Respect: what it means to different people

By Keith Coats

Respect is important currency in all relationships and whilst it may sound simple, the reality is, it is far from simple.

How respect is given and received is strongly nuanced by personality, culture and context. Understanding these nuances is the key to practicing respect.

Most organisations list ‘respect’ as a core value and yet what that really means and how it is interpreted, is subject to a wide range of interpretation depending on your age and culture.

Here are 5 practical keys into unlocking a deeper understanding of the important value that is respect

  1. Ask your team, ‘what makes you feel respected?’

    This should be a question you would need to have answered for yourself. If your team’s profile is diverse (age, culture, gender) this should be a really interesting conversation. It might be easier to tee-up this conversation by having each person complete this sentence, ‘I feel respected when…’
  2. Next would be to note any discrepancies and surprises to emerge from the conversation.

    Where these can be identified, group those concerned for further discussion as to ‘what this all means in the context of your team’. In other words, how might we as a team need to adjust our behaviour, language and responses to help others (in our team) feel respected?
  3. Create a ‘respect card’ that can be shown when you feel disrespected (much like the yellow card / red card discipline system practiced across various sporting codes).

    Armed with these cards team members can use them in any conversation / meeting to flag issues around respect that require a pause and some discussion. Make respecting others a focal point of your interactions for the next few weeks until changes in behaviour can be detected and take root.
  4. Assign some mini-research projects amongst your team around the subject of respect.

    They could ask others (in the organisation) – especially those younger and older as well as those of different cultures the question posed in point 1 and note the various responses. This data then can be used to supplement and deepen your own discussions / awareness on the topic and help make it a little more general and less personal, although it is of course a personal conversation.
  5. Make respect something for which you hold your team members accountable. Make it part of what you discuss in supervision / management meetings and if possible, something you measure.

Respect is one of four behaviours that underpin what it means to practice ‘Invitational’ leadership – the others being optimism, trust and intentionality. Being ‘invitational’ as a person is to be able to ‘invite the best out in those around us’ and respect is the starting point to making it possible to be such a person.

Helpful Notes

Different generations practice respect in different ways. Older generations generally have a ‘positional respect’ position. This means that they ‘respect the position’ without needing to know if the person in that position is ‘worthy’ of holding that position. In other words the position is what gains immediate attention and respect. Of course as they get to know the person, respect might wane or fluctuate.

The default position on respect for younger generations is that of ‘relational respect’ meaning that respecting someone hinges on knowing him or her regardless of that person’s position or title. Respect has to be earned.

These are paradoxical approaches to respect – same word, different meanings or interpretations. Being aware of this paradox can make life a lot easier and make a big difference in dealing with those younger or older than oneself!

This is the third lesson in our Diversity and Social Intelligence course in the Future of Work Academy, authored by leadership expert, Keith Coats. You can visit the website for other great resources at

Sign up for 3 free lessons to further develop your skills for Diversity & Social Intelligence

  • ​Why diversity and social intelligence is more important than ever
  • Embracing Diversity: Understanding the difference between variety & diversity and why it matters
  • Respect: What it means to different people