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Respect is just such a basic, essential part of human nature, yet it’s often ignored in the workplace.

Muhammad Shafiq had a plan for his first international religious conference — one that the imam hoped would quickly engage his audience. He was headed to Malaysia, so the native of the Pakistani tribal region spent weeks learning a few sentences in the Malay language.

Shafiq began his speech with a common Malaysian greeting. He followed it up with a couple of sentences thanking his hosts. Nothing special, he thought.

“The people in the crowd, they sat up and they listened,” Shafiq recalls. “When you interact with other cultures or religions and show respect, they take your word. They show you respect in return.”

That was nearly 20 years ago. Shafiq is now director of an interfaith studies program at Nazareth College in Rochester, New York, and regularly helps organize conferences to bring together people who practice differing religions. The lesson he learned in Malaysia is one he considers every time he puts people with divergent opinions in a room together — especially when those differing ideas involve religion.

The simplicity of such an act, showing respect to someone of a different background, is one that is regularly lost in the workplace. Those basic rules we’ve learned about polite interactions — especially when managers are addressing their subordinates — seem to have been lost when we enter the office.

You might be thinking that your workplace is polite enough and that managers generally don’t walk around insulting underlings. But consider that employees list being treated with fairness and respect the most important attribute to a good job — even above fair or higher pay.

Pete Foley, an Atlanta-based principal with consulting firm Mercer’s talent development business, says employees have listed fairness and respect first every year in the 25 years his company has been conducting surveys in the workplace. When bosses fail to deliver, it’s the No. 1 reason employees leave a good job.

Employees around the globe want that same level of esteem from their superiors. That’s true even in countries like Japan and Mexico, where the command-and-control structures mean that bosses are rarely questioned. Employees there still will leave jobs simply because they don’t feel respected.

In countries where bosses are put on pedestals, respect can be measured by politeness. But in the US and Europe, employees generally expect to have their ideas heard by higher-ups as a signal of respect. When management isn’t listening, they’ll start looking for work elsewhere, or worse, stop trying.

Basic, but not always taught

It isn’t hard to find tips on how to breed a respectful workplace. Google it and you’ll find reams of academic papers, blogs, and even entire websites dedicated to how employees can show each other a decent level of esteem. But truth be told, respect can be easily defined by what most children learn in their first year of school — treat others they way they want to be treated.

“Respect is just such a basic, essential part of human nature, yet it’s often ignored in the workplace,” Foley said.

Creating a respectful workplace begins with upper management. Those in the upper echelons must insist that middle managers listen to the ideas of subordinates. And — here’s the hard part — those bosses must generally want to hear those ideas and be willing to actually accept some of them.

The main reason this doesn’t exist in most work places is that many of today’s bosses learned to manage in a far different work environment. They trained and rose up through the ranks in businesses that emulated 1980s strong-armed approaches to management, typified by General Electric’s former chief executive Jack Welch.

Sallie Krawcheck saw that firsthand when she took over as chief executive of Smith Barney in 2002. Then, the expectation was that she would devise goals and crack heads until goals were achieved.

“Everyone wanted me to take on this tough, Jack Welch approach and to say, ‘OK, we’re taking this hill,’” Krawcheck said.

Instead, she went on fact-finding missions to branches from New York City to Savannah, Georgia, where low-level workers offered up novel ideas about investing that she hadn’t heard in the corporate office. Her efforts resulted in Smith Barney having solid retention rates for employees for the first time in years.

In her years of managing in corporate America, Krawcheck also learned hard lessons about respect when it came to communicating respectfully with employees. Jokes can take on an unintended sting when they come from someone in the corner office.

When she first became a manager at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co in 1999 she recalls joshing around with employees who used to be her peers. The jabs were fine when they all shared the same cubicles, but the comments were not received as kindly when meted out by someone who they now reported to.

Respecting employees makes a difference in how they feel, participate and move along with your ideas as a leader, whether you are a bank executive or an imam. When Shafiq helps to organize interfaith events, he makes sure to outwardly show respect to the differences between Jews and Christians and Hindus.

It begins simply by giving every party equal time at the podium, so that no one belief seems to have an unfair advantage. That respect assures they’ll speak up, that they’ll contribute more and walk away feeling like their ideas have been given equal weight, he said.

“To be different is a good thing,” Shafiq said.

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