The Meaning of Respect

I’ve been a part of or led countless leadership team meetings where lists of values are created. There’s usually a lot of brainstorming, discussion, some polite debate, and eventual consolidation. Someone agrees to type up the list, distribute it, and then they move on to the next topic.

Sometimes there may be some discussion around why having a list of organizational values is important to have. The reasons are usually:

1. They help guide decision making

2. They help drive behaviors and actions

3. They define an organization’s culture

4. They can help in employee selection

5. They can help with recruiting and marketing

6. Because everyone else has them

Unfortunately, it’s been my experience that there’s rarely enough discussion around what those values really mean.

Let’s take respect, as an example – one that’s near and dear to me. Respect means a lot of things to a lot of different people. For me, when I think of what respect means as a leader, I think of positive and negative examples I’ve seen demonstrated by leaders. The following are true stories that helped define who I am as a leader:

Story #1: Situational respect?
I was having dinner with a group of executives one night. One executive, Bill, shared his value around how he treats everyone the same, no matter who they are. I remember being invited to a corporate golf tournament, and being a junior manager and last minute fill-in, I felt a little out of place amongst all of the big-wigs. Then, Bill walks up and welcomes me, offered me a cigar, spends 5-10 minutes talking to me, and introduces me to a few people. I NEVER forgot that, and whenever I had the chance, went out of my way to support Bill.

The other executive, Paul, had a different opinion. Paul was the consummate politician. He believed that you needed to pick and choose who you paid attention to, always making sure you were prioritizing your time and energy on those that could help you achieve your individual or organizational goals. I had a few opportunities to be on Paul’s low priority list, so I knew exactly what he was referring to. As I listened to him describe his strategy, I was tempted to “accidentally” spill my drink on him. I have to admit; I did get a little bit of satisfaction when Paul ended up hitching his wagon to the wrong horse and went down in corporate flames. Not a lot of people lined up to throw water on him.

Story #2: The stable hand’s son.
One of my all-time favorite leaders, Marty, was promoted to vice-president. We were working on a project together, and we needed to pick a venue for an off-site meeting. Being a VP, he could have just picked up the phone or fired off an email, and some poor minion would end up having to drop everything and scramble around trying to figure out what he really wanted. Instead, he gets up, walks down two flights of stairs, finds the person responsible for that function, asks if she had a moment, then proceeds to pull up a chair next to her and collaborate with her on venue selection. No, he didn’t just tell…he asked, and seemed to sincerely value her opinion.
I asked him about it later, and he told me that when he was a kid, his father was a stable hand at a horse-breeding farm. He saw how some of the rich and powerful treated his father, and swore that if he ever reached a position of power and status, that he would NEVER treat anyone like that. He made it one of his strongly held values to treat everyone with respect, to value each and every employee’s contributions, and never get too full of himself.

Story #3: Got a light?
There was a CEO named Dan that was at my building for a meeting one day. It was about 6:00pm, the meeting had long ended, and I could see him out my window heading to his car in the parking lot. There was a group of maintenance workers having a smoke break outside the building, and I saw Dan stop and start asking them questions and listening to what they had to say. I had no idea what the discussion was – it could have been about the weather, sports, or corporate strategy – the topic didn’t matter, the point is, from my window I could tell that he was engaged and doing most of the listening.

Story #4: The barista
This one’s just a little thing, but it left a big impact on me as a leader. I was in a building for a meeting that I had never been in. I stopped by a break room to grab a cup of coffee, and someone in front of me was in the process of pouring the last cup. When he turned around and saw me waiting, he introduced himself and proceeded to make a fresh pot of coffee for me. He even got a cup and poured it for me. So what? Well, it turns out my barista was the president of the business unit.

Those four experiences were defining moments for me, and helped shape my own interpretation of what it means to demonstrate respect as a leader. To me, you treat everyone with the same degree of respect, regardless of rank, title, status, or tenure. You don’t have to “earn my respect” – but you can lose it. It’s not something you only give away when it may serve your needs.
Asking people for their ideas and listening is the ultimate demonstration of respect. And finally, don’t ever take the last cup of coffee and walk away without making a fresh pot. (-:

So what’s the point? Values are nothing but words on a plaque unless a team and every leader is clear on what they really mean and demonstrates them in their day-to-day behavior. Your own stories of respect or lack of could be completely different than mine, and what’s important to you may not be the same as whats important to me.

The next time the topic of values comes up, why not take some time as a leadership team to list on flipcharts what each value looks like and what it doesn’t look like. Then, go back and have a conversation with each of your team members, asking them to describe what each value looks like to them. Finally, take a good look in the mirror and decide what you are going to try to start, stop, and continuing doing.

I once heard of an organization that actually handed out small rewards when they saw a value being demonstrated and tickets if they saw a values “violation”. Corny? Maybe, but at least it’s a visible demonstration that values are part of an organizations operating rules, not just part of a recruiting brochure. When you see that happening, especially amongst an organization’s senior leaders, then you know they take their values seriously.

How about you? What does respect mean to you? What were your own defining moments that helped shape that meaning?