Respect for People and Workbenches of the Mind

By Jon Miller Updated on March 6th, 2017

Lean cultures accomplish the most good with the least time and resource through continuous improvement and respect for people. Compared to continuous improvement, there is less evidence to prove that respect for people directly affects the bottom line. But we can now point to evidence that disrespect erodes performance.

University of California, San Francisco professor and San Francisco VA Medical Center physician Dr. Gurpreet Dhaliwal writes in a Wall Street Journal article about how rudeness affects workplace performance. Disrespect in the workplace, such as “the brusque dismissal of an idea, the oblique suggestion of incompetence, or unvarnished disrespect” in a healthcare setting can hurt performance, even cost lives. In an experiment, twenty four medical teams were randomly exposed to either incivility neutral comments. Those who were disrespected made significantly more diagnostic errors and treatment errors, and reduced collaboration and communication such as information sharing and help-seeking. No actual humans were physically harmed in the experiment.

It should be no surprise that the unpleasant words subconsciously affects people negatively. At a basic level, when we are facing a threat, physical or social, part of our attention and energy must go towards that threat. In fact, human brains do not distinguish between physical and social threats in how they respond. Rudeness and disrespected may seem like minor threats, but when we must work in environments that threaten our sense of well-being, our minds use energy in response to this, sapping productivity.

Based on this evidence, a simple correction would be to follow these steps

  1. Make civility the norm. Discuss what respect and civility means. Agree on a standard.
  2. Teach people how to be civil. Don’t assume everyone already knows. Do level-setting.
  3. Politely point out incivility when it happens. Remind, recognize, reinforce. Remove if necessary.

People in positions of power with rude tendencies may dismiss this at step 1. They may take the “toughen up” or “get over it” attitude. How can we get people on board with civility, if it does not match their worldview, values or upbringing? Education, training or simply top-down directives may modify behaviors to a degree. But the motivation for such change needs to be intrinsic. Perhaps we can offer rude people a choice between a mild concussion, alcohol poisoning or sleep deprivation. No, I’m not suggesting we torture people. We need to put the effects of disrespect in proper context.

The article asks, “How can two snide comments sabotage the ability of experienced clinicians?” It appears that rudeness hurt the performance of the medical teams by interfering with their working memory. Our working memory is the cognitive system where we do most of our work on planning, analyses, and management goals. It is a “workbench” of the mind where we keep the thing we are working on. When we are disrespected, it’s like a wind blows across the workbench and scatters our papers. It’s as if someone drags an electric cable across our workbench, knocking aside our tools. Or don’t you hate it when people dump their garbage on your workbench while trying to work? If these images are not vivid enough, consider what else interferes with our working memory. Blows to the head. Drunkenness. Lack of sleep. Low blood sugar. Worry. Persistent very loud noises. To this list, add rudeness.

We no longer tolerate beatings in the modern workplace. We’ve largely sworn off the two-martini lunch. We are more woke than ever on the value of sleep. Yet we tolerate rudeness and disrespect towards people. Lean is a culture. The article offers a quick culture check rule.

Culture is the worst behavior that a leader will tolerate.

Why not start your next team conversation about respect for people with, “Who wants a blow to the head?” Then, work your way through the tolerated behaviors that clutter up our workbenches of the mind.

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