The Importance of Etiquette and Respect in Leadership

12pivotpoints leadership Sep 15, 2023
etiquette and rrespect as 2 fundamentals for successful leadership

You have probably never seen a real and legitimate successful leader look away from you when they’re talking to you, blow their nose on a napkin, talk through someone’s speech, wipe their nose on their sleeve, wear jeans to a formal meeting, forget peoples’ names, or other such unpleasant behaviours.

The reason is simple – they know and practice business and social etiquette because it matters.

If you saw someone doing those or other unpleasant things you would feel less strongly toward them and probably respect them less or not at all.

Respect for the leader is a characteristic that the leader can control through their own behaviours. Etiquette is exactly the same – play nice, play fair, play polite and play the social expectation – and you can’t go wrong.

People’s expectations of a real leader are that they are nice, respectful and have a sense of etiquette that is also respectful. Play to that expectation.

Just to be clear, the etiquette of business or the organisation is the manners and behaviours that professionals and those who interact with them consider as safe and appropriate for their context. That means colleagues, employees, partners, suppliers, shareholders, and customers.

By having and practicing conventional business etiquette “rules”, it helps build and maintain strong professional relationships and a work environment with a platform of common understanding – and the leader is at the pinnacle of this hierarchy of acceptable behaviours.

If the leader fails to demonstrate strong etiquette and respectful behaviours, then why should anyone else?

The environments for leaders to behave with strong etiquette standards and respect vary. Leaders, probably more than anyone else in the organisations, are normally active outside the confines of the organisation representing the firm to other organisations and bodies. This is normal, and therefore requires the effective adoption of etiquette rules and social expectations in all their interactions.

Having said that, it is important to note that as leaders traverse multiple cultures in their work, they will find that expected etiquette standards might vary between their “home base” and other societies. There are significant differences in etiquette in Western societies compared to, say, China, Korea, Japan, the Middle East, Africa, and so on.

Becoming familiar with the etiquette rules and expectations of the contexts that leaders are about to visit is not only “nice to do”, but essential.

Because leaders commonly do much of their business in informal settings, each setting carries with it the adherence to etiquette rules and expectations.

In the work environment, if you are a worker, you will read, ask, or observe the appropriate etiquette rules for that context.

If you are the leader, you should review, modify, or set the etiquette standards for the work context to which employees are expected to adhere.

A lot of leader time is around the breakfast, lunch or dinner table being sociable or talking business. The leader, therefore, must adhere to the etiquette rules that relate to that context. Some of these basis rules include:

  • Read up of the context of the business meal etiquette if you are in an unfamiliar context.
  • Place napkin on lap when you are seated.
  • Only order items in a similar price bracket to your dining companions especially the host. If you are the host, expect the others to reflect your choices.
  • Wait until everyone receives their food before you start eating.
  • When you pass share plates or condiments, pass the from left to right rather than reaching across the table.
  • Chew with your mouth closed (believe it or not).
  • Try not to talk with food in your mouth.
  • Be aware that people (and maybe you) who have just had food in their mouth may “propel” food particles as they start talking. If someone propels something in your direction, then ignore it. If it lands conspicuously, gently, and slowly remove it and make no comment. If it was you doing the propelling, then apologise, help them remove the propellant from the clothes and continue. If you have propelled onto a woman, then be careful what you brush.
  • Don’t snap your finger at your server. (Remember, that many judge others by the way they treat those who work for them.)
  • When the meal is over, fold the napkin and place it to the left of the plate, with cutlery together diagonally across the plate. Note that in other cultures, there are different acceptable behaviours – learn what they are.
  • Thank the host as you leave.

There is also an etiquette perspective that relates to being seen as a professional, acting like a professional, and expecting members of the organisation to also behave professionally.

Professionalism essentially means acting in a productive, inclusive, and pleasant work environment, and it includes many aspects, some of which we’ve already identified. Some of the key attributes of professionalism include:

  • If you undertake to do something, then do it. If you promise something, keep your promise. If you make a commitment, do it.
  • Do not be late for appointments.
  • To the best of your ability, stay cool, calm, and composed. If it’s a heated situation, show everyone how in-control of your emotions you can be. Set the example.
  • Be flexible with your time (as much as you are able), with meetings, and other things, to make things work. When the circumstances dictate and you need to change “stuff”, don’t complain about it. It’s the world that leaders operate within.
  • Be diplomatic with all people, whether they’re on your side or not. Be especially diplomatic with those “giving you trouble.” Remember, what’s said aloud can never be withdrawn.
  • Not everyone will agree with the leader all the time. It never happens. Comment, feedback, and criticism, (constructive and otherwise) are normal. You must accept that fact, and you must accept the criticism. If you react negatively to legitimate feedback, you will blunt the 2-way communication platform, and you kill entirely legitimate feedback. The leader must accept that they are not perfect, as no one is. Feedback and constructive criticism help the leader fine-tune their skills and the outcomes of their leadership.

In today’s world, etiquette even extends to the way we communicate with others, whether by phone or email.

