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In leadership, respect is about understanding, not agreeing

By David Pich CMgr FIML


Respect is undeniably complex. This complexity is only increasing as the world – and the world of work – become simultaneously more polarised and more open. It’s interesting that these two global trends seem to be in such conflict.

Countries and workforces are becoming increasingly diverse, while public opinion about all aspects of diversity seems to be ever more polarised. We seem to be metaphorically pulling down walls, but leaders are appealing to millions with notions of building physical walls. Barriers to trade and those that restrict the freedom of people to move and work across borders seem to be becoming mainstream policy in many nations.



These macro trends and developments have made the concept of respect a fraught and complex matter. The typical workplace contains incredible diversity. A relatively small team of, say, 10 people in Australia or New Zealand can be made up of any combination of females, males, and those who identify as either or neither. It may also include people in same-sex relationships, people with or without kids; and it may include Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and atheists. There may be people with a physical or mental disability (or both) and people from quite literally any cultural background you can mention. In fact, it’s safe to say that I have missed more ‘categories’ (and yes, I detest that word) than I have listed.

When all of these people – our workmates – arrive at work each morning, afternoon or evening, they do so against a social and political environment that is increasingly polarised and opinionated. Stereotypes abound, and the impact of these shouldn’t be underestimated.

The best example I can give is from the UK following the Brexit vote in 2016, when Polish and other mainland European nationals living and working in London and other cities reported feeling an overwhelming sense of fear and uncertainty in the workplace.

Similar feelings were reported in Australia among the gay community during the same-sex marriage debate.

The seemingly constant attack on, and airing of, ‘differences’ in lifestyle choices, religious beliefs, cultural backgrounds, nationalities and other aspects of the rich tapestry of individuals’ lives means that showing respect is increasingly portrayed as unnecessary and, even worse, a sign of weakness.



Showing respect as a leader isn’t about agreeing. It’s simply not possible to agree with everyone about everything. Trying to do that is the quickest way to tie yourself up in knots and lose the respect of the team. It’s also disingenuous.

When I joined CanTeen in 2002 as the Head of Fundraising and Marketing I met Carolyne, the Head of HR. We became and remain close friends. Carolyne is a committed and practising Christian, while I’m a committed and practising atheist. We freely talked about – and laughed about – our very different life views and belief systems, and we frequently explained to each other why we had come to our own separate and diametrically different conclusions.

That’s life! As I once said during a conference keynote, “If the workplace was full of middle-aged blokes from Manchester with a love of eighties music it would be a very dull place indeed!” Difference and diversity is interesting, enriching and rewarding.

Respect is about understanding why people believe what they believe, do what they do and are who they are. Despite what we read and hear from a vocal section of today’s media, and read on the more extreme reaches of the internet and social media sites, it’s perfectly possible – and perfectly acceptable – to understand without agreeing. Showing respect as a leader is about accepting that you don’t always need to be right, that there isn’t necessarily only a right and wrong or just a black and white. Respect is about accepting and embracing the idea that other people’s life experiences are different to yours and that that’s OK.

As a leader, respect is about encouraging and embracing the view that difference and diversity bring strength to a team because they open the way to new thinking, new approaches and new ways of solving problems. Once this view is accepted it can be implemented in any number of ways within the workplace or team. For example, in recruitment, leaders should ensure that they do not fall into the trap of allowing personal bias to creep into the formal and informal recruitment process. In the same way, leaders need to guard against allowing their own views to cloud the way they deal with any number of issues and situations that arise each day in the workplace.

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This article originally appeared in the September 2019 print edition of Leadership Matters, IML ANZ’s quarterly magazine. For editorial suggestions and enquiries, please contact


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