Respect for Humanity… of Your Boss

By Jon Miller Updated on August 9th, 2015

boss and worker conversationThe notion of “respect for people” is widely recognized as an essential pillar of lean management. It stands out among lean principles by being the most important yet least clearly defined. As such, it is most often at the root of failed or struggling lean transformations. When the management does not respect the people they are leading, people follow only grudgingly and only until a better employment opportunity presents itself. When peers do not respect each other, they are unable to work effectively as a team, and therefore unable to benefit by harnessing each other’s strengths. When customers and suppliers do not respect each other, business becomes transactional, zero sum and ultimately lose-lose.

One particular aspect of respect that has been largely overlooked is in the lean discourse is the respect for one’s boss. At first glance, it would appear that bosses get enough respect. Those in power and authority demands respect and have the ability to delivery positive consequences when the subordinate shows respects, and negative consequences when they do not. This type of command-and-control or directive leadership is only one style, and not appropriate in every working environment, much less every lean organization. However, the responsibility for developing respect for the boss does not lie only on the boss being a more enlightened leader. In lean, trust and respect must always be mutual, freely accepted and given through open communication while striving towards common and benefits.

Here I digress for a moment to state again that I believe “respect for people” is a Western misunderstanding of what the lean management originators at Toyota meant by the phrase ningensei no soncho (人間性の尊重) which is literally “respect for humanity”. In this instance, humanity (人間性) does not mean “all humans” or “people” but rather “human nature” or “humanness” or even “what it means to be human”. The phrase “respect for people” seems to place the focus on how we interact with the individual. On the other hand, “respect for humanity” leaves the question wide open as to “the humanity of what?” Non-human things, creatures and ideas can possess “humanness” or human qualities. I believe this vagueness was intentional, so that Toyota people could think as broadly and as deeply as possible about what it means to bring more “humanity” into their products, their work, their relationships, and ultimately the world. The wording of “respect for people” rather sells the notion short, in my view.

As such, what does it mean to show “respect for humanity of your boss”? Lean coaching is increasing in popularity and importance, focusing on helping subordinates to see and solve problems, and in matrix organizations this increasingly extends to managers needing to coach and influence their peers in similar ways, but does this extend to coaching one’s boss? A Harvard Business Review article from 10 years ago by John J. Gabarro and John Kotter titled Managing Your Boss addresses similar issues and provides some practical hints. The first step is empathy with your boss, and an acknowledgement of their humanity, their need for the subordinate’s help:

Some people behave as if their bosses were not very dependent on them. They fail to see how much the boss needs their help and cooperation to do his or her job effectively. These people refuse to acknowledge that the boss can be severely hurt by their actions and needs cooperation, dependability, and honesty from them.

While the hoshin planning process is often used in lean management to clarify and align goals between hierarchical levels, showing respect for the boss’ humanity requires grasping not only the goals but the pressures the boss is under to meet them:

At a minimum, you need to appreciate your boss’s goals and pressures. Without this information, you are flying blind, and problems are inevitable.

It is a two-way street, and the boss must at a minimum creating an working environment that is open to proactive problem solving by their subordinates. We’re are in solid lean management environment-building territory here:

Managing the flow of information upward is particularly difficult if the boss does not like to hear about problems. Although many people would deny it, bosses often give off signals that they want to hear only good news. They show great displeasure—usually nonverbally—when someone tells them about a problem. Ignoring individual achievement, they may even evaluate more favorably subordinates who do not bring problems to them.

This highlights the fact that bosses have strengths and weaknesses, just as all humans do. Not all bosses have the self-awareness or self-control to recognize and rein in bad behaviors that result from a combination of weaknesses and job pressures. If we wish to practice lean fully, we can show respect for humanity of the boss by understanding their weaknesses and by being part of a team that actively shores them up, or even enables the boss to improve themselves.

The HBR article helpfully provides a “Checklist for Managing Your Boss” about two-thirds of the way in. There are 12 specific actions around the three topics of understanding the boss and their specific context, assessing one’s own style and needs, and developing and maintaining a relationship that is mutually beneficial. It wouldn’t be hard to adapt these ideas towards the continuous improvement of any leader-subordinate relationship, starting with the spirit of respect for the humanity of the boss.

  1. Sabine Gowsy

    August 10, 2015 - 6:53 am

    Hi Jon,
    Thanks a lot.

    Agree respect for humanity/respect for people, can’t be just in one direction.

    We must act like a team and with everyone on board.


  2. Bob Emiliani

    August 10, 2015 - 9:05 am

    RE: “…I believe ‘respect for people’ is a Western misunderstanding…” I agree with your Japanese-to-English interpretation and how “…’respect for humanity’ leaves the question wide open…” Yet, Toyota (Japan) interpreted it as “Respect for People” in the English version of the Toyota Way 2001 document (see Correct representation? An error? A little misdirection? The fact is, people = humans (see A distinction without a difference?

  3. Jon Miller

    August 11, 2015 - 7:52 pm

    As you pointed out, it would be interesting to know whether this was intentional or unintentional on Toyota’s part.

    As far as whether the distinction has a difference, the question is whether we would behave differently if the lean pillar was “respect for humanity”. In the narrow definition, respect for people limits respect to homo sapiens only. Respect for humanity (人間性) opens the door to respecting the humanity of a process, of an automobile, of a cartoon mouse, of interactions between humans, of interactions between humans and the natural world, practically anything because humanity is a quality that can apply to whatever we chose.

    We can easily identify other humans. How easily can we identify the quality of humanity?

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