Principle 2
Everyone Wants Respect;
They Just Don’t Define
It the Same Way
We’re sure everyone has heard someone complain that there is too
little respect shown in organizations. The typical complaint is that
younger people are disrespectful of the people they should be
showing respect for—mainly older employees and people in au-
thority. Others complain that older people are just as bad, that
older people have respect only for older people or for people
higher in the hierarchy. The complaint is that older people appear
to think that people deserve different amounts of respect, pri-
marily depending on how much gray hair they have or how much
money they make.
A few years ago, I was in Australia talking about how the different generations
had roughly the same values. After the presentation a man came up to me and
said that I was wrong because he had a specific example that demonstrated
how different the generations’ values were.
The man said, “At my company there is a young man who obviously
doesn’t respect others. You can tell this because he is no more polite to the
president of his company than he is to the receptionist at the front desk. How
can you say that there is no difference between the generations when this
young man shows no more respect to the president of the company than he
does to the receptionist?”
So I asked him, “Is the young man rude to either the receptionist or the
president?”
31
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“No,” the man said, “he isn’t impolite to either. He just treats the presi-
dent of the company with the exact same amount of respect that he does the
receptionist.”
“What I’m hearing,” I said, “is that he is just as polite to the receptionist
as he is to the president of the company. How can you say he is being disre-
spectful, when he is respectful to both? Are you saying that if he were less
respectful to the receptionist than he is to the president, that would be a better
indication that he was a respectful person?”
Through this conversation (which went on for some time), it became
clear that the older man took the equal amounts of respect being shown to
people at all levels in the organization as an indicator of disrespect to the peo-
ple higher in the organization. Therefore, he thought the younger man had
“no respect” (his words) for the president of the organization.
A similar theme—and similar language—shows up in the mu-
sical My Fair Lady, when Eliza Doolittle accuses Henry Higgins of
treating her like a scullery maid rather than like a lady, to which
he replies that he treats a lady no better than he does a scullery
maid, so what does she have to complain about? From his per-
spective, the only problem would be if he treated one better than
another; if he treats them equally badly, then it shouldn’t be an
issue!
So what does “showing respect” really mean? Does it mean that
you are more polite or subservient to someone who is more pow-
erful than you are to someone who is much less powerful? Is being
obsequious required to show respect? Is being curt to someone in
a lower position required to show respect to people higher? When
we looked at what people were saying and writing about respect,
what we found was both revealing and frustrating.
There is, it turns out, a huge amount of discussion and dis-
course on the topic, most of which seems to conclude that the
basic structure of organizational life is about to fall apart because a
generation (or two) of younger employees is not appropriately re-
spectful. There is not, however, much in the way of current litera-
ture that attempts to define respect or clarify what it means in
practice, in the context of work.
We found this gap between chatter at Starbucks and research
results to be an irresistible one. So, we decided to try to find out
32 RETIRING THE GENERATION GAP
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