Leaders: Are you being disrespected?

Leaders: Are you being disrespected?

By Jim Davis Ed.M., MA


Is a slow response from an employee a sign of disrespect? How about a meeting cut short? A “too-brief” email?

 Fear of not being respected is a common concern among leaders. At the top levels of leadership, it finds its roots somewhere near imposter syndrome; all of us, to some degree, have a fear of others noticing our vulnerabilities.

 In the greater conversation of leadership personality traits, fear of disrespect is what we would refer to as a “recon part” – a part of our personality aimed at reconnaissance, constantly on the lookout for insults to the Self. When our recon parts are operating effectively, they help predict and circumvent challenges. Too often, that part of us interprets unintentional slights as potential threats.

 A curt text. An email that took two days to send. Are these signs of disrespect? Maybe. Maybe not.

 While working with a leader recently, both of these were interpreted as signs of disrespect. This was occurring in his mind which, it could be argued, is where it matters most. After all, if a person feels disrespected, it does not necessarily matter if it was intentional. If a bear walks into your campsite, it doesn’t matter if it meant to scare you, your sympathetic nervous system will active (occasionally frightening the bear as much as the camper).

 When we only have bits of information, we fill in the connective tissue. In this way, communication issues carry massive weight. Not having the full story is an uncomfortable state of being. We don’t stay in that state for long. In the presence of communication issues, when we don’t have the complete story, we take what information we have and fill in the gaps. We rarely leave a story unwritten.

 All of that connective tissue – the story we tell ourselves to connect the dots – depends on a variety of bidirectional factors. It depends on our interpretation of the situation as well as our personal context, history, and state. If a leader is sleep deprived, for example, they might be more likely to negatively interpret another’s language or behavior.

 So if we are only getting bits of communication and our “recon parts” are stimulated, what should we do?

 Answer: meet frustration with curiosity. It’s surprisingly good advice that applies to countless situations. In the case of feeling disrespected, a leader could say, “That last text was pretty abrupt, what did you mean by (x)?” or “I noticed that your last email to the client took a while to send, is everything okay?” This will accomplish a few things:

  • Relieve yourself of having to fill in the gaps. It takes a lot of cognitive bandwidth to predict/explain the thoughts and intentions of another person.
  • Show the other person that you noticed something specific and genuinely care about them. You might be surprised at the external factors that impact others’ communication. You might also be surprised by the power of care. People will notice your efforts.
  • Importantly, you’ll have the clarity you need.

The interesting part of the leader we were working with was that he was often “committing” the same behaviors that frustrated him in his employees. In his head, his curt text messages were a product of being busy. They were efficient.

 I did not point out his hypocrisy. I asked him to reflect on what he’d just said. You could see the lightbulb turn on.

 As it happens, he had been late to our meeting that day. First, he bumped our meeting back an hour. No worries. He was then late for the rescheduled time. This was no concern, as the optimistic assumption was simply that he was busy, as most are. I asked him what might go through his head if an employee of his rescheduled at the last minute, then was late on top of that… he got the point.

 Thankfully, we were able to laugh about it. The members of any productive conversation are working toward the same goal, aimed at shared understanding, unconcerned by who is right or wrong, in generous pursuit of clarity. It’s a liberating and efficient way to communicate.

 Are you being disrespected? Maybe. But maybe not. Better to show patience and suss out the truth than assume malintent.

 As leaders, we must take care not to prematurely assign value to behavior. We have to investigate; we have to be curious about others. Whenever possible, we must maintain optimism regarding those in our charge. It’s a lot of work. It takes time, it takes someone who cares. It takes… a leader.


 More on

 Imposter Syndrome: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/imposter-syndrome

 Impact of Sleep on Interpretation of Peers: https://www.sesp.northwestern.edu/teacher-leadership/teacher-leadership-magazine/articles/teacher-leadership-blog-page.html

 Practical Empathy: https://www.sesp.northwestern.edu/teacher-leadership/teacher-leadership-magazine/articles/practical-empathy.html

 Parts work: https://ifs-institute.com/nobadparts

 Sympathetic Nervous System: https://beyondstrength.net/2018/10/27/understanding-stress/

 Storytelling in Psychology: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/positively-media/201101/the-psychological-power-storytelling

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