One of the two pillars of the Toyota Way and central to lean culture, respect for people is often misunderstood by outsiders. Many think that respect is only about listening to peoples’ ideas, empowering them to have a say in how the work should be done, and creating personal autonomy in the workplace. These concepts are certainly part of the respect for people mindset but miss an essential element.
“Having high respect for people is much simpler than actually demonstrating that respect…”
To understand what’s missing, take a moment to complete this simple exercise; write down the name of a person for whom you have great respect. It might be a teacher, boss, parent, coworker or friend. Now think about what you respect in this individual, and about your relationship. With this person in mind, answer the question, “If you respect someone, do you expect more from them or less?”
The gap is now obvious. When you respect someone, you expect more from them. A lot more. You expect better ideas, more integrity, stronger performance, faster improvement, fewer errors, and seamless teamwork.
I’ve never met a person who says they don’t have high respect for people, but what’s important for a leader is how much they demonstrate respect for people, not what they believe. There are many reasons why our behavior sometimes conflicts with our belief: organizational culture, formal policy, or pressures of the moment. For example, my friend might believe that texting while driving is never a good idea. But if he texts just this “one time” to let me know he’s running late, it’s his behavior that causes the accident, not his beliefs. So, what does respect for people look like in behavior? Let’s look at a comparison.
Having high respect for people is much simpler than actually demonstrating that respect consistently in your behavior. I’ve worked with many good people who have true concern for those they work with, and for their growth and development. However, watching one of your direct reports struggle with a problem when you already know the answer, is not easy. It requires a fixed belief that they will be better off in the long run if they figure this one out on their own. It also requires you to put the learning and growth of this individual ahead of the need for speed in solving the immediate problem. In addition, you have to consider the risk associated with the learning curve in each situation. Letting your child touch the hot stove might be the best way for them to learn about that hazard, but you would probably not let them play in traffic to learn the dangers of an oncoming bus.
With the idea of respect for people in mind, pay attention to your own interactions with those around you for one day. Are you mostly asking questions, or giving direction? Do you favor quick results ahead of capacity building? Are you sacrificing the long-term development of your team to meet short-term key performance indicators?
Like all aspects of lean, demonstrating respect for people takes practice, and is not an all-or-nothing prospect. Leading with a focus on respect for people is a skill that is learned over time and improves with practical application. Take an honest look at your own behavior and challenge yourself to demonstrate more respect for people. Practice by making small, gradual changes in your habits. Over time, you’ll find the shift creates a more empowered team that is capable of much more than you are currently giving them credit for.