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Work: Respect, Trust, and Accountability


Managing employees is not a new science, and yet effective practitioners seem to be few and far between. Some workplaces are rife with turmoil, high turnover, and poor performance. What gives?

There are multiple factors at work here. One of the most prominent is pay: low-paid workers will not feel particularly invested in their job, and so are less likely to perform it well. This doesn’t mean that no one will do a good job, but it does mean that competent workers will likely move on to something better-paying at the first opportunity. This means that those who don’t leave probably have few other options for employment. They may not be the most diligent workers, either, since they know their pay is low and are unlikely to go the extra mile for an employer that doesn’t do the same for them. Is there a way to fix this?

I present three planks for improving workplace morale and thus performance.


Employees know whether or not they have management’s respect. Another way to think of respect is dignity. Are workers treated with dignity, or are they micromanaged, treated as if they’re stupid, and paid poorly? Are they regarded as if they’re disposable and replaceable? If so, it’s no wonder turnover is high and the workplace atmosphere is grim.

Part of respect is, indeed, better pay. This may not always be possible, but it should be evaluated as a feasible measure. More pay can also bring more responsibility, but this also entails higher expectations of workers. Workers are more likely to perform better if they feel they have a stake in the performance of the business. Bonuses, profit-sharing, and other measures can help nurture this respect. Employees who feel respected are likely to return the favor to management. Employees who don’t reciprocate will probably not last long.

Respect also means communicating with employees. Workers like to know not just what they are doing, but why (other than for a paycheck). Communication of company objectives and how each individual employee can contribute helps build a sense of community and pride in employees’ work.

Obviously, this is not a panacea, but suffice it to say, treating employees like criminals or like disposable cogs limits business performance.


Much like respect, trust is a two-way street. Employees who are trusted by management are more likely to trust management, as well. As noted above, this is about responsibility. Employees who are offered greater responsibilities (yes, with incentives) should then be trusted to carry them out. Responsibilities executed with minimal micromanaging should be noted and rewarded. Micromanagement is generally an inefficient approach to ensuring performance, so it is better to rely on trust instead.

Are some employees untrustworthy? No doubt. In any group of people, there will be some in whom trust would be misplaced. But then those are people you don’t want in your labor force. The more common pattern, especially in businesses with poor morale and erratic performance, is to treat all employees toward the lowest common denominator: whoever the least trustworthy, least engaged employee is sets the standard by which all employees are treated and measured. If one can’t be trusted, then none are. This is, again, a terrible approach, since it drives away workers who may have other options–that is, employers who will treat them with more trust and respect.


Trust is nothing without accountability. Workers who fail to carry out their responsibilities must be held accountable for them. But management’s own failures must be accountable, too. Is performance poor because your business processes are weak or poorly defined? Employees deserve smoothly-functioning processes that enable them to succeed. Too often, I see “accountability” presented as blaming employees for management failures. All this does is destroy morale and, once again, drive good employees away. See a pattern here?

Instead, employees should be accountable for their specific responsibilities, and will require correction when those responsibilities are not fulfilled. Consequences should escalate based on the severity and recurrence of the mistake. If some people simply can’t be trusted to do their jobs properly, stricter micromanagement and disrespectful treatment of other employees is not a solution. A firm can certainly operate in such a way, but it will be far from optimal.

None of this is to suggest that all decisions must be made by committee–far from it. Management is management, and it is management’s job to make major decisions, to decide roles and responsibilities, and to define and implement and enforce processes. However, feedback from employees is always necessary for making future improvements. Employees likely know better than management what is working well at the ground level and what isn’t, so they should be solicited in a targeted fashion for this kind of information. It’s even better to have technological tools and automated processes which gather this information. What are the bottlenecks in your process? Where do mistakes most typically happen? How can they be prevented? Everyone needs to be accountable for improving.

This is admittedly a very high-level view, but it’s something many managers would do well to take to heart. Employees will, by and large, repay their treatment in kind. Bear that in mind when making managerial decisions.