It's time to stop tolerating behavior among managers that sink employee engagement

By Mike Cook 
For The Bellingham Business Journal

This year — and in fact every year — there will be innumerable gatherings of professionals in conference after conference addressing practices to elevate employee engagement.

HR pros will talk to each other. Engagement pros will talk to each other, and while they are all away they’ll get a report that some manager back home pulled off a spectacular demonstration of thoughtless behavior that will set back everything they have been working hard to achieve.

I can hear us all now as we gather …

“Can you believe it?”

“What was she thinking?”

“And he was supposed to be one of our best!”

“Wait until you hear this; you are not going to believe it!”

When I first joined “corporate America” in early 1973 I was a pretty naïve guy with a master’s in labor relations fresh from Michigan State. Arriving in New Jersey, employed as an HR generalist in a mid-sized refinery, I was finally ready to join that big “team” I knew was waiting for me out there.

Let’s just say that the awakening I experienced was rude

Turns out it wasn’t one big team, and we didn’t play together all that well. If that wasn’t a sufficient disappointment, I was regularly treated to displays of thoughtless behavior on the part of managers, and unfortunately some of the worst offenders were the very senior people.

Forty-four years later I continue to hear reports of the same behaviors I encountered back in the day.

The examples I refer to are not exotic; they are ones we all know: keeping underperformers on the payroll because they are better than nothing, changing a performance review written by a subordinate manager because you don’t agree with their appraisal, writing ‘satisfactory’ or better performance reviews for employees who everyone knows are subpar, transferring subpar employees without dealing with performance issues, etc.

The truth is, when it comes to managing people, there really isn’t that much new under the sun.

There are only repeat offenses and most often by repeat offenders. It is this habitual pattern of our tolerance for repeat offenses and the offenders which I want us to consider.

Allow me to re-introduce you to a couple of colleagues I hold in high regard, Bill Catlette and Richard Hadden. These two author/speaker/consultants wrote what I believe is a seminal work on employee engagement, “Contented Cows Give Better Milk” in 2000. They are employee engagement pioneers.

Catlette regularly publishes a very down-to-earth blog called Fresh Milk. A while back he posted a piece on managers being mindful of the difference between authority they have and the wisdom of using it just because they have it.

He offered this bit of wisdom: “…we have yet to see, for example, a bullying or self-absorbed boss get more discretionary effort from a worker than a caring, authentic leader.”

Later in the piece Catlette reminds us, “With things like institutional loyalty and job security off the table, today’s workers make frequent, rapid fire ‘worth-its’ decisions in which they decide whether to give their manager or the organization the benefit of the doubt, and a morsel of their discretionary effort.”

The full post itself is concerned with responding to a question from a reader on whether it is legal for a manager to arbitrarily change a work schedule. Bill responds in his usual thoughtful manner, not just to the reader’s question but to the larger issue and lesson available in the background.

The ground Bill did not cover, but might have if the question were asked differently, was this: Where were this manager’s peers and superior amid this situation? Without regard to either the “rightness” or righteousness of this manager’s actions, were they called into question by anyone at the same level?

All too often as managers ourselves we witness behavior that at first glance smacks of thoughtlessness and we allow it to pass unchallenged for whatever reason we have. We even aid and abet the thoughtless behavior before it happens by allowing people we know to be mighty capable of thoughtless behavior to be selected as managers in the first place.

There is no technique or practice in any book or at any conference that will rid us of the damages done by behavior that is thoughtless on a manager’s part. And such behavior will continue as long as we tolerate 1) the elevation of inappropriate people to positions of authority, 2) failure to properly orient and support new managers and 3) standing by and watching as our peers or even superiors “act out” patterns of personal behavior that are obviously misaligned with best interests of either company or employees simply to serve personal gratification.

Where do you currently see an opportunity to intervene with another manager, that you’ve been putting off for some self-serving reason?

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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