Rethinking Respect

In talking with others about leadership, I find myself talking about the importance of respect. I recently went looking for a specific definition of respect, and found it most often defined Respect is often defined as a feeling of deep admiration for something deriving from their actions or abilities. I understand where this definition comes from. How often do we talk about someone “earning our respect”, or how we have “lost our respect” for someone. This treats respect as a prize to be won, or a benefit to be conferred. A relationship without respect can range from passive disregard to outright contempt.

This definition doesn’t resonate with me. It presumes respect is a passive, static thing; one that is hard to win and easy to lose. How does this definition of respect serve us? I don’t think it does. Therefore, I think of respect differently. I see respect as a conscious practice.

We are all unique individuals, with our own experiences, beliefs, personalities, and desires. Sometimes we meet someone, and it feels like we’ve been best friends for years. Other times, we can hardly share the same room with them. Most of the time, it’s somewhere in between. But throughout our lives, we must work together with people whether we choose them or not.  As managers, entrepreneurs, and leaders, we must be able to accomplish our goals through the work of others as well as ourselves. This means inspiring the best work from people we like as well as people we don’t. So how do we build successful relationships? By practicing respect.

In order to do their best work, people want to feel valued. They want to feel needed; they need to feel as though their contributions matter. They crave respect. If you make respect something they need to earn, they must first decide if your respect is worth earning! And if they don’t think your respect is worth earning, are they likely to respect you in return? Probably not.  But if you start from the position that all people deserve respect, and then look for characteristics, actions, and abilities that support that respect, you’ve changed the equation. Your actions will demonstrate respect from the beginning of the relationship, accelerating everyone’s ability to successfully work together. If you start from the position that all people deserve respect, and are worthy of your respect, your personal feelings or opinions are not a hindrance to working with anyone. Practicing respect first allows you to disagree with someone in a more constructive way.

We were all taught the “golden rule” as children – do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Consciously practicing respect treats others with the respect you desire from them. Practicing respect, therefore, is not just limited to others. You must also consciously practice respect for yourself. If you don’t respect yourself first, you will struggle to respect others.  So how do we consciously practice respect?

  1. Always treat yourself with respect
  2. Begin each new relationship with the assumption of respect
  3. Consciously seek out actions, abilities, and characteristics that strengthen that respect

Resist the urge to withdraw respect from others when you disagree with their actions or beliefs. This is not easy to do sometimes. Instead, try to reflect on what it is about the person that strengthens respect, and practice compassion for what challenges you. You don’t have to condone someone’s behavior to respect their humanity. So if you need to work with someone, or are struggling with a personal relationship, start with respect.