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

“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?

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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.

David Lee is the founder and principal of HumanNature@work and the creator of Stories That Change. He's an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of "Managing Employee Stress and Safety," as well over 60 articles and book chapters. You can download more of his articles at HumanNature@work, contact him at, or follow him on Twitter at


9 Comments on “Attention Managers and Employers: How We Teach Others Not to Care About Us

  1. David- Thank you very much for a thought provoking and well written article. We all need to be more thoughtful and respectful in our daily lives, as others are dependent upon us. I make it a point to be that way, and it comes back to you. Thoughtless people often wonder why things aren’t going their way- it is usually because they aren’t thinking about the consequences of their actions.
    Thank you very much, David!

  2. Well said!! This article is spot on. In fact, I think it should be used both in the workplace and the “real world” as the example you gave showed. Simple courtesty seems to have been taken for granted these days. It takes mere moments to make a connection, acknowledge someone who has gone out of their way to help or offer up your own services to help another. Articles like this are an excellent reminder. One of the best apsects of owning my own firm, is being able to make that connection, forge those relationships. Taking the time to make it personal instead of solely professional is the difference between a good business and a successful and thriving business.
    Ken C. Schmitt

  3. Such a great article.

    David Lee at his best on the things that really matter in life and in the workplace. We would all be advised to take this article to heart and remember its meaning and its message.

  4. Excellent article David.

    More often than not you take something for granted and, when your expectations are mot met, you are disappointed and your engagement is therefore affected.

    It is quite human to think: I made the mistake of helping you once, but I will not make it twice. A small thank you could have changed that.

    Sergio Torres
    Find Jobs in Companies that Motivate You.

  5. Well written…….so many times I have called people who just never call back. Payback is when they do need us and we interview them and they tell me how good they are in communicating…..really? I do bring it to their attention that I have called them several times and we usually laugh about it…..moral of the comment? They never forget to return another call.

  6. Thanks all for your comments. I appreciate that.

    I want to follow up on Laurie’s comment:

    “I do bring it to their attention that I have called them several times and we usually laugh about it…..moral of the comment? They never forget to return another call.”

    I love it that you do that. The more we’re willing to say something–in a kind, non-judgmental way or with a light touch like you did–the more we can help raise the level of thoughtfulness in our corner of the world.

    For what it’s worth, even though I don’t enjoy those kinds of conversations either, I try to make myself have them whenever I think there’s a chance it will be received well.

    I also work really hard on making sure I’m in a compassionate, “we’re all in this together” frame of mind rather than an “I can’t believe you’re so inconsiderate, let me show you the error of your ways” mode (which comes pretty easily, unfortunately :-))

    Speaking of getting in the right frame of mind before having the conversation, here’s an update to Scenario Two of my post.

    I talked to the person about my experience of her not bothering to let me know she got it or to thank me for the significant time I put into it.

    Even though I could have just blown it off, I brought it up because…

    … I care about her and our relationshi

    ….I believe–within reason–if we never say anything about thoughtlessness, nothing will change

    …I believe–again within reason–it’s a gift to those we care about, to invite them to be their best selves.

    BTW, although I don’t enjoy those conversations, I’ve found almost without exception they’ve strengthened the relationship.

    Before I had the conversation, I got feedback from a respected friend and colleague (the one mentioned in Scenario Six) on the wording I was considering using. She gave me some “tweaks” that sounded good to me.

    I called my health care practitioner and shared my experience. I said something like:

    “I was really excited to hear back from you when I sent you the letter, and it was a real downer to not hear back.”

    I also shared that because I care about her and our relationship, I didn’t want to do that “make the other person unimportant thing” I wrote about in my post.

    She instantly got it and apologized and then shared that a lot had been going on, but that she didn’t want to use that as an excuse. She just wanted me to know. She also thanked me for being willing to bring it up and not put a wall up instead.

    I share this as a follow up because I want to give an example of “Even though it’s uncomfortable, good things can happen if you’re willing to bring it up in a candid, compassionate, and non-judgmental way.”

    So thanks for your feedback and I’d love to hear more examples, including those you addressed.

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