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ATD Blog

Teaching Respect for Context

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Respect for context: Reading and adapting to the existing structure, rules, customs and leadership in an unfamiliar situation.

Before any managers can possibly succeed at practicing good followership, they must develop a fundamental respect for context. They must learn to read and appreciate and accept and embrace adapting to the existing structure, rules, customs and leaders in an unfamiliar situation.

There are really only two ways employees can choose to go in a new job: fit in or stand out. Too often, their inclination is to stand out.

Managers often tell us that today’s new young employees seem like they suffer from a fundamental lack of context. Yes, this is partly a function of youth: Young people have less life experience than older people and thus fewer points of reference to compare circumstances, people, and relationships. Context is all about these points of reference. So lack of context goes with being in the first adult life stages.

But there is much more going on here. Research indicates that employees have a very particular contextual bias when they enter an established institution with adult authority figures. For most employees, the most familiar context of adult supervision is their experience with parents and teachers and counselors—adult authority figures in highly supportive caretaking roles.


In fact, today’s young employees very much appreciate and respect age and experience. After all, they have been the beneficiaries of an extraordinary level of nurturing in their relationships with adults—more than any generation in history, by some estimates. This does not result in a particular deference to authority or acquiescence to established norms and structures. Rather, they are quite accustomed to child-centric contexts in which their feelings, words, and actions have usually been accorded a huge amount of attention by adult authority figures.

Their relationships with adult authority figures have largely been defined in terms of the dedication, commitment, and service of the adults toward the children, not the other way around. Their preferences have been given much weight, and their opinions have been given much airtime in discussions. Misbehavior has been diagnosed instead of punished. Their accomplishments have been celebrated with glee.


As a result, today’s young workers often enter the workplace with the expectation that they will now be cared for, not be ordered around. Of course, the problem is that, in this context, you are paying them, not the other way around.

The good news is that today’s young workers understand transactional relationships. They know what it means to be the customer. They might just have to be reminded that, in this situation, they are not the customer. Their employer is the customer. As their manager, you are not claiming to be superior to them in any kind of absolute sense. You are not claiming to be higher on the food chain in the cosmos. You just need to make the context clear to them. In other words, you need to clarify that “in this role, in this job, in this chain of command, in this organization, you are the leader and they are the follower.” What’s more, if they want to belong here, this is how you understand, accept, embrace, and adapt to their place in the structure, rules, customers, and leadership.

Teaching employees to develop respect for context means getting them to realize that work is situational and their roles in any situation is determined in large part by factors that have nothing to do with them. There are preexisting, independent factors that would be present even if they were not, and these factors determine the context of any situation.

The key is making it clear from the outset that, if they want to be set up for success in this situation, step one is learn to read and adapt to the existing structure, rules, customs, and leaders in this situation.

About the Author

Bruce Tulgan is a bestselling author and the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, a management research and training firm. He is the author of numerous books, including It’s Okay to Be the Boss; Not Everyone Gets a Trophy; and The 27 Challenges Managers Face. His newest book, The Art of Being Indispensable at Work, is due for release in the summer of 2020 from Harvard Business Review Press. You can follow Bruce on Twitter @BruceTulgan or visit his website at

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