I was in the middle of my 12th year as a United States Secret Service Special Agent when I learned a valuable lesson about respect.
Having spent the first eight years of my career in the New York Field Office working complex criminal investigations, undercover operations, and conducting interviews and interrogations as part of the agency’s elite polygraph unit, I was now working in the White House assigned to the Presidential Protective Division (PPD) for President Barack Obama.
In late Spring of 2012, I was at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. President Obama was scheduled to arrive in a few days to give the commencement speech to the graduating class of Air Force cadets. For this visit, I was one of the agents from the Presidential Protective Division Advance Team; a group of agents who arrive ahead of the president to set up all the security defenses needed to protect him. This typically meant thwarting a potential assassination attempt, terrorist attack, chemical biological event, air assault or a natural disaster - just to name a few scenarios.
My assignment that week put me in charge of securing the entire outer perimeter of the event, which was being held in Falcon Stadium. With a graduating class of more than 1,000 and a crowd estimated at 29,000 there were a lot of “what ifs” and moving parts I was responsible for. I was in charge of managing and mitigating, not only for the president, but for all those in attendance as well. In other words, I was responsible for everyone’s safety and well-being.
For my advance team and I to do our job effectively, we were to work closely with officials of the Air Force who had access to the entire military base and all its resources. As several Secret Service team members and I gathered for our initial meeting and walk through to discuss our security plan, one of the senior base commanders from the U.S, Air Force Academy stopped by to say hello. He walked over to our group as we stood in a semi-circle shoulder to shoulder. I was fourth in line (our rank was mostly the same - all special agents just different responsibilities - I just happened to be in charge of the overall exterior security plan for that event which meant I had a greater level of responsibility and was more in a leadership role), and the commander proceeded down the line shaking hands.
“Hello, nice to meet you,” he said to the first agent. This polite exchange continued with the second and third agents. “Hello …,” “Hello …” When he got to me, he purposely lowered his arm, stepped past where I was standing, then raised his arm again to shake the hand of the next agent, and the agent after that, and so forth.
Skipping me was not a mistake on his part. Nor was it a simple oversight. As he sized up the group standing there, he must have decided I was not of any importance to receive his attention. Perhaps he assumed I was a junior White House staff member. Perhaps he thought I was the administrative assistant or junior clerk. Or perhaps it was because I was the only female on the team. Regardless of the reason, he had chosen to dismiss me in front of my peers and his subordinates. And everyone saw it.
I remember having this flash moment of internal dialogue, “Did he just do that?” “I think he just did.” “Yes, he did. And he did it on purpose. What an assh*le.” So now I had a few choices to consider. I could step forward, extend my hand, and introduce myself. I could tell my military colleague to tell his boss who I was. I could call him out and ask him why he skipped me. I could contact my supervisors back in Washington, D.C. and complain. Or … I could do absolutely nothing.
So, I chose. I did nothing.
Because I wasn’t there for him. I was there to complete my mission. And that mission was to make sure I kept the president and everyone else at that commencement ceremony alive. My job was to preserve human life; not worrying about why this Air Force official didn’t shake my hand.
We have a limited cognitive and emotional capacity. That means the more we add to our plate the more fragmented and less effective we become in our performance. Our focus doesn’t expand, it gets scattered. And I had no luxury or time to care about a social slight.
Had I spent the next several days trying to win him over, I would have been less focused on my job, which had far greater implications than a snubbed greeting. He may not have thought I was relevant at that moment, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t. I knew who I was and what I was there to do. I also knew that soon enough he was going to find out who was actually in charge - me.
We women often spend so much of our time spinning our wheels, wondering why a person doesn’t like us. We over-analyze what we may have done wrong or what we should do differently. On and on it goes.
I’m going to share a secret with you. You can jump through all the hoops. Crush it at work. Outperform everyone. People please at nauseum and in the end – they may still not give you respect.
You know why? Because respect is a gift. If someone wants to give it to you, they will. And if they don’t, they won’t. That’s it. It's not something you can force. It's not something you can always earn. And it is not something you can always change.
When someone disrespects you, the first question you should ask yourself is, “Do I really need their respect?” If the answer is “no” and most of the time it is, then focus your attention on what matters most. Not everyone is capable of appreciating your worth. And you should never let anyone lessen your value just because they can’t see it.
What I’ve learned is that most of the time, being disrespected by someone says more about their character than it does about yours. Maybe they don’t like you because of your gender, race, ethnicity, or social status. Maybe your skillset, appearance, or passion threatens their identity. Maybe you simply look like someone they don’t like. Whatever the “maybe,” none of it you can change. It’s their issue, so don’t make it yours.
Stop wasting your time and energy on people who don’t matter, or on opinions that are flawed or irrelevant. Stay focused on your goals, on what you’re doing and why it matters. And don’t let the noise distract you from your mission.
Throughout this assignment my path with the Air Force commander crossed multiple times, whether in the briefings I held, the security measures I put in place, or the deferment of his personnel and other officials to my authority. Without me needing to ever say anything it became clear to him that I was in command.
I didn’t need this senior base commander’s “respect” to do my job or to acknowledge my position. I knew my title, my purpose, and the caliber of my work, as well as the value I brought.
So, focus on your mission, on being excellent and consistent, on carrying yourself with dignity and grace – not looking to someone outside of yourself to define your worth.
The only person who can affect your performance is you. No one else. Find freedom in knowing this and let go of your need to feel “respected.”
The only respect you need is your own.
Evy Poumpouras is a Former Special Agent and interrogator with the United States Secret Service, and author of the best-selling book "Becoming Bulletproof: Protect Yourself, Read People, Influence Situations, and Live Fearlessly." She is an adjunct professor of Criminal Justice and Criminology and media commentator covering national security and crime. Evy holds an MA in Forensic Psychology and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University.