Leadership and Respect

Respect is one of the values that we hear talked about a lot
in organizations. Respect is a word that always evokes a positive
conversation — “yes, respect is very important, we
value respect, and we need to be more respectful and so forth”.
The problem has been that almost no one really thinks about or
understands what it means to respect someone, create a culture
of respect among people or for that matter what it means to be
to be respected. Most of us believe that respect is an important
value and that it is good. We do not normally think of respect
as an action but as a feeling or judgment about other people.

To understand and distinguish respect it is important to recognize
that language is fundamental to how we see the world. Language
both opens possibilities and empowers us, or it closes possibilities
and limits us. For example, the word respect derives from the Latin
word “respectus” which means “to look” or “to
look back”. In thinking about this word, it also brings to
mind the notion of “spectacles”, “spectator” and “spectacular”.
In other words we can distinguish the term as having something
to do with “looking” or “observing”. If
we take the prefix “re” to imply “again”,
then we have the notion of respect as meaning something like “looking

If we say we respect someone, we are “looking” at
the other person in a particular way — usually suggesting
we are open to listen and honor each other’s views even if
we disagree. If we say we don’t respect someone, we are generally
closed to certain possibilities and conversations with them. Likewise,
if we have “self-respect” we are generally in a healthy
internal conversation with ourselves. If we don’t respect ourselves,
we will typically be stuck in all sorts of unproductive and unsatisfying “self-talk”.
If we say that something is possible to someone we respect, we
will more than likely have a productive and satisfying dialogue.
If we don’t respect them then we will more than likely be
closed, not listen or in some cases disregard and dismiss them
and their views outright.

‘Respect’ is just a word, but what it means and what
it distinguishes for us can make all the difference in how we observe
ourselves and others — as well as how we relate to future possibilities
and choices. Our conventional wisdom considers “respect” to
be a kind of feeling or more often than not a judgment of a person’s
“worthiness”. But respect can also be a declaration on the
part of the person who is respecting another. If we take this to
be the case, then respect is something else altogether. This article
suggests that while “respect” is always a context for
relationship we have a choice about whether it is created as an
expression of our commitment to relating effectively with other
human beings or whether it becomes part of a culture and worldview
that separates and limits us.

Whether respect is declared or whether it occurs as a judgment,
it is an expression of the way the person who is respecting on
not respecting sees themselves and others. Respect is in the eye
of the beholder and is not a function of the behavior or attributes
of those we are relating to. Further, we propose that to understand
respect as an empowering concept, it must also be universal. If
respect is a judgment, it becomes a tool of the ego and actually
a source of separation and conflict between human beings. The alternative
is to understand that respect is an action, a declaration and a
commitment on our part of who another person is separate and apart
from whatever judgments we might have of their behavior.

<p >Finally, if we can create a culture in which respect is universal
and an expression of our commitment to each other as human beings
and how we choose to “look at each other”, then we
have a foundation for designing ways for collaboration and mutual
empowerment that are simply not possible in the absence of authentic
respect. I offer some ideas about how leaders can create a culture
of universal respect. We believe that respect is the foundation
for any serious discourse on coaching, leadership or building satisfying
relationships with others. Without respect there are no possibilities
for trust, sharing a vision, for empowerment or for creating powerful
teams and organizations.

Conventional Wisdom

“Respect” is one of the terms people often preach
as a virtue but in fact, can use as a weapon for manipulation and
control of others. For example, how often do we hear someone say “I
don’t feel respected” in a context of blaming others
and demanding that “they” change? We hear people use “not
feeling respected” as a justification for all sorts of counterproductive
and even destructive behavior including being victims of their
environment and prevailing systems of authority. Respect (or lack
of it) is a core aspect of any recurring conflict situation as
well as an integral factor in most labor-management disputes. Many
times, we use the term and our feelings about respect to in effect
say, “You should agree with me and behave the way I want
you to or it means you don’t respect me (or justifies my
not respecting you) and therefore I can rationalize doing just
about anything I want without concern for you”.

Mostly we think about respect as a judgment based on our feelings.
Alternatively, we can view respect as a commitment or a declaration
of “who another is for us” or “who we are for
ourselves”. Either way, respect is always in the eye of the
beholder and it always becomes a context for relationship. For
example, most of us will acknowledge that we have some list of
negative assessments about ourselves and others — we think we
(or they) are too lazy or not good-looking or “not competent
enough”. When we believe our judgments are “truths”,
we objectify ourselves and others and generally conclude whether
we (or they) are worthy of our respect. In an organizational or
social context our judgments and level of respect become the basis
for how we relate to other people on a day-to-day basis.

