Imbuing an Open Culture With Respect

The way you share your feedback, how you communicate your opinions and guidance — how people feel when you speak and communicate with them — is how you imbue a culture with respect.

Interesting to see Google last week release new internal guidelines to guide employee interactions and culture. After a period of rapid growth to more than 100,000 employees and a history of an open culture that permitted and encouraged open debate on any number of issues, Google faced a challenge that I faced internally at Facebook and many companies face in today’s world — how do you maintain the best aspects of an open culture while also ensuring everyone feels respected, and people are able to focus on their work?

Lots of ink has been spilled on the topic of culture, and in particular tech culture — whether it be the upsides of openness and transparency leading to more accountability and the best ideas from any corner of an organization, or the toxic bro culture and other aspects of a company culture that perpetuate unconscious bias that harms everybody and the company’s bottom line.

But at the end of the day, it all comes down to respect. Respect between company leadership and employees, and mutual respect among employees. At companies with the highest retention rates and employee satisfaction, employees do their best work and are most motivated to keep coming to work when they feel the company respects them for who they are, the strengths they bring to their work, and respects their contributions to the company and the bottom line. Companies whose leaders respect opinions and encourage feedback are the ones that often grow and succeed because the best ideas can come from anywhere and you’re more likely to do good work if you feel like your work matters and your opinions are valued.

At the same time, mutual respect among employees is critical. It’s important, especially as companies grow. When companies grow, it’s easier and more common for interactions to become less like relationships and more like transactions — and increasingly done by email, chat or other means — but not in person. And it’s a lot easier to be aggressive, rude, bully or simply not care about the other person’s reactions to what you say — -when you don’t have a relationship with them. It’s a lot hard to be an asshole to someone’s face than if they are more anonymous or, worse, it’s just broadly directed into a larger group. When people feel disrespected by their colleagues, either directly or indirectly, people either become more aggressive — OR they shut down — and their own thoughts, opinions and suggestions — their voices — are silenced.

So increasingly, open cultures — if they are to continue — require respect. And there are two key aspects to imbuing an open culture with respect.

First, you need to set the rules of the road. Respect means different things to different people, and what something MEANS to someone often doesn’t clearly translate into what BEHAVIOR or ACTION they are supposed to take. The best values and rules of the road are specific, provide reasoning for why they are in place, and what you want people to do. They should be universal and positive — rather than negative (“Do this”, rather than “don’t do that”).

Second, and critically, you need people to model and live the rules of the road. They need to model respect. This means leaders at all levels, whether you’re the leader in an org chart or simply a leader of the culture. Modeling good behavior, and calling out and reframing bad behavior when it happens is key. It’s not enough to write out the rules — they need to be modeled and encouraged by people throughout the org — especially leaders. This is partly what the responsibility is of leaders today. And it’s also partly how you can distinguish yourself as an employee at any level — by acting like a leader.

Respect, even if while in disagreement, respect even when you don’t know all the answers and especially when you do, is a key way of acting that transcends all roles, levels and geographies — and is the glue that keeps an open culture working and thriving.

This is why the work we do on leadership communications is so important — and has such a significant impact on organizations. How you share your feedback, how you communicate your opinions and guidance — how people feel when you speak and communicate with them — is how you imbue a culture with respect.

You can read more about what makes a healthy, inclusive culture and how to communicate effectively as a leader in Honestly Speaking : How the Way We Communicate Transforms Leadership, Love and Life available now.




Communications and culture leader, author, certified coach, lawyer, yoga teacher.

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Andrew Blotky

Andrew Blotky

Communications and culture leader, author, certified coach, lawyer, yoga teacher.

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