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Respect for People (+ 8-Page Lean PDF)

Spend any time around Lean, or any other continuous improvement methodology, for that matter, and you will undoubtedly hear the term “Respect for People.”

It is a simple concept that should act as a moral compass in how people do business.

The fact is that a company does not have to be respectful of its employees and customers in order to be successful. Some can treat their workers and clients with disdain and a lack of respect and still remain profitable…for a while, at least. In the end, it turns out that being respectful is not only the right thing to do, but is also good for business.

Search the internet, and you will find a plethora of studies that show that last statement to be true. Companies that are on Fortune Magazine’s “Best Places to Work” list outperform other companies. A 2008 by study Alex Edmans of Wharton showed the BPTW companies averaged a 13.9% return vs. 6.1% for the broader market from 1998 to 2006. Sears conducted a study which went even further and linked employee satisfaction to customer satisfaction, and ultimately a tangible increase in profitability.

The short of it is that if you treat people right, the bottom line rewards you. Plus, most people will sleep better at night knowing that they improved the lives of the people they work with rather than simply harvest production from them.

Unfortunately, the actual application of the term “respect for people” can be less than perfect.

Leaders can feel pressure that makes them act in ways that put short term gains first. Or, they might simply not know a better way to do business.

Fortunately, a continuous improvement system has proven time and time again to be a great way to build a culture that values the contributions of the members of its team and strengthens the organization as a result.

While respect for people is important in all relationships, in the context of Lean, it is most often used synonymously with ‘respect for employees’. This article deals primarily with that aspect of it, but it is also important to show similar respect to customers and leaders.

In both of those cases, though, the power structure in place tends to push respectful behavior. Treat a customer disrespectfully, and they will take their business elsewhere. Treat a manager disrespectfully, and you may find yourself looking for a job.

So, because both of those groups are generally self-policing, let’s focus on employees. Keep in mind, though, that a manager wears two hats. While he is in charge of his team, he also has a boss who is in charge of him. He can suffer the symptoms of a disrespectful work environment, just as an employee can.

People are motivated by a variety of things. Some are intrinsically motivated, and act the way they do because of a deep-seated belief system. Others tend to be more extrinsically motivated, and respond more to external pressures than to what is inside of them.

In many cases, the extrinsic pressures create the conditions that make it hard to show respect for people. When a boss is facing a crisis and is under stress, he may not act in a respectful manner. When a leader is facing the loss of a customer, she may make unfair demands on a team member.

Let’s move on from motivation now, and talk about what respect for people actually looks like.

Being respectful does not by any means require leaders to say ‘yes’ to every demand. Strong work ethics and industrial discipline go hand in hand with respect for people.

The following items, in no particular order, are examples of ways that leaders can show respect for their employees.

  1. Provide the right tools for the job. This does not just mean physical tools. Make sure they also have the right mental tools in their kit.
  2. Provide the opportunity to be successful in a job. It must be possible to meet the established standards. If the math doesn’t add up, don’t expect magical results.
  3. Keep work at a steady, manageable pace. Don’t overwork an employee, but that doesn’t mean leaders should take it overly easy on them. Just keep in mind that a company is only paying for 8 hours or work. It shouldn’t wipe a person out for the rest of the day.
  4. Do what you say you will do. Don’t make empty promises, and don’t let other priorities keep bumping actions your team is counting on.
  5. Communicate. This means listening to ideas. Leaders don’t have to act on every idea, but they should  acknowledge them and explain the thought process when something is rejected.
  6. Be polite. Simple kindergarten manners do wonders. Don’t interrupt. Give people your full attention. Look at them when you are speaking to them. Don’t be late.
  7. Take the time to teach. We all know you are busy. But when there is a teaching opportunity, take it. Be a mentor to your team, even if it means you may be logging on later from home. That’s why you get paid the big bucks.
  8. Learn forgiveness. If you want people to try things on their own, you have to take away the risk. They won’t act if they are scared to fail. Be tolerant when people think through a plan and it doesn’t quite work out. Just coach them so they won’t make the same mistake again. You can be less forgiving for repeated mistakes, though. That shows respect for the rest of the team who will likely have to work harder as a result.
  9. When in charge, take charge. Don’t expect employees to make decisions that you are not willing to make. It is surprising how often leaders ask employees to make tough decisions they are not trained for.
  10. Give people a way to get help. When someone gets behind or has a problem, they want to know that they will be able to get help. Whether it is an andon cord (that actually gets people to come), or a daily management system, don’t leave people on an island.
  11. Approve promotions. Don’t hold people back because the process will suffer without them. If they have an opportunity for advancement (that they are qualified for), give it to them. Few things kill morale like a leader who squashes a career to keep from losing talent.
  12. Visit the gemba. A lot. Leaders can’t lead if they are not familiar with their teams. Nobody wants a decision about them made by someone they seldom meet. I even recommend that managers move their workspaces near their teams. Bosses probably need their offices a lot less than they think they do.
  13. Have a strategy. It is disrespectful to lead a team aimlessly. Have a plan and manage to it. If it is wrong, correct it, but keep your eyes on the future prize.
  14. Easy is not respectful. Challenge people and take them out of their comfort zone. Many people are unaware of all they can accomplish. Help them unlock their talents.
  15. Practice what you preach. Want a team to commit to 5S? Make sure your office is a shining example of it.
  16. Let people make choices. I recently wrote an article urging managers to treat every approval process as a leadership failure. Empower your team to not only make routine decisions, but also to try to make improvements on their own. An organization with many brains (linked to the strategy mentioned above) is far better than a group that relies on only one.
  17. Require improvement. Don’t let a team rest on its laurels. They should be encouraged to constantly improve their processes, but also to improve themselves professionally.
  18. Don’t sugarcoat. Some leaders dance around telling someone they are not performing up to standard. Don’t leave room for confusion or misinterpretation. Give your team real feedback, coupled with coaching on how to get better. Be positive and upbeat (but realistic) about potential, but make sure people are clear on where they stand. Performance reviews should be unnecessary if you are giving real feedback to your team. One more thing: don’t keep reliving a problem. Move on.
  19. Emotion matters. There is a tremendous about of emotion that is put into problems, but very little is added to rewards, thank yous, and pats on the back. People are social, and thrive on acceptance. Don’t save your leadership energy just for reprimands. Get excited about the good stuff too.
  20. Remember “WIFM?” Everybody does what they do for a reason. There has to be something in it for them to take an action. When you promote Lean or other continuous improvement principles to a team, make sure you stress how it will make their lives better, not just how it will improve the bottom line. Show that you understand your team and are keeping them in mind when you make decisions.
  21. Know what motivates your team. If a person doesn’t want to say late, it is not because they don’t care about the company. It could be because they are coaching their child’s soccer game. And when you offer rewards, make sure it is something the person values. Some like public recognition. Some would rather you just dropped off a cup of coffee and a donut at their desk for a week to celebrate their 20 year anniversary.
  22. Don’t treat everyone equally. There is a common misconception in the United States that the Declaration of Independence says that all people are equal. In truth, it says created equal. It means that people are all blessed with the same opportunity. Don’t hold back on favoring your top performers with more leeway, better opportunities, and the like for fear of upsetting the rest of the team. As a leader, you have a responsibility to reward success.

