Posted September 13, 2021 by Mark Perna
Respect today works very differently than it did for previous generations. Here’s why showing an extra level of respect can create mutually beneficial work relationships. Mark’s article, “Cut The Fluff: Younger Workers Want Respect More Than Trendy Office Perks,” published at Forbes.com on September 7, 2021.
As a Baby Boomer, I can speak to the days when you respected your elders just because they were your elders. You didn’t need any other reason beyond that simple fact to pay initial respect; it was just the way we were taught to approach intergenerational exchanges.
Today, things work very differently.
Younger-gen individuals—Millennials and Generation-Z—want to feel respected first before they will give respect. If they don’t feel respected, they see no reason to show respect to the person in authority. But the reverse is also true: preemptive respect is quickly repaid. This applies in all areas of life: home, school and work.
A study out of the University of Missouri and Kansas State University highlights this new reality. The researchers found that full-time workers aged 21–34 prioritize respectful communication over “having fun” at work with trendy office perks and gimmicks.
What does this mean in the workplace? It’s simple. Younger-gen workers just want management to cut the fluff—and treat them like the adults they are.
The shift in how respect works started with the rise of self-esteem in psychology-driven parenting strategies. The Millennial and Z generations grew up being told that they were unique, special and important. It’s entirely natural that they carry this formative belief into adulthood and expect to be treated according to their innate value.
Merriam-Webster defines respect as “a feeling or understanding that someone or something is important, serious, etc., and should be treated in an appropriate way.” At work, respect in action means listening intentionally, avoiding dictatorial treatment that makes others feel inferior or dependent, believing that others can make valuable contributions and making decisions based on consensus rather than arbitrary opinions.
To drive the point home, true respect goes beyond mere apathetic politeness. To respect someone is to honor them, making them feel that they’re valued and important. The way we treat others is directly related to how we view them. It takes an extra effort to show this level of interest in everyone you engage with at work, but it will yield significant results, both for your own career and the larger workplace culture you’re a part of.
Today, younger workers don’t care about fluffy office perks like ping-pong tables, nap pods or rock walls. They want to be treated like adults, not children who need to be entertained with the latest trends to keep them in a good mood.
So how can companies ensure that all employees—young and old—feel respected at work? Organizations and teams must ask themselves:
“Leaders who want to pivot to invest in people, rather than office gimmicks, can start by asking a question: what does psychological science say that people need in order to grow and succeed?” says Cameron Yarbrough’s, Co-Founder & CEO of Torch. “What people both want and need is access to trusted, empathetic human relationships that can hold us accountable and keep us motivated along our path.”
Respect starts at the top, and leaders can lay this foundation by investing in the next generation of workers through skill development, opportunities to advance and a culture that puts people first.
Many of my fellow Boomers struggle with the concept that we have to give respect before we get it back with students and younger co-workers. It’s so opposite the dynamic we grew up with that we instinctively feel it’s wrong. But is it?
Why are we so reluctant to take the first step toward respecting young people and letting them feel it? Do we feel we are superior in some way, simply by virtue of having more life experience? Or should we instead let that life experience teach us that all individuals are worthy of our respect—without their having to prove it first?
It’s precisely because older generations have more life and work experience that we can be the first to build the bridge. We can see the value of valuing others and treating them accordingly. Demanding respect from others—and withholding respect until we feel it’s been paid to us—will not serve us, our coworkers or our company culture well.
As they struggle with the idea of paying respect before receiving it, some older-gen professionals argue that respect is earned and that younger coworkers must first prove they’re worthy of it. Ironically, that thought process is mirrored by the younger generations, who apply the “respect is earned” concept to their older colleagues. In their mind, it’s the older-gen coworkers who need to earn respect before it’s paid to them.
Yes, respect is earned—and you earn it by respecting others first, no matter what generation you’re from. I’ve found that as soon as people feel respected, they quickly return that respect. Respect lays the groundwork for beneficial working relationships within the larger company culture where everyone is treated like an adult.
So cut the fluff—and let’s start paying the preemptive respect that will enable everyone to perform to their full potential.