Creating a culture of respect

Author Rachael Robertson says respect within a team trumps harmony, every time

A year is a long time in cricket. Almost 12 months ago, Australian cricketers Shane Watson, James Pattinson, Mitchell Johnson and Usman Khawaja were sent home in disgrace from the team’s tour of India. Meanwhile, back home at a local Twenty20 competition, Shane Warne’s Melbourne Stars had promised much but delivered little. Fast-forward to the present and Australia has won the Ashes, Mitchell Johnson has been declared as the player of the series, Shane Watson is in scintillating form and the Melbourne Stars sit on top of the ladder and look impossible to beat. So, what changed? It’s quite simple: they just went back to the basics and rebuilt the team on a foundation of respect.

Some claimed that coach Mickey Arthur had sent the players home from Mohali because they hadn’t done the ‘homework’ assigned to them. But that was merely the last straw. The decision to stand the players down followed a series of small but important transgressions such as arriving late for meetings and wearing the incorrect kit, all of which pointed to a culture of disrespect. In any team, whether it’s in sport or business, respect trumps harmony. Whether everyone gets along and works in perfect harmony is less important than the fact they treat each other with professional courtesy and respect. 

In cricket, where the person you are playing alongside in a test series could be the person you compete against in a T20 tournament, a strong and robust working relationship is critical. And it’s no different in business. Many teams must collaborate and, at times, compete with each other. So how do you do it? In my role as an Antarctic expedition leader, managing a team of 18 people for a year in total isolation at the Davis Station, I maintain that there are three important rules for building high-achieving teams: 

No triangles: The practice of only having direct conversations built respect within my team and resulted in high performance. We had a simple rule that went: ‘I don’t speak to you about him, you don’t speak to me about her’. No triangles; go direct to the source. It’s a powerful tool that reduces conflict and clarifies accountability. The practice of ‘no triangles’ also ensures that your time is spent dealing with issues that matter — those that have the most impact on your business — not handling personal disputes that simply waste energy. It also shuts down ‘answer-shopping’: people who keep asking the same question and go over or around people until they get the answer they want. In small teams, the practice of ‘no triangles’ is even more important, as there is simply nowhere to hide. If the behaviour of another person is affecting you, it cannot be ignored and needs to be addressed professionally, courteously and immediately. 

Manage your bacon wars: In Antarctica, a major dispute once threatened to shut down the Davis station: should the bacon be soft or crispy? Every workplace has their ‘bacon wars’. They are seemingly small, irrelevant issues that grate on people and build up until they become distractions and affect productivity. It may be dirty coffee cups, people who ‘reply all’ to every email, people playing on phones while someone is presenting. According to a research by LinkedIn, the top office annoyance in India is irritating mobile phone ringtones. English wicketkeeper Matt Prior has spoken about the problem of some England players not wearing the right kit and arriving late for meetings. They all appear to be small offences, but in reality, they are usually a symptom of a deeper issue. For us, it turned out the bacon war was a manifestation of something deep and important: respect between two teams. For business leaders in particular, it is important not to get involved in every single issue (your energy and time need to be focused on cash flows and business imperatives), but you cannot ignore your bacon wars. You need to deal with these seemingly trivial issues, find out what’s underneath and resolve it. 

Respect trumps harmony: My expedition team was the most diverse team I’ve ever worked with. I didn’t recruit them, I was handed them. We were from vastly different backgrounds, including scientists, engineers, IT, trades, pilots and weather specialists. The only generalist role was mine: station leader. With such a mix of people, it was impractical to think we’d all get along with each other all the time. The interpersonal pressure was intense and privacy was scarce. It would be unreasonable to expect total harmony, so I didn’t. Instead, we aimed for respect — simple professional courtesy and respect. I have grave concerns for any team that, explicitly or implicitly, strives for harmony at the expense of productivity and respect. It is dangerous for two main reasons. First, dysfunctional behaviour still continues; it just goes underground so that the illusion of harmony remains. Second, it stifles innovation. People are often too afraid to put up their hand and offer a different view or opinion because they don’t want to rock the harmony boat. Instead of harmony, teams should aim for respect because respect trumps harmony every time, just as we have seen this summer in Australian cricket.