The point of that list is not to be all inclusive, but rather to give you some ideas to start breaking the mold of how a working relationship should be, especially between bosses and subordinates.

  • Don’t try to fake respect if you are a boss. Your team will see right through you, and will feel even more disrespected than if you had not even tried.
  • Don’t apply your own interpretation to situations that affect your team members. Ask them what they are thinking so you don’t start from a faulty assumption.
  • Social media is changing the nature of employment. It is easier than ever to find out how a company treats its employees. Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn all make a company’s behavior transparent. If an organization wants to attract the best talent, it has to have a great reputation. 

You deserve respect from your boss, but you also have to earn it. It is a two way street. If you don’t want to be micromanaged, you need to follow processes, and act based on facts and data.

The bottom line is that you will need to put in some effort if you want to earn more than the minimum amount of respect due every employee. The whole team should not be treated equally. That is not respectful to the people who work the hardest, or perform the best, or embrace the company’s principles.

Showing respect for your team is not only morally right, but it is also great for business. If you put all 22 of the ideas above into practice, you won’t recognize your team. They will perform beyond any of your wildest expectations.

Possibly the biggest barrier I see to respect is the “it’s only business” mentality. People justify doing things they would not normally do because it is done on behalf of the company.

Go by the “red-face rule” when taking action. If you could explain what you said or did at work to your mother, or you religious leader, or the person you are on a first date with and not have your face turn red from embarrassment, you are probably OK. There is a good chance you are acting respectfully if you can relay your actions with pride. If you would be ashamed of your actions, you failed the test of the  “red-face rule”.

  • Respecting employees has proven to be good for business.
  • Respect is in the eye of the beholder.
  • There is a minimum level of respect you should show to everyone on your team. But more respect than that is earned. Employees also have a hand in creating respect for themselves.


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Share Your Thoughts    |6 comments|

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  • STCunanan says:


    This is exactly what my boss is looking for. I’m so happy to discover your site and the tools you’ve provided for registered users. Thanks so much for this article!

  • June Jones says:

    I really like that this article takes respect to a much deeper level like training, not sugarcoating, recognizing emotions exist, and correctly rewarding on the basis of performance. All of this is about enabling the employee to be the best they can be which enables them to bring the best they can to the job. When everyone is lean and agile in their performance giving it what they’ve got willingly, success is simply an incurable side effect.

    • Jeff Hajek says:


      Exactly–respect is more than just being polite. It is about giving teams the chance to do more than just earn a living at a job. We spend far too much time working to not be fulfilled with it.

      Thanks for the comment.

  • Jeff,

    This is great list of how to show respect for people and to be a better manager. As you note, respect is in the eye of the beholder. This can go down to the individual but also varies from one plant to the next. Each culture has different norms and it’s perceived as disrespectful when a leader deviates for any reason. This can be particularly perilous for a leader coming in from another company or location. I’ve seen teams get completely up in arms over unavoidable situations even though they were being treated extremely well. Others will put up with a lot because they perceive it as true business needs and feel respected in other ways….

    Thanks for sharing.


    • Jeff Hajek says:


      I really like your thoughts on the respect issues that come from breaking cultural norms. It happens every time a company starts thinking Lean and asks for change. Has to be managed properly, or the org will suffer.

      Thanks for the comments.

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