In a personal and psychological context, self-judgments occur
as “facts” and typically means that our “self-esteem” becomes
hostage to whether we respect ourselves or not. Self-respect has
exactly the same nature and character as our respect or lack of
respect for others. In conversations with ourselves, we often find
that we “know” about “the way we are” as
if our assessments about ourselves are more “true” than
other people’s assessments of us. This condition of self-judgment
inevitably becomes part of a closed worldview and can lead to all
sorts of “self-referential” behavior and “self-justification” which
upon close examination reveals an objectification of the “way
we are” and resignation that change is unlikely at best.
Since most of us don’t claim perfection this means that we
become trapped in an interpretation of self in which something
about the way we are isn’t okay and since we are that way
it can’t change because our life experience has provided
the experiential proof that we are the way we think we are. The
result is we don’t respect ourselves because we aren’t
okay the way we are and we can’t (or haven’t been)
successful in changing ourselves. Many people live large portions
of their lives suffering in a closed “internal conversation” about
the way they, others and life “should be” without ever
realizing that they are living in a state of disrespect for themselves,
for life and for others.

That respect is fundamental to human relationships (and relationship
with self) is not a new idea. What is new is the inquiry into whether
it is possible to respect people with whom we strongly disagree
and whose actions and behavior are inconsistent with what we value.
We all use respect (or lack of respect) to determine how open we
are, how trusting we are and how we choose to relate to others.
For example, in growing up with my children, I have lived with
a lot of the younger generation’s behavior which was inconsistent,
foreign and even threatening to my own values and standards. Some
of these behaviors included brightly colored hair, frequent use
of strong scatological language, tattoos and body piercing. If
I add to this an exceptionally open and casual attitude toward
sex on the part of many young people and lots of experimentation
with drugs and alcohol, then the list of “negative assessments” begins
to be significant. Can I respect people who behave in these ways,
even if they are my own children?

I am not arguing inter-generational differences here, I am suggesting
that if we think about it, there are many people (in every generation)
who behave (for whatever reasons) in ways which push or exceed
the limits of our own view of what is and what is not acceptable.
When we have negative judgments, our assessments become the justification
to give or not give respect. In our everyday way of relating, we
rarely notice that the judgments and assessments are one thing,
and the conclusions and actions which follow are something else.
We blur this distinction and forget that respect is always and
only something in the eye of the beholder and is never “caused” by
those we respect or don’t respect.

My proposition is that respect can be seen as an action and that
it is possible to create a culture in which people naturally and
authentically respect each other. To do this, however, we need
to consider how we are looking at people already. That is, we need
to observe that we are normally judging others in terms of our
own values and practices. Our baseline for assessing others is
essentially what we happen to believe at a given moment. The implication
of this has to do with whether we can take someone seriously if
they don’t meet or match our standards and beliefs. If we
can’t take someone seriously then we never have the conversations
which could make a difference in how we relate or what is or isn’t
possible for us in the future. When this occurs we become trapped
in a vicious cycle of judgment-lack of respect-reaction, and more
judgment that justifies more lack of respect.

<p >It is of course possible to partially finesse the issue by trying
to separate the “human being” from his or her behavior… “I
respect YOU, but don’t respect your behavior”. This
does distinguish and separate domain of “self” from “behavior” and
does leave the individual whole, but is still based on having a
superior judgment of which behaviors are worthy and which ones
are not. Therefore it is still a way of using respect in order
to maintain some degree of control over the other’s behavior.
While separating “self” from behavior is more responsible
than simply writing off the whole human being as “unworthy”,
it is still a trap which ultimately will undermine relationships,
weaken practices for coordination and destroy any possibilities
for breakthroughs.

Respect Everyone?

We can’t talk about respect for very long before we consider
the “who” it is that is being respected or not respected.
I am suggesting that we must respect everyone if the idea of respect
is to make any sense other than as a tool for judging and manipulating
behavior. The reason for this is that the simple act of judging
whether someone (including ourselves) is worthy of our respect
is to separate ourselves from the other person as a human being
and assume a “superior” relationship to them. To pass
judgment from a position of superiority is in effect not seeing
someone as having equal value, choice and responsibility for their
actions. To judge another as worthy or unworthy is itself an act
of disrespect. In this context we are using the notion of respect
as a weapon for control and domination….saying “I approve
(or disapprove) of you and what you are doing” as if we were
the Judge and in doing so implying that “if you want my respect
you must behave consistent with my standards — otherwise you
are unworthy”.

If we don’t respect everyone then we can respect no one,
including ourselves. As a judgment, respect is used by the ego
as a means for remaining separate and apart from others. This can
also form the foundation for justifying perpetuating conflict between
human beings. The alternative is to understand that respect is
an action, a declaration and a commitment on our part of who another
person is separate and apart from whatever judgments we might have
of their behavior. This means that we do not sacrifice the background
of relationship over our differences and disagreements. This is
crucial since relationship is the foundation for any sort of collaborative
enterprise whether it is a nation, Multinational Corporation, a
team or a marriage. As long as our relationships are in tact, we
have room to negotiate and design new ways of working together
or even in some cases to not work together — but as a choice
and not a reaction.

