4 myths about the principle of “Respect for People”

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on December 7, 2011 · 13 comments

The principle of Respect for People has received greater attention in the lean community over the past several years. Books, blogs, and speeches have all given attention to its importance. Both companies and customers are made up of people, and the best profits and processes in the world are not worth it if they lay waste to people in their path.

Bob Emiliani, author of Real Lean: Understanding the Lean Management System (Volume 1), added this contribution to the article:

The Respect for People principle has been an integral part of progressive management for over 100 years. Each of the pioneers realized, through trial-and-error, that this principle must be put into practice if one hopes to get material and information to flow. Without the Respect for People principle, the best one can hope to achieve is a more efficient batch-and queue processing. This principle is like an iceberg in that the visible part above the waterline comprises only a small part of the principle, and is what some managers recognize. The larger part lies below the waterline, and is therefore much more challenging for managers to grasp. Unfortunately, it has been rare to see managers who understand and practice the Respect for People principle beyond its surface-level meaning. That, plus not understanding what flow is, helps explain why Fake Lean has been so prevalent.

But respect for people means different things to different people. To some it means avoiding layoffs at all costs. To others it means giving them freedom to do whatever they want, or assume that they are right. To others it means trust. In all, I see the principle of respect for people thrown about sometimes casually, and sometimes in direct conflict of what I believe the principle is truly about.

1. Avoid conflicts

Conflict is bad. Conflict puts people on the offensive. Conflict makes people uncomfortable. Therefore we should avoid conflict.

But this is the opposite of respect for people. Conflict leads to resolution. Conflict leads to new understanding. Conflict, when managed properly, brings people together. Showing a lack of respect for people means that we don’t trust them to be able to handle conflict. We don’t trust them to be able to have adult conversations. We don’t demonstrate the respect of people by absorbing some of that discomfort that having conversations about conflict requires.

2. Be nice (above everything else)

Nice is good. Please do not interpret this to advocate being mean. But nice is about civility and politeness. I actually believe it has little to do with respect.

But the problem comes when nice is considered an essential, non-negotiable behavior, above all other behaviors. This seems to happen most often in companies where “nice” is part of the company’s mission to its customers. What happens in organizations such as these is that people are nice, but not honest; nice but not clear; nice but not opinionated; nice but not exposing problems. In fact, that is probably the worst form of nice: not surfacing a problem that exists out of niceness.

This is a similar myth to “avoid conflicts” but is different in its intention. The objective of the person who is getting respect wrong has a different motivation.

Nice is good, but respect for people is not about being nice all the time.

3. Give positive reinforcement but not corrective feedback

Again, just like nice is good, positive reinforcement is both good and effective. But the confusion is when we consider all forms of feedback must be positive feedback. We lose the valuable and effective form of corrective feedback. Both are necessary to lead, and especially to lead a change in the organization.

Corrective feedback, especially when done well and immediately, is a valuable form of learning and improvement. At a personal level (although not the only level at which this applies), positive reinforcement is about getting better at what you’re already doing well, which is worthwhile. But corrective feedback is about fixing the things that are holding you back from your potential. One without the other is simply far too limiting.

I see this being pervasive in today’s school system. We don’t want to give corrective feedback because it might dampen their spirit and isn’t “nice.” But what we are creating is a whole generation of kids that when they fail at something in the real world, they are not prepared to handle and process that feedback, which is now crushing.

If you are in the presence of an outright wrong behavior and do nothing, this is a form of endorsing that behavior. This is true culturally, and has been the case lately, also true legally. Not correcting something you see and know to be wrong makes you complicit.

4. Give people autonomy, but not accountability

Empowerment is great. Empowerment should increase with a lean transformation. But empowerment is the by-product of giving people the processes, skills, tools, and principles that allow people to make decisions in a way that is consistent with the organizational direction. It is defined and guided empowerment, not autonomy.

And it certainly isn’t abdication. In the name of respect for people, organizations want to push every decision down to the front line. This is the right direction for some decisions, but not all. Everyone is closest to some problem or process, and they are the right people to be managing and improving that process. The front-line is not in the best position to be making all of the decisions.

And it certainly doesn’t mean not holding people accountable. Yes, maintaining both accountability and empowerment is delicate. Either one applied too far with harm the other. But accountability is only dangerous when you don’t hold people accountable in a consistent manner, or if you hold them accountable for arbitrary items. Once a team has had a chance to give input, and a process is defined, leaders must hold people accountable. Not doing so creates waste. And worse, it demonstrates a lack of respect for people. Why? Because the message is “thanks for all your hard work in designing the process, but your work wasn’t important enough for me to do my part in sustaining those decisions.”

Brad Power, who works with the Lean Enterprise Institute and blogs at Harvard Business Review, added this in response to the list:

Show respect by joint problem solving. This is related to going to see, a.k.a. gemba walks. To sustain Lean transformations, you want executives to regularly go see, ask why, and show respect. A great way to show respect is for the senior person to engage in problem solving with the manager or front line worker who raises a problem. The front line worker brings local knowledge, the senior leader brings global knowledge.

I agree with Brad’s recommendation around joint problem solving. A form of this was described in Problems across boundaries require a different approach.

