Attention Managers and Employers: How We Teach Others Not to Care About Us

Sep 22, 2011
This article is part of a series called Opinion.

“Most partnerships don’t end up in court.

Most friendships don’t end in a fight.

Most customers don’t leave in a huff.

Instead, when one party feels underappreciated, or perhaps taken advantage of, she stops showing up as often. Stops investing. Begins to move on.

No, I’m not going to sue you. Yes, I’ll probably put my best efforts somewhere else…”

Five things happened recently — three in the last week — that reminded me of the price we pay for thoughtlessness.

Since I’m always asking: “Is there a lesson here for the workplace?” when reflecting on experiences that happen in everyday life, these made me think also of the price managers — and employers as a whole — pay for:

  1. Taking people for granted.
  2. Forgetting basic courtesy, like not returning phone calls, not acknowledging time-sensitive information emailed to them (especially when someone asks you to confirm you received it), or not following up like they said they would.

First, a friend of mine told me how he helped a colleague’s son with his resume as a professional courtesy. This is something he does for a living — he normally charges for it. Neither the son nor the colleague bothered to thank him.

Second, a health practitioner I see, who does amazing work, is shy about marketing herself. In an earlier conversation, we had talked about a particular niche for her work, and how she could reach them. Because I care about her and want her to prosper, I wrote a testimonial letter she could use as a marketing piece. I sent it to her, and didn’t hear back. In a conversation about setting up an appointment, I asked if she received it. “Oh, yes, I did. Thank you so much,” she replied.

Third, more than a month after speaking at an event which went very well, according to program evaluations, I still hadn’t received payment. I emailed my primary contact, a colleague I had known for years, to find out if my check was being processed, since it was overdue.

She didn’t respond to either emails or voice mails.

I called her admin, who said she knew my contact had received my invoice and my messages. She suggested I call the main office. There, I reached someone who expressed appropriate dismay that I had not yet gotten paid and expedited payment.

However, the colleague who brought me in to speak never demonstrated any concern about not meeting their basic contractual obligations, nor did she apologize for the fact they (she?) had dropped the ball.

If you had brought someone in to work with your organization, and they hadn’t been paid on time, wouldn’t you be mortified, or at least distressed enough to call that person and apologize? Wouldn’t you immediately get into gear to take care of it?

I found myself thinking, If this is how she treats me, someone I know she respects (according to a colleague who knows her well and used to work for her), how does she treat her employees?

It also made me wonder, if this level of indifference to basic courtesy and accountability is the standard operating procedure in her organization, what price do they pay in terms of diminished employee engagement?

If employees feel this level of care from management, how much do they care about helping management — about going the extra mile?”

Fourth, I read Seth Godin’s blog post Not Fade Away which includes the lines at the top of this post.

Aren’t they true?

Think of a time you felt unappreciated or someone with whom you have a relationship with treated you thoughtlessly. You probably didn’t say anything, did you?

Because it would feel awkward and it had the potential of becoming extremely uncomfortable, you chose to remain silent.

You also probably felt a little less “into them,” a little less interested in them and their well-being.

If it happened in your primary relationship, perhaps you made them a little less important to you, whether consciously or reflexively. Perhaps, to protect yourself from feeling hurt or continually resentful, you hardened your heart a bit and numbed out, so you wouldn’t feel those uncomfortable feelings.

Fifth, I recently read Mel Robbin’s column Silent Scorn in Success magazine, where she describes an experience of thoughtlessness she and her 6-year-old son experienced. Her son’s cousin was supposed to come over for dinner and a sleepover.

After waiting on the porch for over an hour (think “excited little boy”) while providing a buffet for a hungry hoard of mosquitos, Mel finally texts her sister-in-law to inquire about her ETA. Her sister-in-law texts back that her daughter is freaking out with separation anxiety so she will be staying home.

When Mel tells her 6-year old boy the news, he responds: “What? Why didn’t she tell me? I’m getting eaten alive out here!”

How is it that the 6-year old boy gets it that an “update phone call” early on would have been the civil, thoughtful thing to do and the adult didn’t?

She goes on to write:

Each of your actions or, in this case, inactions, carries significance in someone else’s day.

You impact other people. It’s easy to forget to call or you run late or simply not show up at all. I’ve certainly been guilty at times. Right now, people are waiting on you. When you change your mind, reverse course or drag your feet on a decision, it impacts other people. Even for something as insignificant as a sleepover with your cousin. Procrastinating or bailing not only creates havoc for you, but for others, too. And your silence sends a loud message: This is not important.

Sixth: (This is not a recent thing, but as a comparison to Scenario Two). I have a dear friend who is outstanding at what she does. Both because I love her and want her to thrive, and because she’s so good at what she does, I’ve referred a lot of business to her over the years. She jokingly has told me that just about every bit of work she’s gotten since coming to Maine has come from me.

She is always letting me know how much she appreciates how I’ve looked out for her and go out of my way to help her. Because I love helping people—especially those I care deeply about—it brings me great joy to see how happy it makes her. So I’m always on the lookout for opportunities to help her, and then feel happy to see her happy.

I’ve reflected at times how much more focused I am on helping her than other people.

It’s because she makes it clear that she appreciates it. She doesn’t take it for granted.

When I’ve asked myself “Are you doing it because you want the appreciation? Is that what’s motivating you?” the answer has been “No.”

I’ve had a number of situations where I’ve secretly given money to people or done things for them and found out indirectly how happy it made them, and I felt just as happy—even more so—than when someone knew it came from me and thanked me.

It’s about the good feeling of knowing that what you did helped another person. It’s about knowing that what you did made their lives a bit easier or brought them joy.

When we take for granted what others do, we tell them: “Your act is insignificant. It made no difference.”

Doing this steals from the other the joy that comes from knowing you made a difference in the life of someone else, that you helped someone.

It also makes it likely they will care a little less about helping us in the future. It’s not just about being taken for granted, it’s about feeling “If what I do doesn’t matter, why bother?”

Applying This

When I connect these disparate scenarios, it makes me think of how the way we treat others influences how much they care about us, how much they care about helping us, and whether they want to go above and beyond for us in the future.

When I’m working with management teams, one of the questions I ask them is: “Are you bondable?” — meaning: “The way you treat others, does that lead them to bonding with you, and therefore wanting to do a great job because they care about you?”

To help you think how you might apply the lessons from these scenarios in your life, here are three questions:

  1. Do You Take People For Granted? Are there people who have helped you, or whose work makes your life easier, whom you haven’t bothered to thank? Have you let them know how much their help or their continually doing a great job means to you? If so, you can let them know now. You can even apologize for having taken them for granted. Now, if they say “Oh, don’t worry about it,” that doesn’t mean it didn’t matter. It means they’re being gracious and giving you some slack.
  2. Are Their People You Blow Off? Now, I’m not suggesting that you should feel obligated to respond to every email or voice mail from strangers. But, ask yourself if there are people you work with, who you don’t bother getting back to, even after they’ve made multiple attempts? When we do that, we don’t just communicate “You are insignificant,” we build ill will, and we model incivility, increasing the odds that they will treat others the same way. Practice asking: “What response would I appreciate in this situation?” and consider how you can be a force for mindful, considerate behavior.
  3. How About Being on the Lookout for Opportunities to Model Appreciation and Thoughtfulness? We each have an opportunity to make our corner of the world a better place. You can do that by looking for opportunities to express appreciation and practice thoughtfulness. How about identifying a couple of people and situations in which you can do that right now, and then do it by the end of the day.
This article is part of a series called Opinion.
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