What is “Respect”

In a LinkedIn thread, someone asked “what is ‘respect’ in the Agile context?”

What is a sign of respect?

Since Agile is team-based, an obvious trait of any well-functioning team, Agile or otherwise, is showing respect for each other. And, after years as a professional, it seemed kind of intuitive to me what “respect” in business is and the same applies to Agile.

However, is it intuitive when there are cultural differences – either global culture differences or workplace cultural differences?

  1. An American had held several meetings in a remote Japanese village. He was on the train returning to the city but had fallen asleep. When he awoke he was sitting by an elderly Japanese man. He said “Have I missed ‘X’ stop?” The man said “No”. A couple of stops later the elderly man got off the train. At the next stop the few remaining people in the same car left. At the next stop the train stopped. The American found a conductor and asked why the train had stopped. He said “It’s the end of the line.” “What?” said the American. He was furious because he had, it seems, only missed his stop by one and could have easily walked back but now needed to purchase another train ticket or find a taxi. Had he been Respected? Disrespected?

  2. There was a discussion about if it was respectful to shorten or change someone’s name into a nickname they did not use. Or to misspell or mispronounce someone’s name. I was reminded about when I was part of a business meeting with gentleman from Japan. We had been briefed as to the traditional meeting protocol.
    The Tradition of Bowing

    At the beginning of the meeting, the representatives from both companies formed a line and one by one as each Japanese businessman came forward they met each person from our company by exchanging business cards, both bowing, and each reading each other’s name from the card, starting with the host. We had business cards printed with English on one side, Japanese on the other. The first man came forward and presented his card. We bowed. I took his card and read his name. Then I presented my card with the English print facing up and toward him. I was to hold it with both hands by the upper corners. Lean forward slightly to bow while offering the card. He took it, flipped to the Japanese side and said “Jan Makuru-san”. Totally mispronounced my name. Respectful? Disrespectful?

  3. In the afternoon during the same meeting with the Japanese businessmen, I was presenting. The lights were low for the projection, the room warm and hum of the projector in the background. Two of the five businessmen were sleeping. Respectful? Disrespectful? Room too hot? Or was I just boring?

  4. More sleeping-on-the-job: It was a Sales Off-Site for a small U.S. start-up. In the morning, the CEO/VP Marketing was giving the presentation explaining the product direction and overview of the sales strategy. He noticed a newly hired Sales Director was asleep. Respectful? Disrespectful? Or was he just bored?

  5. I was newly hired as Director of IT Technology in a company that had only had a few newhires in the IT organization in many years. Most of the members of the IT organization had been with the company 10 years, 15 years or longer – most in the same job for as many years. Part of my responsibility was SAP Basic and two of my system engineers came to me to say they found that last night’s backup had issues – they feared the backup tape drive was failing. They told me who they used for service and could call and have them come in. I said “Great, have them come in as soon as they can”.


    One of the engineers said “Right now?”

    I said “Yes, if they are available.” I wanted to be sure if there were parts needed or any other issues we had the best chance of getting the tape drive ready for tonight’s overnight backup.

    They said “Will do” and started walking away to make the call. Respectful? Disrespectful?

Back to the first example. Was the elderly Japanese man being disrespectful? The conductor explained to the American – “In our culture, the worst thing you can do, the greatest disrespect, is to cause someone else anguish or grief. He knew you missed your stop but if he told you that would upset you. He would never do anything to upset you.” He was not being disrespectful.

What’s in a name? If someone says “Hi Kev” and his name is “Kevin”, is that disrespectful? It depends. Were they doing it in a “buddy/buddy” way, to show familiarity? To show friendship? If so, it isn’t disrespectful (unless Kevin tells everyone he “hates” to be called “Kev” and they keep on doing it to aggravate him). Are they saying “Hey, Bubba” to annoy you? Then yes, it’s disrespectful. If you mistype someone’s name is that disrespectful? No, it’s a typo. Was the Japanese businessman being disrespectful? Of course not! There are many syllables that do not exist in the Japanese language, particularly difficult is the distinction between our “l” and “r”. Adding “-san” at the end is the formal form of respect. So yes, he was being very respectful.

Sleeping on the job? It depends. I knew the Japanese businessmen would be sleeping in the afternoon – had already been briefed and told not to worry about it. It’s common practice. They do a quick nap after the noon meal and wake up and quietly whisper to get caught up on anything they may have missed so at the end they are all still up-to-speed. Was it disconcerting? Yes because they were either sleeping or whispering. Did I take offense or feel disrespected? No – because I understood the cultural norm.

How about the new Sales Director? He was fired shortly after. Not for the one transgression but it was the last in a series of attitude issues that demonstrated his lack of seriousness in learning the job. The once-a-year Sales Training delivered by the CEO himself is the very best place to gain understanding about the company, product, and sales value. Sleeping through that was unforgivable and the last straw. (And it definitely was NOT a boring presentation!)

That last one was a bit of a trick question until finding out more. I saw a glance between my two system engineers as they left and called them back. I said “Was that not the right choice?”

Their eyes got wide and both were “Huh?”

I said “Is there a reason not to do the servicing now?”

One replied “Well, to service the tape drive we need to shut down the production servers.” I was not familiar with these HP systems but others I’d worked with allowed the tape drive to be taken off-line and reassigned without the system having to be shut down.

“It’s only 2 PM, we can’t bring manufacturing down now. Is there any reason you would not want to do it at 6 PM instead?”

He replied, “6 PM is when we would do it.”

“I have to ask, why were you going to bring them down now then?”

“Because you told us to. Our last boss would have yelled at us if we didn’t do exactly what he said.”

“Even if it was the wrong thing to do?”

“Yes – he never wanted to be wrong. We could get fired!”

These two were definitely showing respect upwards. But their old boss had not shown them respect going the other way.

Is there any difference between respect in an Agile Team and respect in general? Respect in an agile team or any good professional relationship is a two-way street. In a top-down management heavy culture, the employees may show respect to their boss (as in my 5th example above) but if their boss doesn’t show them the same respect (by listening to their inputs, asking for their suggestions, and letting them learn and grow) it isn’t a culture of respect.

So what is respect? The list is longer than this but here’s a start of what I think are the most important aspects.

  • Working to communicate clearly. While the elderly Japanese man’s actions are explainable for his culture, the goal is for the entire team to have a common basis of understanding that it is not “bad” or “disrespectful” to communicate if there are issues in the code or other problems – that that is “good” because it keeps the issues from the customer.
  • Asking for/accepting input. This is the two-way-street of communications.
  • Listening to input without criticism. (Also referred to as ‘Attack the problem, not each other.’)
  • Communicating honestly, but with tact and care for each other’s feelings.
  • Evaluating your own feelings. If you are offended by something someone says (or feel disrespected), first step back to question if it is disrespect or lack of understanding. Lack of understanding can indicate either incorrect/incomplete communications or cultural differences. Go back through the first four bullets above to see if you are communicating and caring for each other’s feelings.
  • Working as hard as you can to do the job you have been assigned.
  • Doing as much as you can to help people you work with.

And after further discussion on LinkedIn, this seems like a good set of principle defining “What Is Respect in Agile?”:

  • Communicating clearly in a way that leaves no possibility for doubt on intent
  • Communicating honestly, but with tact and care for each other’s feelings
  • Working to continually improve the way the team functions and interacts
  • Communicating both ways – asking for and accepting input, listening to input without criticism
  • Being supportive of team mates
  • Being considerate of each other and the customer
  • Trusting each other to do the right thing
  • Working hard towards a common goal – contributing to the fullest extent towards the technical excellence of the product

Any healthy work environment requires respect both ways!

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