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“If once you forfeit the confidence of your fellow-citizens, you can never regain their respect and esteem.”

Abraham Lincoln


We often talk about respect and it has certainly been in the news recently. Whether the talk is about the lack of respect a teenager shows a parent or the lack of respect shown in business or politics, the bottom line is that respect matters, and it matters a lot.

Working as a medical practitioner, I was always acutely aware that my knowledge and expertise would count for nothing, if any of my patients ever felt disrespected either by me or another staff member.  The receptionist at the front desk was my front line determining how well a client felt respected. 

Have you ever felt disrespected? If so, what emotions did you experience?

Were you angry, frustrated, disappointed or a combination of all three?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, respect is the feeling of admiration we may have for a person we believe to have particular abilities, qualities or achievements.

Or it may be the regard we have for the feelings, wishes or rights of others.

We all have our own unique sense of worth, our status that helps us to know our place in life. We don’t need to be told what our status is, intuitively we already have the answer.

The discord occurs when that status is threatened. To your brain the threat of loss of status can be worse than death and yet we can inadvertently threaten someone’s status without even being aware of it. Michael Marmot researcher and author of “The Status Syndrome: How social standing affects our health and longevity” showed that we need status as it correlates to our health and longevity.

Alain de Botton in his book Status Anxiety” talks about the fact we care about our status because it determines how nice someone will be to us! That apparently innocuous question, so frequently asked when you are engaged in conversation with someone for the first time “and what is it you do?” is laden with status.

Because your reply will determine your status in the other person’s eye and whether you are a person they consider worth continuing to talk to.

We worry what others think of us because we think that is what determines our success or lack of it.

But is that reality?

The threat response in the brain is inbuilt and triggered by many of our social experiences. Under threat we experience higher levels of stress hormones including cortisol. According to the Integrate model proposed by Evian Gordon neuroscientist, our brain operates on a “threat and reward” mode with the default being set to “threat”. When our status is threatened, we feel excluded and experience social pain, because those brain areas including the anterior cingulate cortex that are normally triggered by physical pain become activated. 

Our social pain is deep and long lasting.

Which is why in business it is vital that managers and leaders understand how to mitigate this response so as to promote collaboration in teams and lower resistance to change.

Status threat can be experienced through:

  •  Being excluded from information that is being shared between other staff members.
  •  An off hand comment or eye roll in response to something you say.
  •  Someone else taking the credit for the hard work you produced.

These minor episodes that are so commonly experienced on a daily basis may not always cause the major heartbreak associated with the breakdown of a relationship or death of a family member, but these “social pinches” still hurt.

We can learn much from when respect is not shown as in the recent episode played out in Washington that resulted in much social and global angst. People’s livelihoods and wellbeing came under threat through the actions of those others (already in a position of elevated status) who chose to place their own agenda in front of the needs of others. The outcome has already been voiced around the globe and one can only wonder how long it will take for the loss of respect for a political party, even a country, to be recovered. 

Managing status, garnering respect comes from shared values and beliefs.

Steps to promote mutual respect include:

  •  Practice active listening
  •  Showing up, and on time.
  •  Not interrupting.
  •  Consistency in your behaviour in all your personal interactions – treat everyone equally
  •  Being inclusive at all times
  •  Reward the hard work and effort of others

What do you see as being the crucial elements in your business or organisation that will ensure status threat is kept to a minimum, and the standing of all members valued equally?


Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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