What Does Respect for People Actually Mean?

“Respect for People” is a great short hand statement. There is a great deal of complexity packed into those words.

At the simplest level respect for people requires systems that are designed with people in mind – systems are not designed as though robots were doing what people did. Then those systems also must be built in a way that respects the inherent value of people.

photo of construction site in Mongolia, 1980s

Construction site in Mongolia in the 1980’s, photo by Bill Hunter.

And the idea builds beyond that and grows into an understanding that in order for human systems to be most effective they must engage people. There are significant limits to how effective systems with people can be if you act as though people are just robots to implement the instructions given by some boss. Respect for people moves from being about just the inherent value of people themselves to a principle to allow organizations to be most effective.

Within these principles are all sorts of shades of grey where the principles shed light on ideas to consider but it becomes challenging to know what the specific situation calls for.

Things also get complicated with the way English works. There is another aspect to respect that has to do with having confidence in someone’s ability or maturity.

You don’t show more “respect for people” by overestimating them. If someone does not have the statistical skills to do a task it isn’t a failure of “respect for people” to acknowledge that.

I find myself making decisions on how to treat people differently based on what can be seen as different “respect” (in the respect = confidence in their capabilities and their self-confidence). With some people I can simple say, no you are wrong in this case it is best to do x, y, z. I find this is what I can do with those I have the most of the “respect” for their emotional intelligence.

Some people have a tendency to take things personally instead of simply understanding we are debating an idea. I have less “respect” (in the confidence in their ability sense) for those people but as I believe in the principle of “respect for people” I must factor in their feelings, desires and capabilities and interact with them based on how they will take things. I personally find it much easier if statements, opinions, proposals people disagree with can just be debated without people taking expressing a contrary opinion as a sign of disrespect.

Some people will also take requests for data or evidence to support a claim as “dis-respect.” I find this to be a faulty view.

I think there is often a misunderstanding by some that think “respect for people” means not making anyone uncomfortable, which is a flawed view, in my opinion. They sometimes view being challenged as not “respecting their view.” This often can disrespect the majority of people by allowing those that are most aggressive about expressing displeasure with being challenged to improve (to grow and learn, to practice evidence based management, to follow standard procedures, to coach other employees more effectively…) being allowed to continue without improving. This results in everyone else having to cope with their stubbornness. This disrespects most people in order to avoid confronting one person. That is not practicing respect for people.

Related: Respect for EveryoneToyota, Respect for People (or “Humanity”) and LeanLong Term Thinking with Respect for PeopleRespect People by Creating a Climate for Joy in Work

photo of painting - De Style

De Style by Kerry James Marshall. Photo by John Hunter at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Another incorrect way to look at respect for people is to think that means we shouldn’t place limits on people. It is not disrespectful to me to tell me I cannot perform surgery. I don’t have the necessary skills. That is an obvious extreme. But it is perfectly appropriate anytime an employee doesn’t have the necessary skill or experience to prevent them from taking on some responsibilities.

A good management system will work with employees to provide them opportunities to gain knowledge, skills and experience that will allow them to take on additional responsibilities. But it is perfectly wise to have limits on people.

A similar mistake is made when manager “trust” my employees to figure it out. It is good not to micro-manage. It is bad to throw employees into situations they are not adequately prepared for and say that it is “respect” for their abilities that prevents you from helping.

Respect for people requires managers to use judgement and provide enough coaching while not micro-managing. It requires giving employees room to grow while not using that as an excuse to just put them in situations beyond their ability to succeed. It requires a manager to challenge employees to improve and grow while supporting them and helping them when appropriate. Managing with respect requires balance and iteration. Managing with respect for people is “high-touch”; managers need to be in the gemba and know all the capabilities and strengths (and weaknesses) of their team. The span of control (number of employees they are responsible for) is normally much lower in a organization concerned with respect for people.

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