Why Respect at Work is More Radical Than You Think: Kim Scott's Guide to Working Together Better

Ana Levidze
June 4, 2024
June 4, 2024

When was the last time you were in a meeting where someone said or did something that was so offensive that it left you gobsmacked–at a loss for words. Probably in the last week, if not the last 24 hours.

Why is it so hard to know what to say when one person, often inadvertently, offends another person on your team? It’s obviously better for everyone to speak up than to let it fester. Why then don’t we?

Is there a better way? A way to ditch the corporate playacting and have genuine, direct conversations that help do better work–and build better relationships with our colleagues?

That's the ideal Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor, proposes with her new book, Radical Respect, which gave us a sneak peek into at the recent CMX Summit 2024.

So, if you're yearning to trade the awkward interactions for a space of authenticity and growth, get ready. Radical Respect might be the antidote to the soul-crushing stagnant reality we've all endured at work for far too long.

What is Radical Respect, Anyway?

The word respect has two very different meanings. The first has to do with admiration for someone’s abilities, qualities, or achievements. That kind of admiration has to be earned. But that’s not what Radical Respect is about.

Radical Respect is a regard for the feelings, wishes, rights, and traditions of others. This kind of respect is something we owe to everyone; it is not something that needs to be “earned.”

This kind of unconditional respect is crucial to a healthy culture. We don’t have to respect a person’s opinion on a particular topic—we can disagree, vehemently. 

We don’t have to respect a particular action a person took—we can still insist there be consequences for harmful action. 

But we do have to respect that person as a human being if we want to be able to work together productively while also leaving space to disagree and hold each other accountable for causing harm.

Radical Respect happens in workplaces that do two things at the same time: 

  1. Optimize for collaboration, not coercion.
  2. Honor individuality, don’t demand conformity.

But here's the rub: despite good intentions, we often fall short of these ideals. Unconscious biases, prejudice, and bullying can creep in, undermining the very respect we're striving for. 

What Gets In The Way Of Radical Respect?

Parsing The Problem

Why is the combination of optimizing for collaboration and honoring individuality so rare that I dub it radical?

All too often, our biases cause us to expect conformity without even realizing what we are doing. When we are at our worst, we seek to establish dominance or to bully others at work, rather than seeking to collaborate with them. And again when you layer management systems and power on top of those instincts, things go from bad to worse. 

Bias, prejudice, and bullying are often behind this drift away from creating the kind of respectful culture that is essential for long-term success. One of the reasons they are so insidious is that it can be hard to distinguish between them. 

People often treat them as though they are synonymous. This can make the problems they create seem monolithic, and insoluble. For example, when you respond to bullying as though it were bias, you can actually make it worse. Bias, prejudice, and bullying each require a very different response.

To solve a difficult problem, it’s useful to break it down into its component parts. Let’s start with some simple definitions.

Bias: Not Meaning It

We all have unconscious biases that can trip us up in the workplace. These hidden assumptions impact our interactions without our awareness, creeping into everything from hiring decisions to project assignments, often with unintended consequences. 

An “I” statement invites the person to consider your perspective and is a good response to bias. For example, “I don’t think you meant that the way it sounded.”

Instead of launching into accusations, "I" statements hold up a mirror. They invite the other person in to understand the situation from your perspective, rather than calling them out or accusing them of bad intentions.  

Prejudice: Meaning It

Prejudice is a very consciously held belief, often incorporating an unfair and inaccurate stereotype. Holding up a mirror to prejudice won’t change it because the person is already aware of their belief, and believes it to be true. 

Kim recommends using "IT" statements to respond to prejudice. "IT" statements could be "It is illegal to," "It is an HR violation to," or "It is ridiculous to."  The "IT" statement shows the line between one person’s freedom to believe whatever they want, but not impose those beliefs on others. And “IT” statement can appeal to the law, HR, or common sense.:

  • The Law: You can reference relevant laws or regulations that protect against discrimination based on certain factors.
  • HR Policy: Many companies have established Human Resources policies outlining acceptable workplace behavior. Referencing these policies can remind a person where the line is between their right to believe whatever they want and not to impose that belief on others.
  • Common Sense: Sometimes appealing to basic fairness and logic can be effective. Imagine a hiring manager who is reluctant to hire someone because of their hairstyle. An "IT" statement that appeals to common sense might sound like, "It's is ridiculous not to hire the most qualified candidate because of their hair.” ." 

Bullying: Being Mean

Bullying is just being mean, often to establish dominance or gain some advantage–there’s not a belief, conscious or unconscious, driving it. Unlike unconscious bias or prejudice, bullying is a deliberate attempt to undermine someone. It can take many forms, from verbal abuse and intimidation to social exclusion and spreading rumors.

Kim recommends using "YOU" statements to respond to bullying. Unlike "I" statements that invite a person in to consider your perspective, "YOU" statements push the person away.   With a “you” statement, you are taking an active stance and refusing to let the bully put you in the submissive role, so it can be an effective response to bullying.

There are several ways to use "you" statements:

  • Direct Confrontation: “You can’t talk to me like that.”
  • Open-Ended Questions: “What’s going on for you here? Why are you acting like this?”
  • Non-Sequiturs: “Where’d you get that shirt?” The point here is that you’re asking the other person to answer your question, you’re not addressing whatever it was they just dished out.   

How Leaders Can Cultivate a Culture of Radical Respect

While everyone has a role to play in fostering a respectful workplace, leaders hold a particular responsibility. Here's how leaders, according to Kim Scott, can actively prevent disrespectful attitudes and behaviors:

Disrupting Bias in the Moment

Leaders can establish clear processes for identifying and addressing bias. This might involve creating a "shared vocabulary"– a specific phrase or even a physical cue – that team members can use to disrupt bias when they notice it.

Creating a Space for Conversation about Prejudice

It’s easy to say that there is a line between one person’s freedom to believe whatever they want but not to impose that belief on others. It’s much harder to define exactly where that line is. Leaders need to have open conversations with their teams to create a shared understanding of what is and is not OK to say or do at work. 

Creating Consequences for Bullying

Leaders must create conversational, compensation, and career consequences for bullying. .

Upstanders: Bystanders Who Intervene

While leaders set the tone, creating a respectful environment is a shared responsibility. Upstanders are those who witness disrespectful behavior and take steps to intervene. What can upstanders do? they can intervene in 5 ways: 

  • Direct Intervention: This involves speaking up at the moment to address the disrespectful behavior directly.
  • Delay: Sometimes directly intervening in the moment isn't safe or practical. Upstanders can still be effective by checking in with the target of the disrespectful behavior later. This shows support and helps dispel gaslighting.
  • Distraction: Creating a distraction can disrupt the flow of disrespectful behavior and give the target a chance to regain control of the situation. 
  • Delegation: Not everyone feels comfortable being a direct upstander. Upstanders can delegate the responsibility of intervening to someone in a better position to address the situation.
  • Document: Upstanders can record what happened, and share that record with the person who was harmed.

The Full Picture of Radical Respect

Curious to learn more about the practical application of "I," "IT," and "YOU" statements? To get the full scoop on Kim Scott's insights and practical strategies, check out the CMX Summit 2024 talk right here: 

Ana Levidze
Community Content Manager
June 4, 2024
June 4, 2024

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