Saturday, February 12, 2011

Being respected vs. being liked

At the military school where I work, we have periodic "makes" for the cadets to be promoted in rank and/or changed in position. This can be a tough time for the boys who don't get the position they had hoped to get, because there are more boys than there are positions. Although we try to move people around to different positions, we also try to run something of a meritocracy, putting boys in positions that are not just good for them but also for the unit.

Without going into the details of it, one of the issues that came up is that some boys in the unit are well liked by their peers but not well respected. That is to say, the cadet in question may make them laugh or be "a good guy," but for one reason or another, they don't respect him. And when I look around, I see a number of guys like that.

This dichotomy came up again recently in a meeting with my fellow counselors. We had been asked to read an article about how peer pressure affected teens, causing them to take more risky behavior--and an important point here was that the pressure wasn't even of the "hey, you should do this" variety, it was the sort of pressure that exerts itself merely by the subject being watched by his or her peers. In other words, they are trying to conform to what they think will make their peers like them. In a more anecdotal bit, the article noted that "some real-world driving data suggests that teenage boys take more risks behind the wheel when one or more boys are in the car, but drive more carefully if they are with a girlfriend." In other words, it's not so much that teens automatically influence each other negatively but that the perceived expectations of what will impress one's peers has an effect.

What I see at my school is that we have competing ideas of cool, and I think what it boils down to is the difference between being liked and being respected. Some kids are desperate to be liked, to be "cool," and they tend to express that through making jokes (sometimes when they should be more serious), through putting others down, through risky behavior, etc. At the same time, our military system puts an emphasis on character and virtue, and so there exists as well a competing set of values that amount to respect, and this is based on showing good character, on doing one's job, on showing respect to others, and the like. These aren't completely separate, of course: kids may well try to have it both ways and may find a way to succeed.

In a sense, perhaps they always are. Depending on who they're around or how broadly they're thinking at any given moment, aren't most kids trying to please multiple constituencies: their friends, their teachers, their parents, their minister or priest, etc? They may weight different people differently and not even try to impress some of them at all, but I think it's fairly common. That's why, of course, parents don't see their children the same way that their peers do or they way their teachers do: because the kids are not showing everyone the same thing. It's not just kids, of course: we all show different sides of ourselves in different situations.

Given this, perhaps my dichotomy of being liked vs. being respected is too simplistic, but it still seems like a valid distinction, and I want to take it further to suggest that a mark of maturity is that we become more concerned with being respected than with being liked. The two are not mutually exclusive, but it's important to recognize that, well, sometimes they are. Putting it in the context of teaching, one might be very well liked by a class if one were to assign very little homework, give high grades, and do very little real work in class, but the teacher would not be well respected. Not all students make the distinction, I realize, but enough do. In fact, many students are pretty discerning: respect is also not conferred just for being difficult. In the case of teaching, things like fairness, accessibility and helpfulness, clarity of explanations and expectations, knowledge of content, not giving mere busy work: all of these things and more go into whether a teacher is respected. My point, though, is not to go into the particulars but just to note that a mature person in teaching or any other profession will be more concerned with being respected than with being liked.

Even as I type this, however, I know there are fields where this is not necessarily true: where being liked, being chummy with one's superiors, is actually more important than doing a good job, of striving for respect. But the fact that some institutions are broken and allow people with under-developed character into powerful positions does not change the greater importance that a mature person of character will place on respect over mere likability, and those of us who are involved in the education of children either as teachers or as parents should be working to help them move toward that more mature basis for judging themselves and their peers. The more we do so, the greater the extent to which they will form subcultures that push their members in exactly that direction. Which, of course, makes our jobs a lot easier.


  1. Okay, it's not so much being liked vs being respected, it's not an oppositional dichotomy. It's simply that the mature person of character will--IF the two are in conflict--choose actions that earn respect as opposed to those that merely lead to being liked.

    These differences, too, depend upon the moral maturity of the audience. Different observers will like or dislike, respect or feel contempt for, different actions.

  2. It is disgustingly common for someone to impose fear and inspire hatred while crowing about earning respect.

  3. Ah, the Willy Loman dilemma...the idea that being well-liked should lead to success. It is a balancing act. Sometimes it is hard for kids to understand that people in authority place the restrictions and high expectations they place on them with the kids' best interests at heart, but in the end, they usually figure that out. As your previous commenter noted though, those who demand respect for selfish reasons are generally despised by those they have authority over.

  4. I don't know how common it is, but it speaks to the fact that "respect" has two pretty common meanings that are relevant here, one which is close to "fear" and the other which is more like "admire." If it isn't obvious, I was aiming at the second meeting. But that's not to say that people don't confuse the two. Part of my role as an educator is to foster the one and discourage the other. As Paula notes, there are also some natural feedback loops that push back against that kind of leadership style.

  5. I see much of what you're talking about with younger students (3, 4, and 5 year olds), too. Kids who are able to choose to do what is 'respectable' or moral, especially if it doesn't garner others' friendship, seem to have a combination of self-reliance, self-confidence, empathy, and an intrinsic drive or motivation that other, 'less mature' kids haven't developed. What's baffling to me is that there are very few predictors as to who will choose which path and very few (if any?) strategies that help guide all students towards that type of maturity. As with all teaching/parenting situations, what works one time for one kids has no guarantee of ever working again for the same kid or for anyone else. Thanks for your post. Much good stuff to ponder!