Why Deferential Treatment Matters

Deference is such a loaded word. One of those things that we all want, but so often struggle to give. Not so far off from some of the other ideals- patience, kindness, or forgiveness.

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In brief, while we all deserve to be treated with a modicum of respect in a workplace setting, deference is more active. It is actually yielding to the judgement of others. And I love it.

Deference as I see it is a sign that you’ve been thoughtful and wise. You recognize the limitations in your knowledge and have simultaneously been thoughtful about who you have put in place to advise. Given their deeper knowledge on a subject, albeit sometimes without the complete context and fuller institutional picture, you give their words appropriate heft.  

I’ve just left a call with an advisor who is offering support on some new video and graphic materials that I have been hoping to realize. This is someone I’ve come to know over the past year in another professional setting that I’ve come to like as a person and who impressed me, and others, as a professional. 

I’m sharing with him some of my goals and offering the sought-after reactions to what he is presenting. I’ve come to realize over the course of our recent chats that he almost seems a bit surprised that I defer to him.

Some of the suggestions he shared made me a little uncomfortable, but upon reflection I realized that was more about the idea being new to me than issues I have with his solution or fear that it will impact my reputation. I practice a bit of self-talk and remind myself that I’m engaging him because even though he’s 20 years younger he has a superior understanding of the current trends and norms, workable concepts and knows the best way to test solutions to figure out which might be most successful. To do otherwise, would be akin to saying (1) I want better results (2) here is what we’ve always done and (3) let's do more of the same in the future.  

The truth is that when you are a leader or leading something you often expect, or hope to get, deference from others. We want to be respected for our hard-earned expertise and our knowledge of the specific landscape in which we work. When it doesn’t come, we can get extremely frustrated and begin to wonder if I have done something incorrectly or is the person who is treating me thusly someone who has some issue with an aspect of my identity. Why do we not consider these experts in our lives the same way?

Whether this is an external consultant or an employee we need to ask ourselves more why I am not showing this person deference. 

Some executives believe that strong leadership is an iron grip and a withering gaze. That is certainly a kind of leadership. One that often gets people to stop contributing because you make it so hard for them to be seen or heard. Also, one that tends to create quite a bit of turnover. There isn’t a generations workforce that wants to be discounted. This isn’t an issue of age, but of personhood. 

Asking thoughtful questions is something that a good leader does. Diminishing others is not. It may be something that some CEOs, Presidents, Executive Directors, and all the other titles practice, but while they titles may confer that you are the leader of something they do not in any way confer that you are the good leader of any institution. 

A few things about being deferential. It doesn’t mean that you just do whatever the person says. It just means that you’ve been intentional about a process that gets the best advice from the right people. To set yourself up to do that requires a few steps 

  • You have ensured that the person in the role to be your advisor understands enough about your industry and has the requisite skills that you can respect their judgement. Ideally, others on your team would view them similarly so you don’t have to sell too hard on why them. 
  • You have armed the person with enough context about the problem and answered their concerns as fully as possible and shared where you don’t have complete information.
  • When they are presenting their conclusions you complete any prior reading, listen to what they have to say, ask thoughtful questions, and get clarification if you don’t understand why or how something would work.

Deference isn’t weakness. Deference isn’t laziness. Deference isn’t disinterest. I hope it can start showing up more in your practice as a giver and receiver. It means you’ve chosen who to surround yourself with well. 

Russ Finkelstein [linkedin.com] is the opposite of your High School Guidance Counselor.  A career coach, social entrepreneur and advisor to founders, he is currently the Director of Coaching with the Roddenberry Fellowship, Coach-in-Residence with StartingBloc Fellowship and a Co-Founder of Title8 a Legal Marketplace. He was a founder of the noted careers website Idealist.org and was chosen as a Generation Z Influencer by LinkedIn.

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