Respect for people sounds great. It sounds simple. Yet it is complicated and nuanced in its application. Getting respect for people wrong can be one of the more damaging situations for a lean journey, because once people declare something as done out of respect for people, it is not a simple thing to challenge it.

1 Matt Wrye December 7, 2011 at 1:48 pm

Great post! Being nice is one myth that I run up against quite a bit. People equate nice with respect and it just isn’t true. What I see is people being nice to someone and then later letting out their true thoughts behind the person’s back. This is very disrespectful. In these cases, by being nice to someone is actually working in direct conflict with respecting them enough to tell them what needs to be said.

2 Mark Graban December 7, 2011 at 2:46 pm

“Respect for people” means challenging people to perform to their peak of their ability. You certainly nailed four elements about how to make that happen.

It makes me think of the phrase “It’s better to be respected than liked.” Like you said, that’s not an excuse to be a jerk then 🙂

3 kopstar December 7, 2011 at 3:15 pm

Thanks Jamie, one of the best insights I’ve read about “Respect for People” in a work context.

For me it’s about giving people a “man sized job”, respecting the fact that you have employed someone for 8 hours with the expectation that it is filled. It’s also about challenging people to think for themselves and learn by doing – especially learning from mistakes.

Giving people an accolade for not making mistakes is a totally different outlook from challenging them because they haven’t made mistakes. This concept is alien to many managers and leaders.

Showing respect is about doing what we say and taking the hard decision when it is required, not skirting around it to be nice.

And I agree respect can easily become misunderstood.

4 Luca Minudel December 7, 2011 at 3:32 pm

I made a short research about what are disrespectful behaviors.
Here some example that I’ve found:
-Gossip, spreading rumors, speaking malicious untruths
-Offensive remarks and jokes
-Reprimanding in the presence of others
-Aggressive talks or patronizing
-Embarrassing or humiliating behavior
-Undermining, underhandedness
-Bullying, harassment and intimidation
-Misuse of someone else goods and properties
-Ignoring the needs and the limits expressed by someone
-Discrimination and racism
-Grouping or isolating
-Unwarranted physical contact
-Covert behavior, i.e. inappropriately withholding information

In general, I’m guessing, acting outside the boundaries that a person define legitimate and acceptable for a relationship at that time

When you find a better description, please let me know

5 John Hunter December 7, 2011 at 11:55 pm

Good post. While respect does mean not being dis-repsectful isn’t doesn’t mean not challenging people. If you respect someone you are more willing to challenge them to do better or challenge their idea. When you don’t respect someone you coddle them and shield them for anything questioning their views.


6 Agata Pawlukojc December 8, 2011 at 9:33 am

Excellent post Jamie! I agree with you in all 4 points. For me “respect for people” is to believe in people’s cabilities and, as Mark Graban says, challenge them to perform the best they are able to. Of course, offering support when needed and helping in their development.
I also think that it is not a good idea to give only possitive feedback both at work and to the kids. The corrective feedback is important as it is, as you say, a valuable form of learning and improving.

7 Karen Favazza Spencer December 15, 2011 at 12:25 pm

Absolutely! All great points.

Respect isn’t about being likable any more than Consensus is about Group Think. When you are working with a group of intelligent and skilled individuals in a team environment, establishing a basis of trust and processes for working through conflict is what not only grows Respect and Consensus, but also creates High Productivity and Happiness.

8 John Huner December 19, 2011 at 11:40 pm

Nice winter theme on your blog 🙂 I like the santa hat on the F and the candy cane J.

9 Jamie Flinchbaugh December 21, 2011 at 6:34 pm

Jon Miller added a great 5th myth on his blog:


Jon’s 5th myth is 5. Removing the “8th Waste” means utilizing people’s creative ideas for kaizen.

Yes, there are probably many more. Here’s another, we’ll call this #6:

You must ask and consider people’s opinions before making a decision.

No. You own certain decisions. You want to gather opinions, but the right ones. This is neither a democracy nor a collective. You were hired to make decisions. That of course doesn’t mean to make them in a vacuum. We love the RACI tool, which stands for Responsible Accountable Consult and Inform. You lay out for which decisions what inputs you’re going to gather. Some you will consult with, and some will just be informed. We find it goes over much better if you can set the standard and then at least everyone understands what it is.

10 Andrew Lee December 29, 2011 at 3:43 am

The great mistake that leaders make in relation to respect is to forget that it is a two way street – giving respect is one thing but not expecting it form others in return is a big error. This is an indication of a lack of self respect in leaders and we do ourselves a great dis-service when we do not demand similar levels of self and mutual respect form those we lead.

11 Jamie Flinchbaugh December 29, 2011 at 9:12 am

Andrew, I agree that you should expect respect back, and that respect is a two-way street. I’m not sure how you demand respect though. I think you have to earn it. You can demand compliance and obedience and more, but this doesn’t mean you get thought behaviors because of respect.

12 Ifty Khan January 2, 2012 at 7:26 pm

Basic mistake that leaders make is that they do not know the definition of respect! because people say “Yes Sir” does not mean that they respect you.
Respect is accepting the differences and admitting your own “gaps” meaning not having an answer to everything, trusting others
By showing this behaviour people will respect you but managers are so focused on fixing the problems and claiming the title of a “hero” that they loose focus and become destructive to the organization

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