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Written by Christine Porath

In a study of 20,000 people across industries and organizations I’ve found that the number one thing that people want from leaders is respect. It trumped recognition and appreciation, communicating an inspiring vision, providing useful feedback — even opportunities for learning, growth, and development.

We desperately want to feel valued — by leaders, colleagues, and our organization. Sadly, many employees feel disrespected at work; over half (54%) of employees claimed that they don’t regularly get respect from their leaders. The percentage of people feeling disrespected skyrockets if we include colleagues and their organization.

So, what do you do when you feel like you’re being held down? You’ve got to lift yourself up. My research shows that the best response to feeling disrespected is to take steps to foster a sense of thriving. In this psychological state, individuals experience both a sense of vitality and learning; they have a sense of being energized and alive and a sense that they are continually improving and getting better at what they do.

In various studies conducted in more than a dozen organizations across a range of industries, I have found that people who experience this state of thriving are healthier, more resilient and more able to focus on their work. They have a personal wellspring of vitality to draw on that buffers them from distractions, stress or negativity. In a study of six organizations across industries, employees characterized as highly thriving demonstrated 1.2 times less burnout compared to their peers. High thrivers are 52% more confident in themselves and their ability to take control of a situation. I’ve found that those that are higher thrivers were 1.72 times more focused.

How can you focus a sense of thriving?

Identify areas for growth and actively pursue development in those areas. Researchers Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer have documented that progress is the most powerful motivator in the work place — topping even recognition and pay. Pursue your education or develop a new skill. Invest in you; it will make you more resilient to negativity in your workplace.

Work closely with a mentor. In my interviews, I have also found that a close relationship with a mentor is closely correlated with thriving. Mentors have a knack for challenging their protégées and ensuring they don’t stagnate or get caught in an unproductive churn. They can push you to reach for more and focus on yourself and your future.

Manage your energy. Sleep, exercise, good nutrition, and stress-management help ward off the noxious effects of disrespect. Sleep is particularly important — research shows that a lack of it increases your susceptibility to distraction, and robs your self-control — squelching your ability to respond well to disrespect. Research has also shown that a lack of sleep makes you feel more threatened even by weak stimuli, less trusting, and more hostile and more aggressive. Less sleep has also been shown to induce more unethical behavior among employees; in short, sleep deprivation (usually defined as less than five hours a night) is a recipe for responding poorly, perhaps even in ways that may damage your career.

Feeling disrespected causes anger, fear, and sadness. Those who regularly exercise are far less likely to sulk and far better able to rebound following negative interactions. The more the exercise, the more you build up your cognitive potential and dump junk that weighs you down. Research shows that exercise slashes anxiety symptoms by over 50%. Exercise distracts people from concerns, reduces muscle tension, and improves resilience. In one study, exercise even proved to be more effective at curing depression than sertraline, the leading pharmacological treatment for the disease.

Eating healthy helps to put you in tip-top form to respond well to disrespect. How well do you respond to a frustration when you’re famished? Most tend to lash out — they lack self-control to respond patiently. Similarly, mindfulness — the shifting of your consciousness to process situations more slowly and thoughtfully and to respond with greater pre-meditation — can also help keep you face disrespect well.

Finding meaning or a sense of purpose in your work. In one forthcoming study I and a team of other researchers found that high thriving individuals worked more productively in uncivil teams — but that their resilience was boosted even further when engaged in work that they considered meaningful. Job-crafting, a technique developed by Justin Berg, Jane Dutton, and Amy Wrzesniewski, is a great resource to help you generate more meaning at work by shaping your activities around your motives, strengths and passions. The exercise involves visualizing your job, mapping its elements, and reorganizing them to better suit you.

Seek positive relationships. Positive relationships in and out of work help you thrive. Research I conducted with Andrew Parker and Alexandra Gerbasi shows that “de-energizing” relationships — negative relationships that people find draining — have four to seven times greater impact on an employee’s sense of thriving than energizing, positive relationships. To offset the effects of people who pull you down, you need to surround yourself with a small group of energizers. It’s not difficult to identify energizers; they are the people in your life that make you smile and laugh and lift your spirit; spend more time with them!

Thrive outside the office. In studies with MBAs, executive MBAs, and employees, I have found a consistently strong correlation between thriving outside work and thriving at work. Thriving in non-work activities doubles an individual’s emotional reserves while instilling a sense of growth and learning. In a study of people who experienced [incivility] disrespect, those who reported thriving in non-work activities reported 80 percent better health, 89 percent greater thriving at work, and 38 percent more satisfaction with their handling of the incivility. Think about what will make you happier outside the office, and start doing it.

If you feel held down, or disrespected, you need to dig deep and muster the resources to face it with your best, strongest self. Of course, in extreme cases, you may consider a job change or relocation. But, you can’t go wrong with developing yourself, even if you leave for a more uplifting environment. In the face of disrespect, be sure to focus on yourself, cultivating an internal sense of being energized, alive, and growing.

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