Respect your employees, don't make assumptions

By Mike Cook
For The Bellingham Business Journal 

“Respect … is appreciation of the separateness of the other person, of the ways in which he or she is unique.” –Annie Gottlieb

Some years back I was approached by the CEO of an independent telephone company regarding a challenge he said he was experiencing motivating certain employees to “engage” with a new direction senior management wanted to be going.

When I asked for specifics, he said (this is a few years back, remember) that to capitalize on newly developed residential phone options, management had decided that customer service representatives should begin making sales overtures to customers when they called in about their bills, service or whatever.

Once he described the situation he had my full attention.

Putting myself in the position of those customer service reps, I asked him, “So this was your idea, right? This was not the reps coming to you and suggesting they might take this on?”

He confirmed my suspicion that the reason for the call was that the plan was not unfolding as hoped for.

“You got that right” he said. “We put in place what we thought was an attractive incentive program but all we are getting is a lot of pushback from the employees. We thought they would jump at the chance to make more money.”

I asked him, “So in effect, you were saying to the reps that you know they are just like you, the managers, and are motivated by money. What made you think that these reps, many of whom have been doing the job for more than 15 years, would find the extra money attractive or see themselves as just like you only doing different jobs? Did it occur to you that if money was a prime motivator they might have moved on by now?”

After a pause he began, “I guess we just assumed that what motivated us as managers would motivate them as well. Doesn’t the idea seem to make a lot of sense?”

After my own pause I said:

“If it was me I’d start with an apology to the reps for assuming that they see themselves as the same as managers; they don’t. I also don’t think you can plan for the reps to love this idea, more likely than not they are service-minded, not sales-minded. I suspect that some work needs to be done to demonstrate that the products are a benefit to the customer as much as the sale benefits the company.

The other thing I suggest is to put the plan on hold for a bit, and talk with the reps about both the need the business has and your interest in knowing what would be an incentive for them.”

So, the CEO went back to work with his managers and developed a communication program for the reps based on the mutual benefit premise I had suggested.

They had a “grown up” conversation about recognizing that the reps may not like the plan but it was what they were going to be asked to take on anyway for the best interest of the company. They also sat down with the reps and asked about what incentives might make a difference.

He reported back that he and the managers were surprised to find that the reps said that additional time off, a Friday afternoon or trip to one of their kid’s assemblies, or going with them to the dentist, in combination with some monetary compensation would be a much more attractive plan.

As I suspected, most of the reps reported that they were probably never going to like the idea but if it was what the company needed they would give it their best as a function of their dedication, and also the obvious need for employment.

Generally, I know we think of disrespect as something intentional. In fact, it may be something unconscious, as in this case. And we continue to make many of the same errors of assumption today, even those companies that have put in place recognition programs.

Respect is not necessarily polite, civil or even courteous. You can be politely, civilly and very courteously disrespectful … as I am sure you have experienced yourself.

Respect calls for knowledge of the other, curiosity for what matters to them, a willingness to frame a conversation in terms that are familiar, safe and meaningful. Do this and I can promise attentive listeners, don’t do this … well you may already know how that goes!

  • Where may the language you are using with your employees be filled with assumptions, and is offending rather than engaging them?
  • As managers, everything we do and don’t do, say and don’t say is a communication to our reports. Are we conscious of what we are communicating?

Mike Cook lives in Anacortes. His columns appear on every other Tuesday. He teaches in the MBA program at Western Washington University and also runs a CEO peer advisory group in the Whatcom/Skagit area. He can be reached at


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