a small number of ‘cardinal rules’ — non-negotiable, absolute expectations that are enforced consistently, swiftly and strongly throughout the organization. Enforcement of cardinal rules builds critical habits: clearly communicating expectations, confronting failures, having difficult conversations and when necessary, punishing or terminating poor performers.   Most importantly, it shows and demands respect.
You don’t need to take on all three of these challenges — in fact, it’s wise to pick just one. But remember: the goal is not just improved safety performance, housekeeping, or compliance — the ultimate goal is development of respect within your organization. Organizations that demonstrate respect for, and engender respect of, their members will find success engaging employees, and achieving the results they need. Interested in learning more? Ready to engage your people and build an organization based on respect? We’re ready to help. About the author: Andy Erickson is a principal and CTO at Humanus Solutions, a consulting firm specializing in people-centric leadership. He can be reached at aerickson@humanus-solutions.com

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