Owed respect vs. earned respect in the workplace

Ben Foley
5 min read

If you consider the characteristics of an enjoyable, productive, and efficient workplace environment, it’s likely that the concept of respect will come to mind. 

Respect in the workplace is absolutely essential because it supports efficient collaboration, leads to increased productivity, and facilitates overall business success. 

When respect in the workplace is lacking, employees can quickly become unmotivated, and often they pack their belongings and leave for their next career opportunity. 

Respect can mean different things to different people, and there are different forms of respect that leadership must continuously work to balance. That’s why it is important to have open, honest conversations about what respect means at your organization. 

In this article, we’ll break the concept of respect down into owed respect and earned respect, explain the importance of each in the workplace, and provide advice on how to maintain a balance that effectively promotes long term business success.

6 benefits of respect in the workplace

It may sound obvious that respect in the workplace is important, but there are tangible benefits that can solidify its business case.

Employees that feel respected:

  • Are more likely to respect others
  • Are more likely to remain loyal to their organization
  • Cooperate and collaborate better with others
  • Perform tasks more effectively and creatively
  • Are more likely to follow direction from leadership
  • Are quicker to accept responsibility when they make a mistake

Owed respect vs. earned respect in the workplace

The concept of respect can be broken down into two main concepts — owed respect and earned respect.

Owed respect

Owed respect aligns with the universal need for individuals to feel included or to feel that they belong to something bigger than themselves. 

Owed respect should be given to and provided by each and every member of a department or organization, as beneficial collaboration requires that all members of a group feel inherently valued.

According to Harvard Business Review, when respect is deprioritized, it typically results in the overstepping of boundaries in the form of over-monitoring and micromanagement, as well as an abuse of power and an underlying perception that all employees are dispensable.  

Earned respect

Earned respect exists when individual employees who display valued qualities or behaviors are rewarded for their contributions to a greater goal. 

Earned respect specifically recognizes high performing employees, and solidifies the perception that every employee has unique strengths and talents that are appreciated by those around them. 

If you find yourself working in an environment where there are a lot of instances in which people are taking credit for the work that others have put forth, you are most likely in a workplace that has low levels of earned respect. 

How to balance owed respect with earned respect in the workplace

Organizational culture usually stems from the top down. 

That being said, leaders at a given organization must proactively establish and maintain a culture of respect in the workplace. This is done by proactively leading by example and constantly paying attention.

High levels of owed respect, low levels of earned respect

If leadership is responsible for creating a culture with high levels of owed respect but low levels of earned respect, it can result in making individual achievement a low priority for employees.

This is because employees that operate in this type of culture will genuinely feel that everyone at the organization will be treated the same, regardless of individual performance.

This can wreak havoc on organizational culture because it typically results in a reduction of individual motivation and accountability, which ultimately has a negative effect on the organization’s bottom line and employee retention.

Low levels of owed respect, high levels of earned respect

On the other hand, leadership can also shoot themselves —and the organization —in the foot by creating a culture with low levels of owed respect but high levels of earned respect. 

In this case, the result is typically a workplace environment in which employees that should be working together are excessively competing with one another. 

This can end up being a massive cultural issue, especially for organizations that are not purely sales-driven — in which the competition of individuals on a sales team can drive success. 

Most organizations require departments to be interdependent and collaborative. 

When there are low levels of owed respect, it deters people from sharing impactful knowledge about their wins and losses and often promotes cutthroat or disloyal behavior.

For these organizations, low levels of owed respect with high levels of earned respect can be just as detrimental as high levels of owed respect with low levels of earned respect.

What can leadership do to find the right balance?

Educating leadership on the different types of respect and the importance of each in the workplace is the first step to creating an organizational culture built on respect. 

Once leadership has a concrete understanding of the different elements of respect, they can assess and adjust how their behavior impacts company culture. 

From there, leadership can work together to craft, establish, and enforce a workplace environment that aligns with the business’ goals and organization values.

It should come as no surprise that in most cases this means a culture with high levels of both owed and earned respect.

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