Some of the things that leaders should adopt into their communication style include:

  • On the phone, speak at a suitable and calm volume – not too loudly or softly.
  • Keep your phone in your pocket or bag when you’re with others. Answering a call when you’re with others says that the caller is more important that the people you’re meeting with. Have a voice message saying you’re in a meeting an asking the caller to leave a message or call again.
  • With emails, try to respond to internal emails within 24 hours (at least as an acknowledgement of receipt and a message when the email will be addressed) and external emails within three days.
  • Professionals avoid the use of exclamation marks and emojis in emails.
  • Be careful in using “Reply All” in emails.
  • When you want person A to talk to person B, talk to both before you connect them.

When the leader speaks to someone in person, as they do regularly, there are a few etiquette tips that will help reinforce the leader’s status and avoid confusion or misunderstandings.

  • Greet everyone using their names where possible.
  • As leader, you should offer the hand for a handshake. Be aware however, of cultural norms where men and women touching are inappropriate.
  • Try not to discuss a person’s appearance as this can easily be misinterpreted. A compliment might be interpreted as an unwanted advance.
  • When the leader is speaking to someone, look them in the eye most of the time. This says to them that you’re interested in what they’re saying to you. And be interested in what they’re saying. Incidentally, if you look them in the eye 100% of the time, then you’ll scare them because that’s spooky or can be threatening.
  • Demonstrate that you’re paying attention by asking questions relevant to what they’re saying.
  • Don’t interrupt.
  • Observe the body language of the people you’re talking to and learn to interpret it.
  • To the best of your ability match the other person’s speaking volume and speed.
  • If a third-person or people enter a conversation with someone new or unknown to them, ensure that the “unknown” person is properly introduced. This avoids the “person mystery” but it also ensures that inappropriate comments are not made in front of the “stranger” for whom the comment may have impact, importance or are a breach of confidentiality.
  • Send personalised thank-you notes where relevant.

Finally, there is meeting etiquette that many commentators have discussed over many years. There are some tips that enhance leadership and demonstrate the leader’s thoughtfulness and consideration.

  • Prepare for the meeting.
  • Circulate the meeting agenda prior to the meeting to allow attendees to prepare.
  • Be aware of time zone differences of attendees. Try to avoid meetings that are too early or too late.
  • If you are scheduling a meeting over lunch, then let people know and either invite them to bring their lunch or have lunch provided.
  • Always introduce new members at their first meeting.
  • Allow attendees time to settle in before commencing the agenda (3 to 5 minutes).
  • Allow everyone to contribute.
  • Respect senior and “junior” attendees equally.
  • Be aware that if the meeting attendees are comprised of mixed authority levels, some people may be reluctant to speak in front of their manager or to be honest about some issue. If the leader suspects that an attendee might be reluctant to say something or to be forthright, then contact them after the meeting and say, “I felt you had some things to add at our last meeting but were a little reluctant to so. Can you share them with me now?”


Build or refine the etiquette standard for the organisation. Have a key HR executive be responsible for its development or refinement at the leader’s direction.

Have the final and approved Etiquette Standard added to the Staff and Induction Manuals.

The areas that need to be covered in the Etiquette standard include:

  1. The importance of punctuality.
  2. Define the dress code for the organisation, for employees in the office, factory, warehouse, outside or with clients.
  3. Remember people’s names if you can – it shows focus and care. If people in the organisation have trouble remembering names or if the organisation has many employees, then issue them name tags that they are asked to wear – including the leader.
  4. Ask people to proof their emails before they send them including whether recipients are correctly addressed or copied or blind copied. Do they need to know?
  5. Gossip is unacceptable.
  6. Keeping work area tidy.
  7. Respect the needs of colleagues and don’t behave in a manner that will disturb or upset them. If your work allows you to listen to music, then your personal headphones are permitted – as long as you can still hear the phone. Be a good neighbour.
  8. Maintain personal hygiene (hair, beards, nails, clothing, breath, etc.)
  9. Professionalism and politeness is all communications are mandatory.
  10. If you bring your lunch to work, no smelly foods that will “upset” others.
  11. DO NOT impose your dietary preferences on anyone else.
  12. If you invite others to lunch, then the person inviting pays.
  13. Demonstrate respect in shared work and recreation areas.
  14. If you use the kitchen or similar facilities, clean up after yourself.
  15. No food or items to be kept in the fridge for more than three days.
  16. Do not discuss politics – not everyone shares your view.
  17. Do not discuss religion.
  18. If you experience harassment, discrimination, or any other non-professional behaviour, then report it confidentially to the Head of HR.
  19. Attending to personal emails and other communications must be kept to urgent matters only. Personal social media activity is not permitted.
  20. Avoid mobile phones, tablets on the table at meetings. They must be placed on “silent” for the duration of the internal or external meeting. Wearable phones should be on mute.
  21. Report issues or problems but avoid being classed as a persistent complainer who fails to help resolve those issues or problems.


If you have or suspect negative responses to these issues, then your leadership or the leadership of others may be compromised.

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We’re proud to advise that the authors of this piece are Advisory & Mentoring directors.