A cornerstone of effective leadership is the demonstration of respect. It sounds so easy. Lead well. Got it. Be respectful. Got it. But day in and day out the personalities and priorities of your team members mingle and sometimes collide. Varying degrees of expertise, patience, problem-solving skills and communication abilities add to the mix. On the continuum of “perhaps this is a bad fit” to “rock star”, probably one or two of your team fall further from rock star than you would like. You may find them more difficult to like and respect. You still must lead well and demonstrate respect.
Remember this: there is a difference when you are a leader in the workplace, particularly an executive leader, between the respect you feel for another person because of your relationship with them or what you know about them and the demonstration of respectful behavior.
Maybe you joined an organization and realize you have little respect for one of the key players because of the way they treat their team? Maybe someone on your team has become oppositional and controlling? Maybe you find yourself less tolerant over time of the quirks and inconsistencies of someone you need to depend on and feel like you can’t? In your personal life, you can often more easily choose not to spend time around people who inspire your snarkier behaviors. At work, it’s not so easy. When you’re in a leadership role, you can’t avoid people who look to you for leadership and you can’t lead them well if you don’t interact respectfully.
A life lesson…
Years ago, a friend was telling me about an interaction she’d just had with her 14-year-old son. I remember it not only because it was funny but because my boys were a little younger than her son, so I was taking notes. He would get frustrated with her because she dared to presume to know what he should and shouldn’t do and had some rules about it. He had made what I called a poor life choice and tried to explain things to her with significant attitude and self-righteousness. When he was finished she explained, “You may say whatever you want to about me or even to me as long as it’s done in your room, behind a closed door, and at a volume I can’t hear. But to my face, you will demonstrate respect in your words and actions whether you feel it or not. Feeling it is irrelevant. You will demonstrate it convincingly. Clear?”
This story turned out to be a professional life lesson for me as much as a parenting approach. I also remember it so clearly because I have reminded myself something like 500 times…respect can be demonstrated even when not felt. There is a difference between holding genuine respect for someone and demonstrating respectful behavior. This isn’t fake it til you make it. It’s simply responsible adult behavior. It’s using plain objective language. It’s thinking before you speak. It’s being honest using kind words. It’s using an even volume and tone and cadence. No sarcasm. No huffing and puffing. No overreacting. No demeaning language. Absolutely no name calling. No eye rolling. No mimicking.
When showing respect is easy
Demonstrating respect is easy when it’s already there in an existing relationship. You and someone on your team have mutual respect and trust. They’re your go-to for problem-solving, brainstorming, planning, and occasionally leaning on. Respectful behavior is easy to demonstrate with this person because it’s built in, it’s the default behavior for you both. It’s easy to provide leadership to him because a) he probably needs less from you in the first place and b) communication is so much easier between people who have mutual respect even when there’s a problem. Your intention is to address and resolve the issue with the best possible outcome, not only for the issue at hand but also for him.
Dan is your “go to” person. He’s part of your senior management team but the truth is, you tend to go to him first for ideas and feedback because you trust his motivations and his judgments. He makes good decisions, he treats people fairly and he’s a good communicator. He’s not perfect, but who is? One day you walk by a meeting room where he’s gathered his team of middle managers and it does not appear, by the look on several faces, to be going well. You slide into an empty chair to observe. Dan is out of the box…scrunched up face, slightly too loud voice, short, harsh directives being delivered. What? The conversation when you catch him later in the day, privately, goes like this:
You: “Hey…what was going on in your meeting earlier? It’s rare to see you that stressed.”
Dan: “Too many mistakes…I’m exhausted…they can’t even get their staff to training on time! I didn’t even want to hear what they said the problems were. I probably overreacted but it seems just ridiculous.”
You: “Ok, tell me more about the training. Do you remember some of what they said the problems were?”
Dan: “All four managers had at least 2 staff show up for training either not at all or 20 minutes late. Staff members were complaining the training is too early and some have other jobs so couldn’t make it. They knew well ahead of time though and I’m getting pushback from HR about it.”
You: “Is there something else going on? Hate to say it, but this isn’t a new problem. It’s not like you to be so surly with your team. What can I do?”
Dan: “True. I really did overreact, didn’t I? Sorry. I’ll get with them again. Everybody hates that refresher training but it’s required. Feels like one thing after another. Maybe I can get with HR and figure out a better way…offering it at a different time or some kind of recognition for completion or something… to help people get it done.”
You: “Sounds good. And yes, leadership can be exhausting. Let me know if you need me to help.”
When showing respect is not as easy
Demonstrating respect is not as natural when you don’t have existing fundamental respect for her. Heartfelt respect and behavior demonstrating respect can look the same but you have to be deliberate about it. It’s important to provide respectful leadership to her even though you don’t yet feel deep respect because a) she probably needs more from you as a leader and b) communication is not as easy between people who may not already have mutual respect, but when there is an issue, it still needs to be resolved. Your intention should be to achieve not only the best possible outcome for the situation but to demonstrate the behavior you would like to see her adopt.
Miranda is frequently irritating to you and others in the office. She works hard but is very controlling and not very self-reflective. She is confident and self-motivated but often comes off as arrogant. You occasionally sit in on team meetings and today you had time to sit in on hers. You always worry a little about whether you’re going to be annoyed by the way she addresses her staff. It isn’t inappropriate exactly, but it’s not how you talk to anyone. She ends up barking at her team about their staff being out of compliance with their required refresher training. “Fix it. Get it fixed. It’s your job to see they get this training. Why do I have to keep telling you to do your job? Tell them they’re about to have to come talk to me and be out of a job. I’ve been over this with you all before. Get it fixed!” The conversation when you catch her later in the day, privately, goes like this:
You: “Hey…your meeting earlier? You seemed pretty stressed.” (Private thought: Are you kidding me? Barking at your team again???)
Miranda: “Too many mistakes…I’m exhausted…they can’t even get their staff to training on time! It’s just ridiculous.”
You: “Ok, tell me more about the training. Do you know why people were late or didn’t show?” (Private thought: Did you listen and try to problem solve with them? Good grief.)
Miranda: “All four managers had at least 2 staff show up for training either not at all or 20 minutes late. No, I didn’t ask. I’m getting yelled at by HR about it.”
You: “Is there anything else going on? Hate to say it, but this isn’t a new problem. You seemed somewhat surly with your team. What can I do?” (Private thought: Argh!)
Miranda: “Oh, did I? I don’t think I did. OK though, I’ll think about that. Maybe I should talk to them about it again. I just wish I didn’t have to do everything.”
You: “It definitely feels like that sometimes, doesn’t it? Leading a team can be exhausting. My suggestion…when you have them together again, ask why their staff were late and didn’t show. Everybody hates refresher training but it’s required and we have to figure it out. Maybe get HR to come when you meet and problem solve? I’m happy to be involved too.” (Private thought: That went pretty well. She used to push back at any advice. Remember to follow up in a couple of days with her and HR.)
In the end, if you’re an effective leader, you must demonstrate respect whether you feel it or not. It’s how we lead by example. It’s how we help people grow. It’s even how we treat someone if we have to help them leave us to find a better fit.
Go forth and lead well.