Responsive Orgs: Lens 1 – Respect

April 11th, 2020

The foundational lens of our Model for Responsiveness? RESPECT. Our research shows that organizations that have any intention of effectively responding to their external environments must start with respect of their employees.

Figure 1: Model for Responsiveness | Source: RedThread Research, 2020.


This week, we took the opportunity to gather several leaders together in an interactive roundtable and brainstorming session around RESPECT for employees and the 3 features of employee respect, as shown in Figure 2 below.

3 Areas of Respect for Employees

Figure 2: 3 Areas of Respect for Employees | Source: RedThread Research, 2020.


This leader roundtable addressed each of these 3 areas in the context of two main questions: 1) What are your respective companies doing in these areas? and 2) What are your ideas for doing this better?

This discussion was particularly interesting given the current context: our organizations are faced with the need to radically change internal processes and norms to react to unprecedented change in their marketplaces. Most urgently, companies are ramping employees to work effectively from home; more long-term, companies are considering cashflow and product viability, and making people adjustments to accommodate. Below is a mindmap representing the roundtable discussions.

Responsive org roundtable #1: Respect mindmap

Source: RedThread Research, 2020

For a brief summary of the roundtable and the 3 aspects of a Respectful culture, watch the video below.

Respect roundtable recap

In the following sections, we expound on these 3 areas and highlight the good advice we heard at the roundtable.

Psychological safety

One of the most powerful themes, directly addressed in the psychological safety discussion but permeating all other discussions as well, was the need for organizations to create a psychologically safe place – to view employees as thinking, feeling humans and ensure their well-being.

In times such as these, mistakes will be made and failures will happen. A psychologically safe place acknowledges these mistakes and failures respectfully, without compromising employees’ self respect or jeopardizing their careers.

Advice from leaders:
  • Personal huddles. Quick, concise, personal check ins – not about the work, but about the person. One leader suggested two questions leaders can ask: 1) How stressed are you? and 2) What help do you need?
  • Increased leadership connection. Leaders should be connecting more with employees to understand needs and provide direction. Suggestions included more regular pulse engagement surveys (instead of the yearly, or bi-yearly versions), direct contact with employees that may be struggling, regular check-ins and communication with staff, and follow-up with support for information gathered through surveys and check ins.
  • Leadership responsibility. Managers and leaders set the tone; if organizations are striving for an open, safe, place for employees, it is the managers and leaders who must model the behaviors they expect.


Autonomy & Respect from Leaders showed up in the data together. We think this is because they often go hand in hand: managers who allow more autonomy  among employees tend to respect them more, and vice versa.

Autonomy means that organizations give employees control over the day-to-day operations of their roles. They recognize and honor employees' abilities to use their unique skills and knowledge to problem-solve.

Advice from leaders:
  • Address failure carefully. Employees are paying careful attention to how leaders react to failure. Will leaders continue to encourage intelligent risk-taking and learning from mistakes, or will they buckle down and discourage it? Our roundtable discussion encouraged leaders to share failure stories (including their own) and learn jointly from things that didn’t go quite as planned.
  • Experimentation. Organizations can use the current chaos (nothing is working the same way it did) for experimentation because everything is up in the air. There may be antiquated systems, processes, technologies, or even products that need to be rethought. Now is the time. Organizations should use this time to develop an experimentation muscle to deal with uncertainty and change.
  • Post-crisis team. One leader suggested the idea of putting together a team dedicated to identifying positive changes made during this time and finding ways to institutionalize them. While there is a strong desire to return to “normal,” now is a good time to determine what, if anything, about the “normal” wasn’t good, and retool it.
  • Collaborate with employees. During this time when everything is up in the air, one leader said he noticed more collaboration between managers and employees. Instead of, “Do this!” it was, “What can we do in this circumstance?”
  • Focus on well-being. Leaders also noted that more time was being spent on personal conversations. Managers were asking after employees and their families more, and carving out more time during the week to spend some time together as humans, not just coworkers. Managers were also more understanding (because we’re all in this together…) about screaming children, aging parents, barking dogs, and strange haircuts.
  • Equip managers. One leader mentioned that he would like to see more help for managers – and not just traditional training. Coaching and mentoring, job helps, data, and feedback can both set expectations for what we expect from managers, but also alleviate some of the pressure they’re currently feeling. One leader also suggested creating networked leaders so that they can share information with each other and hold each other accountable for the types of leaders they want to be.

Bottoms up information

Finally, organizations show respect to employees by providing ways to get information to them, but probably more importantly, gather information from them. This shows up in two main ways.

First, through feedback loops. Feedback loops ensure that employees have the information they need to do their jobs as well as information about how they’re performing those jobs. Feedback loops ensure that everyone is on the same page and working in the same direction. One leader noted that organizations often default to being “nice,” or not sharing necessary information because it’s not polite, when in actuality, keeping that information from employees shows a lack of respect for them as humans and as employees.

Second, organizations also show respect to employees, their knowledge, and their skills by soliciting their perspectives. Employees at the edges of the organization, or with deep knowledge in certain areas often identify needed changes before those more centrally located. Established norms for gathering and sharing that information enables organizations to move more quickly as a whole.

Advice from leaders:
  • Use OKRs and goals as feedback mechanisms. Organizations that have moved from yearly goal discussions to more frequent check-ins can and should leverage these discussions to make sure that everyone has the information they need. This ensures that goals don’t get lost at lower levels and established a process and norm for feedback that is often less threatening and more collaborative.
  • Use tools such as retrospectives. Many leaders mentioned that feedback an/or perspective sharing doesn’t happen because there are not mechanisms in place. A retrospective is an exercise wherein a team gets together to discuss what went well, what didn’t go well, and what needs to change. This can be used at the end of a project, at certain milestones within a project, or even at regular intervals. A retrospectives normalizes feedback and perspectives and eliminates the need for blaming. It also promotes teamwork. (Incidentally, we used a retrospective at the end of our last roundtable to make the next one even better.)
  • Model behaviors. This has been mentioned in previous areas we have discussed, but it bears mentioning again. Feedback and perspective-sharing often doesn’t happen unless it is modeled by leaders. Some suggestions for modeling from the roundtable included: clearly setting expectations and holding managers responsible for feedback / perspective sharing; inviting senior leaders (CEO) to be transparent on where the company is during a crisis and inviting questions / suggestions; and providing coaching job aids that give managers key information about how to give feedback.

To sum up

In all, roundtable conversations were much more optimistic than pessimistic. Yes, the current situation is throwing all that we know and are comfortable with out the window, and we are all feeling our way through this. But, as these leaders pointed out, this is a perfect opportunity to make changes that will positively affect the organization internally, as well as help it compete more effectively externally.

A special thanks to all of the leaders who participated in this interactive roundtable. Thank you for your willingness to share your experiences and insights – it makes the research that much better!

Karina Freitag Redthread Research
Karina Freitag