Trending Topics

Respect as a baseline: To gain it, you must first give it

It may feel counterintuitive at times, but achieving trust starts by showing unilateral respect to everyone, even when you disagree


While it is true that respect should never be taken as an entitlement, there is a certain amount of assumed respect that exists between people generally, as a matter of common courtesy.

artisteer/Getty Images/iStockphoto

In a recent FireRescue1 article, Petaluma (California) Assistant Chief Chad Costa wrote: “Respect must be earned through actions, attitudes and treatment of others. It is essential to approach the new role to earn respect rather than feel entitled.” Costa emphasized that neither the badge nor the rank gives the person in the role the knowledge and credibility they need to truly lead. That must be gained through experience, commitment, study, guidance and, at times, learning from one’s mistakes.

I agree that respect must be earned and never assumed by others. But I would also add that to gain respect, you must first give it.

‘R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me’

Some people balk at the idea of giving respect unilaterally. How can you respect someone you don’t know? Is it possible to respect someone you don’t agree with? And didn’t we just state that respect must be earned first?

And yet, we demonstrate unilateral respect all the time. In its most basic form, respect is a function of common courtesy. We say “please” and “thank you” to those who serve us in public places; we say “excuse me” if we accidentally bump into someone.

Most firefighters also treat those with whom they interact on emergency scenes with respect: We call them by their names or titles; we take care not to damage or disturb things in their homes; we strive to protect their modesty and privacy in public places. As much as possible, we tell them what we are doing and why. All these actions are signs of respect, given to those who are strangers to us.

We do these things for a couple reasons. For one, this behavior is practical. It allows for a smoother emergency response with better outcomes. But in a larger sense, it’s just the right thing to do.

Disrespect as a self-fulfilling prophecy

Unfortunately, firefighters don’t always apply these same principles to their own work environment. Disrespect among firefighters may be personal, or simply a habit or even a cultural practice. In any case, allowing a climate of disrespect to exist will have negative repercussions for everyone in that workplace.

Retired fire officer John Cuomo recently wrote about how a lack of respect for a new generation of firefighters has a long history, with damaging, long-term consequences. Holding negative expectations of others and treating them disrespectfully as a result of these expectations will only create a self-fulfilling prophesy, Cuomo wrote. People tend to meet the expectations put on them, for better or for worse.

The fire service has a long-standing practice of forcing newcomers to prove themselves – this is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s a life-and-death job and you need complete trust in your coworkers. The question is not whether people should be required to prove themselves or not, but how the goal is accomplished. Will it be a function of steady improvement in training and performance, openness to feedback, self-motivation and good mentoring? Or will that acceptance as a true member of the team hinge on being able to tolerate disrespectful and at times even abusive treatment from others on the job?

Respect as a baseline

It’s possible to treat people respectfully even as you hold them to high standards, such as when dispensing disciplinary actions. In fact, it is critical that these types of interactions be done in a respectful manner; otherwise, the attitude you bring will undermine the message you are trying to convey.

People sometimes say that they have “lost respect” for someone, which implies that respect existed between those parties previously. And while it is true that respect should never be taken as an entitlement, there is a certain amount of assumed respect that exists between people generally, as a matter of common courtesy. This level of civility should be the baseline from which deep respect and regard for another can grow. Only when people reach this mutual level of respect can a genuine sense of common purpose be developed and real trust achieved.

In the book “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking when Stakes are High,” the authors write: “Respect is like air. If you take it away, it’s all people can think about. The instant people perceive disrespect … the interaction is no longer about the original purpose; it is now about defending dignity.”

We have all been in situations where we have felt disrespected. Sometimes, if we feel we have equal power and standing as the person we feel is disrespecting us, we may react in the moment. Other times we will be silenced. But we don’t forget.

Echoing Costa’s words, respect must be earned through the actions, attitudes and treatment of others, which includes fairness, competence, wisdom and, yes, a kind of unilateral respect that everyone deserves.

Take your department in the direction you want. Get expert advice on how to effectively lead your fire department. 20-year veteran Linda Willing writes “Leading the Team,” a FireRescue1 column about fire department leadership.