Below I describe a personal experience that illustrates an important principle that relates to any hierarchy.
I attended the hour-long Executive Council meeting as a stand-in for my boss. The invitees were a collection of VPs and high-ranking directors, and today the conference table was full. I was in note-taking mode; my only purpose for being there being to report back to my boss any earth-shaking news or new assignments for her. Thus, she had not briefed me about any questions I might be asked.
I was the lowest-ranking person at the table and was hoping at least to get some insight on the decision making process at this level. “Mark”, the senior VP, ran the weekly meeting and sat directly across from me. A notorious micro-manager (he loved to “geek the details” a director once commented), he did most of the talking in these meetings. Mark asked me a few questions that I, having not been briefed, could not answer. He didn’t particularly like my boss and by extension, me, and his annoyance was obvious to everyone in the room.
As the hour wound down, I was looking forward to getting away from Mark’s tiresome forays into the deep weeds. About 10 minutes before the end of the meeting “Jason”, another senior VP, walked into the room. His presence was needed at this meeting but another commitment had kept him away until now. Mark craned his neck back toward Jason’s position by the door and engaged him on one of the meeting’s topics.
I immediately recognized that Jason needed to be sitting at the table more than I did. I caught his eye, pushed back a bit from the table and nodded my head slightly, offering him my seat at the table. He lifted his hand slightly and gestured downward, while his facial expression said, “you’re fine, don’t get up”. Nobody in the room seemed to notice this little interaction. I stayed put for the remaining few minutes.
As the meeting broke up, Jason maneuvered around to where I was sitting to continue his discussion with Mark across the table. I got up from my chair and slowly began to work my way to the door. As I passed Jason he lightly slapped the back of my shoulder and held it there for a second as I moved out of range. He did this without interrupting his conversation with Mark.
My interaction with Jason demonstrated an important principle in business and in general: In any hierarchy respect should flow downward as well as upward. I showed Jason respect by recognizing that his presence at the table was more important than mine. He could have taken my seat without any acknowledgement and no one would have noticed or cared. His refusal to take my seat showed humility and respect for someone well below him on the org chart. His subsequent gesture, done in full view of everyone, was his way of saying “thanks” to me and “this guy is okay” to the rest of the high-powered talent in the room. No words, no handshake, no hugging – none of it was necessary.
Contrast Jason’s attitude and display toward me with Mark’s. Mark showed his displeasure with me, for things that were out of my control, in front of the entire group. Jason, on the other hand, quietly refused to take my seat, then publicly acknowledged me in a positive way afterward.
The principle of two-way respect can and should be applied in any situation, not just in business. The hierarchy can be occupational, social, economic, etc.: if you are above someone, give recognition and show respect, especially if that person is performing a service for you. Placing oneself in someone else’s shoes mentally for a moment is an effective way to get in the proper frame of mind for this.
It’s doesn’t take much effort and won’t make a drastic difference in any one person’s life, but basic displays of courtesy and respect are a necessary underpinning of a civil society.