Employee Motivation and Lean Implementation – Part 3: Lack of Respect

Motivating employees for change is tricky. What often helps is respect, but in reality the opposite is common. While managers claim that of course they respect their people, the employees feel very differently, and quite often there is a lack of respect. In this post I want to talk about this lack of respect and why it happens, before showing how to do it better in the next post.

Respect: Different Points of View

Please note that this lack of respect is not a black-and-white situation, but more of a gradual scale. Some people show more respect, other less. Naturally, there are managers and supervisors who give respect and therefore also receive it in return, but there are also lots of others who show a distinct lack of respect or even outright disdain.

Often, they don’t even notice that they are disrespectful, but are wholly ignorant regarding their behavior and how it is received. Even your actions may have come across as disrespectful in the view of the people you lead. Oh my gosh, even I may have been disrespectful toward my people without noticing it … <sarcasm> But no, no, that is completely unthinkable, and any perceptions of disrespect was clearly an error by the employees who misunderstood my noble intentions. It must be obviously their fault, not mine </sarcasm>.

You get the idea. It is hard to judge yourself. After all, it does not matter if you think you are respectful, but only if the other side thinks so. If you are unsure, please try to get feedback, preferably anonymous feedback. Many companies even have structures – for example, a 360-degree feedback (meaning your boss, your subordinates, and your colleagues). If you have the chance to do this, do it! It may not always be pleasant, but it helps you to become a better leader.

Respect Is What You Do, Not What You Say!

The loyal subjects may now approach the manager ...
The loyal subjects may now approach the manager …

If you ask any manager in any company if he respects his people, the answer will be almost always yes. If you then ask the subordinates, the answer will very often be quite different, especially if you ask blue-collar workers. Unfortunately, regarding respect for people, it does not matter what the manager thinks. Respect for people only works if the people feel respected!

In any case, actions speak louder than words. Employees are very good to observe these differences. If the manager talks about respect but cuts in the line at the cafeteria anytime (or even has his own management dining room), then there is no respect. If the manager takes credit for all successes but blames the subordinates for all failures, then there is no respect. If the manager observes processes or shows machines to visitors without saying hello or even acknowledging the workers, then there is no respect. If you think about the bosses you have worked with in the past, I’m sure you will have some colorful examples on your own.

Why “Respect” Often Fails: Hierarchy

The curious thing is, such managers tend to be very respectful to their own peers. They are (often) nice, courteous, and well behaved. With superiors often they are even able to be outright humble. It is only with “lower” employees that they show a lack of respect. In my experience there are two main factors contributing to that discrepancy in behavior.

I Am Better than You!

I am better!

First, there can be a feeling of “being better” than the subordinate. Many people put in a lot of effort to argue to themselves or close friends that they are better than others. Inevitable, they pick aspects in which they believe to be good at. No matter if it is beauty, intelligence, money, religion, or power, the common believe is that “I am prettier/smarter/richer/more religious/more powerful than you, so I am better.” It doesn’t even have to be true, the person merely has to believe it. Of course, it is rarely stated as such, but it is often an ingrained belief.

As for managers, they themselves rarely use the “pretty” or “religion” argument. More commonly it is “smart” (although this is often disputed by the employees), or rich or powerful (which is rarely disputed). Many people measure themselves and others simply by their salary level.

As for the psychology behind this, there are different views (which may vary from person to person). Some people are truly narcissistic, and love themselves more than any other. They believe they are perfect and that nobody compares to them. They are often unable to connect to others, especially if these others don’t flatter them. Having more money, power, or (perceived) intelligence will make them feel superior and better to others.

Others may feel inferior, and are in constant doubt and worry about themselves. To compensate for this inferiority complex, they may to overdo it on the superiority side. They may seek frequent validation that they are not inferior, resulting in disrespectful behavior toward subordinates.

Covering Insecurity by Trying to Dominate

Very related especially for managers is the handling of uncertainty and insecurity. Ideally, a manager is a leader, someone who has the answers and knows the path to the light. But let’s be frank, in today’s tumultuous business environment, nobody has all the answers. Modern business has risks, lots of it. Part of leadership is to be convincing even if you are not certain yourself. However, this includes the risk of being wrong.

Using hierarchy to distance yourself may be a preemptive defense mechanism against such uncertainties. Putting a divide between the manager and the employees makes it somewhat less likely for the employees to criticize him. In such examples, a command-and-control type of management style is common. Of course, employees will still criticize managers, but now more likely behind his back, and probably much more so than if open criticism is allowed.


Overall, there is often a lack of respect in industry. While open disdain is quite rare, there are a lot of subtle signs of perceived superiority, or neglect of etiquette and proper behavior. (See also my posts on Shop Floor Etiquette – Part 1 and Part 2.) Yet, if the worker feels disrespected, in turn he will also disrespect the supervisor or manager. This is actually quite common, and seems to be increasing with the more hierarchical levels there are in between. If the worker disrespects his superiors, it will be  so much more difficult to change his behavior, and therefore be so much more difficult to change and improve the system.

After all this talk about motivation and respect, I will finally get to some ways on how to show respect in my next post. Until then stay tuned, go out respect your people (really!), and organize your industry!

P.S.: This series of posts is based on a question by Curtis Rosché (name mentioned with permission).

4 thoughts on “Employee Motivation and Lean Implementation – Part 3: Lack of Respect

  1. My personal experience tells that one’s respect to others increases with age, unless your name is Donald Trump, and what you receive is what you give, no matter what it is and provided you always give first.

  2. From my personal experiences, the act of employees not embracing/ adopting change (through Lean implementation) comes from excluding employee input (and this is the disrespect that not many lean specialists understand) in their process. I’ve found that resistance to change was greatly reduced, whenever employee input was attained at the planning stage. The other option is – resistance at the implementation stage. Who will oppose a change that they have been a part of from the very beginning? Resistance comes from the lack of a 2-way communication (mutual respect).

  3. Totally describes the situation at the plant where I am working at. One of the senior managers has complete lack of respect for anyone ranking below him. He insists on enforcing a rigid hierarchy at a plant with all of 35 employees. It’s impossible to have an open door policy at a plant with 5000+ workers, but 35? Come on… Any question is typically answered with “Talk to your team lead”.

    Unsurprisingly, there is total apathy among the rank and file and the leads (who are probably told to talk to the supervisor in case of any issues). Even simple suggestions to improve the working environment are met with indifference. I’m talking stuff like me telling my lead that we could use an extra couple of radios in our area so we could communicate without having to leave our stations (we have a very noisy environment, and I work at an inspection area that is out of sight and 20+ yards away from where the lead typically works at). The answer was “Yeah, it would make things easier”…and nothing. It would sure be nice to be able to just push a button and alert the lead as soon as I see 30%+ rework/junk rate rolling through my area. As it is, my only choice is to run off my station to chase down the lead or mark stuff, let it sail down the line, and hope someone deals with it.

    Unsurprisingly, the company has had some major challenges on its Lean Journey, hahaha.

  4. Sorry to hear that. Unfortunately, it is not too rare to see such kind of behavior, and I have observed it, too. On a side note: I think even with a company of 5000 people an open door policy is possible. Most employees are sensible enough to first try to address issues with lower and middle managers before going to the big boss, so it should often work.

    He cloud hire expensive consultants (like me) who then ask you for your ideas and subsequently tell your boss to get more radios. If your boss is paying thousands per day to a consultant he is much more likely to listen, even it if is the very same advice as yours (maybe with an additional spiffy slide presentations. Please don’t calculate what the presentation costs on top of what the plant already knows). Also unfortunate but true.

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