I met with a potential client today whose staff is experiencing frustration that has developed, in part, because of some fairly radical changes they have been going through operationally and culturally over the last year (a common dynamic). They want to do some work in the areas of communication and conflict resolution (sounds good). The CEO specifically said that they need to get clear on “standards” of proper behavior and of “respect.”

I hear this a lot, and I really need to state something very clearly to the world. After all of my experience working in organizational systems where there is conflict, frustration, and communication problems, I have come to a very important conclusion:

There is NO standard for respectful behavior.

Sorry, but you’re just going to have to define that behavior and standard very specifically in your own context, with the specific people with whom you work. No judge will come in and determine that your standards are better than his. No scientist will prove that your behavior was respectful but your colleague’s was out of line.

And if you come back to me with “what about physical violence?” or another extreme case, I’ll say fine. There are standards for the extremes, but that is not what we are talking about. The problems where the issue of standards comes up (where organizational effectiveness is slipping) are not around the extremes of violence or discrimination. It’s about tone. Body posture. How much you can raise your voice. How much you can express emotion (even anger). How forcefully you can disagree with a superior.

All of this must be negotiated. Remember, of course, that the boss has the most power in these negotiations, but everyone has choice. If the boss wants the standard to be constant yelling and screaming, he or she has the power to do that. Personally, I think he or she will have a tough time keeping employees around, but not because there is a universal standard that says no yelling. It is simply because the employees were clear on their own standards and chose to get out.

Sometimes, when negotiating standards, you have to stretch a little, and honestly that will probably be good for you. When you give up on the notion that there is a universal standard to be enforced, you may get clearer on what your standards are and, more importantly, why they are your standards. That will put you in a much better position to negotiate. And when the negotiation is handled clearly and cleanly, the complaining, frustration, and “bad” behavior will drop.