Respect for People: it’s a Test, not a Pillar

On Monday at LKNA13, I ran an ignite talk on the title above. It was prompted by a video clip of John Seddon talking to Jeffrey Liker, suggesting that running interventions to make people more respectful might not be a good idea.

I partly agree with him. What is that we really want from our teams and our people? Tom Gilb has what he calls a “mafia offer” where you have to choose which of two things you value to sacrifice. I propose this related thought experiment:

Imagine that all the scientific data told you that the right way to get knowledge workers delivering was by brow-beating, yelling and command-and-control. What would you do as a manager or change agent? Would you focus on respect, or delivery? Which is actually more important?

Fortunately, we don’t have to make the choice. It turns out that the right thing to do is also the nice thing to do. All the good practices for delivering software tend to be respectful.

Yet we do make that choice, intuitively. A lot of the time, I see managers and change agents focusing on respect in order to get delivery. What if we turned that around? What if focusing on delivery could generate respect?

What is respect anyway?

Douglas Hubbard, in his talk on “How to measure anything”, proposed two questions:

  • Why do we care?
  • What do we observe when we have more of it?

I care about respect because it helps us get better outcomes. That doesn’t necessarily mean making people happy; I don’t believe that happiness is a good test.

I observe that respectful communication is focused on outcomes, or on options: either offering options to others, or explicitly retaining them. I observe that this tends to happen through forgiveness and transparency. I find that knowing about people’s constraints is useful. I find that respectful communication tends to be reflective, too, which matches the etymology of respect: it comes from the Latin specere or spicere meaning to look, so  it literally translates as “look back” or “look again”.

Conversely, disrespectful communication seems to happen more when constraints are unknown or non-existent, the system is unforgiving, and desired outcomes are unclear.

This maps very nicely to Dan Pink’s aspects of motivation: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Autonomy can only happen when people have the skills to do the job, and the constraints on them are just enough to allow them to organize to do it. Mastery happens when a system is forgiving enough to allow people to learn. Purpose happens when we share outcomes transparently. So respect and motivation are heavily linked.

But wait! I’ve just described a system of skilled people, learning together to find out what outcomes are desired and what the right thing to do might look like.

That looks an awful lot like software delivery anyway. Maybe the most respectful thing we can do is to get out of people’s way and let them get their job done?

Some systems encourage disrespect

In a system which encourages disrespect, we have to act as individuals if we want respect, and that intervention may not actually be rewarded.

Any system which has a lack of constraint (so people may not be skilled enough to act within it), a lack of forgiveness (so people cannot reverse decisions easily or take back their mistakes) and a lack of transparency (so desired outcomes cannot easily be known), is likely to cause disrespect.

Readers, meet Twitter: the place in which conversation is highly public, constrained only by the character limit, and in which we can only guess at people’s intent.

I have seen more disrespectful communication over Twitter than any other medium. It’s closely followed by email, which has the same problems as Twitter while enabling us to write even more. At least with email we have the space to express our intent and to ask reflective questions.

Disrespectful communication may not help you

We sometimes tell ourselves to count to 10 before responding to someone. This is because it gives us time to think about the outcomes that might result from our response.

I do this a lot. While I count to 10, I think about the options that I might be limiting for myself; the outcome that I truly want; examples of outcomes that I might get as a result of what I’m about to say.

I’ve been told that I come across as respectful, a lot of the time (nobody’s perfect). The thing is, I don’t think of myself as being respectful. I think of this behaviour as utterly self-serving, since it allows me to make mistakes while chasing the things I want. It also helps to set up systems in which other people respond the same way, giving us all more options and clearer understanding of intent.

Disrespectful communication often burns our bridges, leaving us with no options to reverse our decisions. We do it because we’re human, but not because it’s useful.


These are highly experimental thoughts. It may be that no system is sufficient to counter the influence of those people who are determined to be disrespectful: people who hide their goals, hold grudges, and expect more from the people around them than can reasonably be given.

It’s just possible, however, that if we help to build systems which are focused, constrained, transparent and forgiving, we might actually end up helping to change those people’s behaviour as a result.

I would love to find out. So, if you behave differently as a result of this post, or set up different types of systems, please let me know what happens.

This entry was posted in complexity, feedback, real options. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Respect for People: it’s a Test, not a Pillar

  1. Pingback: Five Blogs – 3 May 2013 | 5blogs

  2. Dewey Bishop says:

    Conversely, disrespectful communication seems to happen more when constraints are unknown or non-existent, the system is unforgiving, and desired outcomes are unclear.

  3. Pingback: 140 is the new 17 | Liz Keogh, lunivore

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