Leading With Respect

Bruce Lee  by  Hom Nguyen , oil on canvas

Bruce Lee by Hom Nguyen, oil on canvas

One day, I was appointed to a new position. I'd been working for several years in this company, but this was a new role. It was created upon my suggestion, after much discussion with the Department Head. I started on a September 1st. I was ecstatic.  

In addition to me, the Department hired another person, who came from another company and was due to be my manager. I met her when she started, just one month after me, on October 1st.

Whenever people move to new roles, it is usual practice to publish a brief note advising colleagues of the change. Normally this includes information about their background, details of their role, and wishes them success. 

But my announcement would wait. The leader decided that my manager should be announced before me. Why? Because her role was hierarchically higher, broader… more important. I suppose everyone around him agreed. So, I started my new role in the absence of any official welcome or acknowledgment.

Expecting to see it made official together with my manager’s, upon her arrival, I was disappointed to read that only she was welcomed in a memo to all employees, on her 1st day in the job. My announcement would wait, again. Why? Because my appointment "should appear as a management gesture” from my new manager, to "support her organizational credibility". Even though she had neither created this position, nor selected me for it.  Even though no one would believe this organizational fiction. My announcement was eventually published mid-October.

I recalled this anecdote while reflecting on leadership and respect. These are just small things. Somebody else might consider this as not important. The Department leader and his HR partners may think they were doing the right thing. I felt it was a lack of respect for me as a person, as a co-worker, as a long-time employee. Hierarchy codes, respect for the structure, came before respect for people. My enthusiasm went down a bit.

A Challenge for 21st Century Management

“What is it to lead with respect?” Lean IT coach Cecil Dijoux started the conversation in a recent blog post, upon reading about Freddy & Michael Ballé’s “Leading With Respect”.

At first sight, the answer seems obvious. Respecting people, as a leader, is about showing consideration and attention to the people you work with. It's a cultural code in civilized work places.

But the concept deserves a bit more attention, as Cecil suggests. When knowledge working and sophisticated collaboration become predominant, when the old-style industrial management culture is challenged, when large work forces are replaced by contractors and freelancers, respect could very well be the ultimate link that bonds people together in the 21st Century workplace. The core value that makes us work smoothly as a collective.

How long would you work for someone who didn't respect you? How good of a job would you deliver?  And how likely it is that it would impact your mood, your health, your social interactions? We can reasonably assume that the lack of respect plays a role in stress at work, which has important and damaging consequences on organizations, people and society.

Leading with respect is not just a matter of personal ethics. It has to show, in actual behaviors and practices. It requires a constant effort of self-awareness, self-demanding mindset, and empathy with the diversity of team members.

You can tick the “respect” box as much as you want on the company value checklist; nothing replaces everyday marks of respect to each member of your team. This daily practice is – I believe – the actual indicator of leadership, and an enabler of collective success. Here are 5 pieces of advice I would give to any wannabe leader, and the path I’m trying to follow too.  My frame may look awfully hierarchical to my readers standing away from large, traditional organizations (some people are “above”, some are “below”), but I can guarantee this is the frame that still shapes mindsets and behaviors in a majority of those organizations today.

  • Share your vision, make it truly collective. If you’d like to bring people in a certain direction, you have to let them know what it is and why you’d like to go there. Explain, explain, explain again. With your brain and your heart. It doesn't mean your vision alone should prevail. Your team members, and people reporting to them, may have a vision too. The art of listening is in every leadership book, but it is too often one way. Challenging the boss is still badly perceived (or totally unheard of in some cultures); and that’s where complacency begins. You really don’t want your organization to “overflow with complacency” [J. Kotter].

  • Elevate people. It starts with choosing trust: in principle people are here to make a good job. Treat them as adults. Avoid corporate speak, speak real. They can understand. Put the brakes on Communication’s tendency to produce happy talk. Invest in your people’s education and development, instead of locking them in what they master well today. This is your responsibility as a leader, but also your best investment for setting a culture of continuous improvement. As a leader, you’re supposed to “coach” your people. Expect to learn from them too: from their own knowledge, wisdom, and challenges. You grow as a leader because they’re here. Be grateful. Tell them. Remember you have a special duty to the people who report to you, because in hierarchical systems you are still the main filter across which they are perceived by the rest of the organization.

  • Connect as human beings across hierarchical levels. Leave the power attributes aside. Resist the “Sun King’s court” which happens spontaneously around leaders. Create opportunities to diversify the people you talk, have coffee or lunch with, beyond those who report to you. No, you won't "hurt the feelings" of their manager or undermine their role if you talk to all team members. You can choose to support a network culture that means: efficiency, and cultivate human-to-human relationships that mean: respect. You can also share the people’s feelings, especially when they face change or Kafkaesque experiences from bureaucracy or uncollaborative behaviors (these things happen). And don’t just listen: help. Know when to remove a process that adds little value, fight for the simplification of organization, free your people from “unnecessary interdependencies”.

  • Show 360° respect. We've talked about top-down respect, but it actually goes in all directions. Respecting people above seems normal (and a good life insurance in the corporate world); but respect is not sycophancy. Leading with respect goes with the courage of fighting for your projects – and your people – if you believe they bring value. To swallow bitter pills one after another from your management doesn't make you a better leader. At peer level, leading with respect is to consider people outside of your silo, and to understand they view the world from a different angle. What would you do if you were in their shoes? It’s also to respect contributors who belong to other companies. Suppliers are not slaves, nor "dumb suppliers". If they produce a poor answer to a brief, well maybe the brief was not well designed. You can choose a productive partnership culture.

  • Control your ego. This one is a discipline more than a practice; but it has great practical consequences. Remember your leadership position doesn't give you more value than any other person as a human being. Acknowledge the element of luck that brought you here. Hard work and cleverness certainly played, among other factors (a good education, or a powerful mentor, favorable circumstances, being born healthy in a safe country… ) that owe little to your merits. People reporting to you or below are not less smart than you; they may simply have not had the same share of luck. It’s not enough to ostensibly greet the cleaning lady when she comes pick the bin: leading with respect is about being truly humble. Besides, we all make mistakes, leaders included.

A daily commitment, this is what leading with respect is to me. What are your views? What practices should come first? Let’s continue the discussion.