Too often I hear people talking about respect with tolerance as if they were the same thing. If you think about it, they are actually quite different.

As a positive way to start to the year, US News and World Report recently featured an article on 50 Ways to Improve Your Life in 2009. Coming in at #37 was Practice Spreading Tolerance. The article suggested that with the recent election of Barack Obama, a backlash may soon follow. Traditionally, when advances are made in race relations, like the recent selection of the first African-American President of the United States, there is almost always a negative reaction, however small.

“So what to do?” the article asks. Practice spreading tolerance its authors suggest.

But is this the best answer? Maybe not. Spreading tolerance misses the point. Tolerance by itself is a passive reaction to differences, whether racial, moral, intellectual or otherwise. By being tolerant of others, you are actually doing nothing but agreeing to coexist without active hostility. In the workplace that could mean, simply acknowledging other people’s differences yet doing nothing else to support them. Admittedly, this is better than being openly hostile, gossiping or sabotaging colleagues, but, it’s still far short of what we’re capable of.

A better option is respect. It’s a more active and positive response that requires dialogue between colleagues. Moving toward respect and a respectful work environment requires that you not only tolerate but learn about others who are different and honestly consider their points of view. Respect begs us to ask questions and really listen to the answers and, most of all, not judge colleagues who see things differently than we do. Yes, respect requires tolerance as a starting point. But an open mind by itself is like a blank canvas that never benefits the creativity of the artist’s brush.