If respect means to “look again”, then the question
is what are we looking for? We can look at someone to garner evidence
for our preconceptions, stereotype, and prejudices or we can look
for who they are as a possibility. As a coach for example, I am
always relating to a person in two domains….one is who I
say they are as a possibility, the other is who they are in a context
of my judgments and their history. My choice is in which context
I will relate to them. If I relate to another in a context of possibility
then our work together is about their commitments, creating breakthroughs
and producing unprecedented results. If I relate to them in a context
of their past and my assessments then the game typically becomes
about me analyzing their behavior and attempting to “fix” or
control them.

<p >Respecting everyone is a stand we can take…it is not reasonable
and it is not based on people’s past behavior — it is “looking
at people newly” as possibilities and as
perfect in the context of their own lives. If we make this shift,
then we still
have issues and differences, but we no longer give or withhold
ourselves and our respect as a condition for the other person’s
compliance with our point-of-view.

Creating a Culture of Respect

There are many ways to define culture. One way to see culture
is that it is constituted by the everyday conversations that people
have about ‘the way it is around here”. We can observe
culture most directly by listening to the “hallway conversations” in
which people speak straight about what they think and ‘the
way it really is” for them. There are several reasons why
this view is both powerful and useful. First it allows us to create
or change culture by simply changing our conversations and committing
ourselves to new interpretations of “reality”. Secondly,
it opens a perspective in which every individual can be personally
responsible for the culture and participate in its persistence
or change through how we speak and listen in each and every conversation
every day. Finally, observing culture as conversation makes values
such as respect “actionable” since from this perspective
words and commitments are actions in language. Our conversations
can literally transform how we observe our environment, open new
possibilities and allow us to see choices we might not otherwise

Creating a culture of respect begins with a commitment to seeing
everyone as worthy of respect. We have already noted that while
we don’t always have a choice about our automatic judgments
and predispositions, we do have a choice about what our assessments
mean and the weight we give to them in our day to day relationships.

I want to emphasize that I am not proposing some sort of Pollyanna
positive thinking about people. I am not suggesting that we somehow
try to rationalize some sort of positive virtue in people that
we otherwise don’t respect. What I am proposing is that,
as a practical matter, not respecting others costs each of us a
great deal and contributes to the persistence of cultural practices
that we say we don’t want. If people are serious about creating
a future that has larger possibilities for everyone, then it begins
with creating a different cultural reality in which we universally
respect each other.

Another aspect of creating a culture of respect is to observe
how the absence of whatever we say we value occurs on a day-to-day
basis. For example when we are not respecting someone or we don’t
feel respected, does this occur as a breakdown for us — is it
a call to action — does it produce new conversations to align
and strengthen relationship, clarify different views and build
greater confidence and trust. In a culture of respect there will
be more straight talk (especially of negative assessments) because
we respect each other. In a culture of respect — all sorts of
relationship issues, differences and lack of alignment become positive
forces for change, not justifications for the status quo.

<p >Obviously, one thing that would have to change is that we would
need to “see the other persons newly” ….we would
need to look again, look past our judgments and generate an interpretation
of who that person is which would allow us to authentically respect
them. We would need to become the source of respect as our context
for relating and assume responsibility for whatever negative assessments
we might have that would normally justify our lack of respect.


Human beings will always have judgments about themselves and others.
It doesn’t matter whether our judgments are positive or negative
since no judgment is ever true or false anyway, no matter how many
may agree or disagree with it. However, we have a choice about
what we conclude from our assessments and the secondary meanings
we give to them. If our judgments of each other are negative and
we conclude that therefore the other is not worthy of our respect
or that we therefore don’t need to take each other seriously;
then we are setting up an interpretation in which our actions are
justified by assessments that were neither true or false in the
first place. Further, we have created a context for our relationship
in which ‘they” are responsible for our judgments and
assessments. In effect we are setting up a structure of interpretation
in which we are reacting to each other based upon what we are “observing”,
but are blind to the fact that our observations have more to do
with us and the “meaning” we give to what we observe,
than they do with the other person.

<p >Respect is one of many values we seek to “enculturate”
in our organizations. Like all values it cannot be legislated or
regulated into existence. It can be learned, it can be coached and
it can be demonstrated by leaders everywhere. In the final analysis,
respect is part of our “way of being” in the world and
is a product of both our commitment and our everyday practices.
Respect as we have distinguished it here is a context for all relationships
and can be created through commitment in our everyday conversations.
It is not reasonable nor does it happen naturally. It is a conscious
expression of who we are, who we aspire to be and who we declare
others are for us. Creating a culture of respect doesn’t solve
problems or predict any particular behavior. It does, however, shift
the context, our consciousness and the organizational paradigm in
such a way as that we need not sacrifice our relationships in moments
of conflict and fear. Moreover, when we respect others, we are able
to consider our own responsibility for our disagreements and differences
and most of all we can engage in dialogues to create a future in
which everyone is included without perpetuating reactive cycles
of distrust, resentment and acrimony….a future based on respect.