Four ways leaders earn respect from their teams

Earning the respect from the teams you lead is critical to the success of any leader. Unfortunately, too many people assume that the title or role will grant them the trust and respect they need to succeed. Here are four ways leaders earn the respect they need.

It’s been almost ten years since I interviewed for a Vice President position at a technology company, and yet I remember it like it was yesterday. After multiple phone interviews and an in-person interview with the CEO, I was asked to fly across the country and meet some of the staff. At dinner one night I heard a story that would shift how I thought about leadership forever.

The story went that the same CEO that had interviewed me had already brought in a consultant before. Another sharp technologist, the story went, that was placed in the same role I was being interviewed for. And, as it was explained, the entire leadership team so hated the new guy that they skipped talking to the CEO and instead went directly to the board of directors to have him ejected.

The phrase I heard, that changed how I thought about leadership, was “the transplant didn’t take; the organism rejected it.”

Until then, I thought leadership roles brought with them a sort of “cloak of protection” that would eliminate the kind of rejection or ejection that was described in the story. I assumed that a leadership role would provide a leader some amount of time to demonstrate their skill and intelligence, that the only person who could ask them to leave would be the leader’s supervisor.

I was wrong.

Leadership requires respect & trust

Listening that night, I mentally took note.

I don’t know if the story was told as a warning or funny tale about a clueless executive (where the parallel to my role was simply coincidence). The mental note prepared me to think about my entrance into the organization and the leadership dynamic more like a transplant.
team trust

Every leader requires respect and trust to lead. But it doesn’t come from the role or title. It comes from a team’s acceptance of your leadership – and that comes from specific things you do (and don’t do).

Four ways leaders earn respect

When you step into a new leadership role, particularly if you come from outside an organization, the challenge you face is real. Earning trust and respect takes work. Here are four ways leaders earn respect.

They give it. They don’t presume to know more than their teams.

Want to earn respect? Give it. Instead of hiding what you don’t know, highlight it and ask for help. Jim Whitehurst said it best, “I found that being very open about the things I did not know actually had the opposite effect than I would have thought. It helped me build credibility.”

The reality is that no one actually thinks the boss knows everything. So the faster you own up to that reality, the faster a team will accept and begin to trust you. The more you hide insecurity or a lack of knowledge, the more distrust you create.

They work at both the 1000 foot level and get into details on the ground floor

Another way leaders earn respect is by getting into the details. Now to be clear, I’m not suggesting “getting into the details” in the way that causes every team member to bring every minute detail to you for your approval. This isn’t a suggestion that you start micro-managing.

Instead, what I’m talking about is knowing how to shift between the big picture strategy and the lower-level day-to-day efforts going on. The more you can navigate between them – and connect them for people – the more engaged your staff will be, and the more they’ll understand the work you’re doing.

After all, everyone wants to understand how their work fits into the bigger picture. Sharing it with them adds meaning to their work, and drives greater engagement. The net result is greater trust and respect.

They protect their staff 

When I was first starting out, leading a small team of four engineers at Berkeley National Lab, I was asked to work on a high-profile project. Our team did the work for a senior VP, under his guidance. He was thrilled with our work and gave me the chance to present it to the rest of the executives at the Lab.

On the day of the presentation, for whatever reason, my VP didn’t come to the meeting. So there I was, presenting work to folks that were three levels above me in positional authority. And they hated my work product. For forty five minutes (which felt like 2 years), they raised their voices, interrogated me, highlighted all the mistakes that had been made (in the scope and direction of our effort) and more.

No one was there to protect me. To tell them that it hadn’t been my idea.

It was one of those, “I will never do this to my teams” moments. I took notes. I focused on making it right. And I didn’t throw anyone under the bus (including that VP).

The result was that I earned all of their respect, and I learned a critical lesson on leadership.  And in the last two decades of managing others, I have worked hard to protect my teams.

  • Sometimes you’re protecting people from ridiculous schedules.
  • Sometimes you’re protecting people from raging tyrants.
  • Sometimes you’re protecting people from unreasonable clients.

But whatever it takes, you’ll see that protecting your teams will earn you respect.

They create space and opportunity for their staff, even at their own expense

Glenn Llopis said it best when he wrote, “Leaders that ‘sponsor’ their employees put their own reputation at risk for the betterment of the individuals they are serving.

I’ll be honest. Every leader that I have ever had working for me has been someone I wanted to keep under me forever. I’ve been blessed to know some truly incredible talent over the years.

Sometimes it’s been simple chance that provided me an incredibly talented individual on one of my teams. I’ve embraced it and enjoyed the opportunity to lead, mentor and coach them.

But the most important thing to do for them has been to create opportunities for them to shine within the whole organization – not just under my leadership. It’s when the whole organization gets to appreciate their talent that new roles may appear.

As much as one of my staff makes me look good, and I want to keep them in that spot forever, my desire for their growth and for their career path has to be more important than my desire to look good. And the crazy thing is that once staff realize that you don’t hold people back, and instead create opportunities for them, you will end up attracting more of those kind of people.

What’s your take? Do you have other strategies?

I’m willing to learn from anyone. So if you have another way to earn respect that I’ve missed, let know know. The comments below are a great place to share your insights.

If you want to pick my brain and talk about your specific situation, I do that thru a service called Clarity.

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