There is a term “culture of honour” in psychology and sociology referring to a social tradition in the southern United States where people avoid offending other and will strongly react when offended themselves. Families fighting to the death for their “honour” in the American South in the early years of settlement has been discussed in Malcolm Gladwell’s popular book Outliers.

When we talk about developing a culture of honour here in terms of team building I do not mean taking up arms agains people if they offend us! I mean the much less aggressive, and people honouring, stance taken by Danny Silk and his teachings based on the principle in Matthew 20:25-26, “But Jesus called them to Himself and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant.’”

The concept here is the same as what William Edwards Deming was doing in post-war Japan and what Google’s Project Oxygen team had discovered—effective leadership does not lord it over the people they are leading but rather serve them. Jesus demonstrated this to us 2,000 years ago and is probably the greatest leader in history with more people following him over the past 2,000 years than anyone else. We would do well to apply the same principle of honour in our workplaces.

Silk states very succinctly that the principle of honour is “accurately acknowledging who people are will position us to give them what they deserve and to receive the gift of who they are in our lives (Silk, 2009, Kindle Locations 179-180). In terms of work we might rephrase this principle to—accurately acknowledging who people are (their gifts, talents, strengths) will position us to give them what they need to do their job well and to receive back the excellence they can give. In this framework the leader is the servant who,  like a manager on the Toyota Production System, is there to serve the people doing the work. If we were to draw a hierarchical map the leader would be at the base, supporting the structure of the team above, if we were to see the relationships in conversation it would be a round-table conversation.

One of the take aways when considering a culture of honour is that we are all powerful people. That is, we are all equally valuable and have important contributions to make and are all worthy of respect. Google have discovered that effective teams have this round-table mentality—everyone, on average, has equal “air time” when contributing to conversations and all feel an integral part of the team. In effective teams each member feels they are an equally powerful person. That does not mean that everyone has the same functional role or that everyone must lead. But what it does mean is that everyone is seen, heard, and valued in their respective roles, treated as a vital and valuable part of the whole. Someone who does not feel like and equally powerful person will not feel seen, heard or valued and will either retreat and become passive, or will act out in ways to make themselves be seen, heard and valued. When acting out in an environment without honour the results can be ugly—the undervalued person can come across as aggressive, angry or wounded, and the leader becomes more of an overlord to put them “back in their place”.

A great test to see if there is a culture of honour within your team or workplace is to just ask if your team members feel “seen, heard, and valued.” Do they feel like they are treated with respect and that they have a voice that is treated as valuable? Do they feel like a powerful person in the role they are in?

Now there may be a bit of a sticky point for some when we talk about “powerful” people, and especially the equality of power. Feeling like you are an equally powerful person in a team does not mean the junior in the mail room has equal power to make big decisions for the company as the CEO does—that’s a ridiculous notion. But if the junior in the mail room has an idea about how to improve efficiency in the mail room then he should feel, when approaching his superiors, that he has a voice and that he will be seen, heard and valued for what he has to offer. After all, he is the one doing the work. Managers up the line are managing the people who do the work that makes the company productive. The junior in the mail room, the guy working the production line, the PA writing the letters and organising the schedules, these are powerful people in the organisation because without them there would be no organisation!

A culture of honour should have the feeling that leaders are there to serve the front-line workers who produce the widget that makes the company great. Meetings should feel like a round-table discussion where everyone get’s equal air-time while at the same time honouring the different roles everyone is playing.

Silk, D. (2009). Culture of honor: Sustaining a supernatural enviornment. Destiny Image. Kindle Edition.