It's normal to err on the side of being respectful, especially if you're at the earlier stages of your career, meeting new colleagues, or wooing a prospective client or hiring manager. No one wants to look presumptuous or too informal for the situation.
But it's possible to go overboard and leave the wrong impression, too. Showing too much respect turns into deference, which can work against you for other reasons. You can end up flattening yourself off and hiding your personality in contexts when you really need it to shine, and you run the risk of being seen as lacking leadership presence.
The good news is you can strike a balance between being respectful and being overly deferential. Here's how.
When you show deference, you tend to hide your true self—you're too worried about making room for others. You’re afraid to show your best, so you describe your ideas plainly or tentatively, with little sign of pride, satisfaction, or confidence. You answer questions carefully to avoid any possibility of offense. In short, you become a sheepish follower, afraid to put yourself out there. If you're asked about growth, for example, you might simply state, "We managed to grow revenues by 15%, in line with expectations."
You can still be respectful, though, while putting your best self out there for those in authority to see. You’re proud of your ideas and accomplishments, and you’re not afraid to say what you really think—tactfully and within reason, of course. All this takes is being open, forthright, and authentic, which isn't always easy to do in tricky business situations.
But the main the idea here is to respect others' leadership while showing that you have leadership potential as well. If you're asked about growth, you might instead say, "By launching a major promotion, we were able to deliver on our commitment of 15% revenue growth." Same information, totally different message.
When you show deference, you give the impression that you lack self-esteem. You might stand awkwardly, looking down or off to the side. You hesitate before answering questions out of fear you might say the wrong thing. You mentally rehearse your answer, choosing the right words and the right approach, often adding fillers that undercut your credibility, like "um" and "uh." You appear to lack confidence.
When you show respect, though, you choose your behaviors based on a positive feeling about who you are. You stand tall, making frequent eye contact and speaking with conviction. You welcome questions because you believe in your ideas and your ability to execute them. You answer immediately, without editing your words, trusting yourself to share your ideas and beliefs. This way you appear self-assured but not arrogant.
You'll know you're being too deferential when your voice is flat, your expression is slack, and you're holding your hands together. You're too emotionless and "buttoned-up."
Being respectful doesn't preclude you from projecting a feeling of warmth—it actually depends on it. Your voice should be resonant, not too nasally and not too gravelly. When you speak, sound should resonate in your mouth as opposed to in your nasal passages or throat. To see what this feels like, make an "mmm" sound with your lips, and say the word "me."
Another way to project a feeling of warmth is to gesture with movements that come from your whole body. This might feel too over-the-top depending on the situation, but the key is to show enthusiasm within reasonable limits. You don’t want your hands to be flippers whirling crazily through the air; you want your arms to thrust forward with your body, in one fluid motion. If you’re able to connect your messages with natural gestures, you'll communicate openness and authenticity without overdoing it or looking forced.
Finally, when you show deference it's often because you have a losing mind-set. You feel intimidated by somebody else's position, authority, and power. You get smaller. It’s like playing against a tennis player who's way better than you—what chance do you have? You can try a little, but what's the point?
When you show respect, on the other hand, you aren't cowed. You have the mind-set of a winner. You feel challenged by their position, authority, and power—in a way that motivates you to show what you've got. You get bigger. It’s like playing against a superior tennis player, but one who isn't so much better that they'll crush you no matter what. You up your game and go for it.
If you're presenting a proposal to senior leaders, don't be so cautious that you only talk about immediate impacts and hedge your statements with caveats. Confidently explain why your proposal has such a tremendous upside and could open doors for the company down the road. You can do that respectfully without going overboard, and erring on that side—showing enthusiasm and confidence—may actually be a safer bet than showing deference.