Why do middle managers act the way they do? Why do front line employees behave as they do?

A coaching client of mine recently told me of a loud disagreement that happened between two of this CEO’s direct reports. These two senior leadership team members had a loud argument in the middle of the corporate office, in view (and hearing range) of over 40 staff members.

The argument got nasty quickly with both participants cussing each other out then storming off, frustrated and angry.

This CEO told me, “This happens all the time between many of my direct reports. They yell and scream and cuss, then come to me, demanding that I fire the person they argued with.”

I asked how long this behavior had been going on. “Oh,” the CEO said, “probably for 10 years.”

I asked if middle managers or even front line staff had similar public blow ups. “Oh, sure,” the CEO said, “that happens, as well. I wish people would treat each other better.”

I asked, “Why have you tolerated this bad behavior from your senior executives for so long?

Silent pause.

The CEO said, “I told them to stop it, but they haven’t.”

I said, “You’re enjoying exactly what you deserve – you are tolerating bad behavior from senior staff with no consequences and no redirection. No wonder middle managers and front line staff act out – their bosses model it daily.”

Disagreements about ideas are fine! Personal attacks and profanity erode trust, respect, and performance – they’re a huge no-no.

If You Want A Civil Workplace, You Must Enforce a Civil Workplace

To enjoy a civil workplace, you must define how good corporate citizens behave. Define values in observable, tangible, measurable terms so that everyone knows what behavior is expected. With measurable behaviors, leaders can get feedback from their peers and employees regarding how they’re perceived. Staff can tell them, through employee surveys, “Do your leaders model these behaviors or not?”

Behaviors like these help create a “playing field” where players debate ideas and solutions but maintain trust and respect for their peers and staff:

  • I do not take it personally when someone challenges a process that I own.
  • I listen with noble intent, seeking to understand the speaker’s viewpoint and needs.
  • I only use language that is respectful, fit for a “family newspaper.”
  • I see conflict as an opportunity for our company and our processes to get better – not a battle to defeat a peer.
  • I challenge disrespectful behavior in interactions I’m involved in or that I observe.

I’ve coached this CEO at length and have been invited to observe executive team meetings to help understand this team’s dynamics. I’m confident the CEO and his direct reports can shift expectations to consistently civil interactions.

How civil is your workplace? When issues arise, how are they dealt with – with respect and cooperation, or not so much?

Contribute your thoughts about this post/podcast in the comments section below.

What is it like to live in your organization’s culture? Share your experiences in my fast & free Performance-Values Assessment. Results and analysis are described on my blog’s research page.

This research can help you refine your organization’s corporate culture. Contact me to discuss conducting the Performance-Values Assessment in your company.

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S. Chris Edmonds

S. Chris Edmonds

Chris helps leaders create purposeful, positive, productive work cultures. He's a speaker, author, and executive consultant. He blogs, podcasts, and video casts. He is the author of The Culture Engine and six other books.
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Reader Interactions


  1. AvatarJeff Harmon says

    Thanks for the post Chris. It always amazes me how the leaders we serve don’t understand why the values they neatly posted on the walls havn’t taken root. All I have to do is look in the hallways and notice how your leaders are treating each other and those they lead. Keep up the great work.

    • S. Chris EdmondsS. Chris Edmonds says

      Thanks, Jeff – values alignment is desperately needed in organizations large & small worldwide!



      For September 2014 release:
      The Culture Engine
      Chris’ new book from Wiley

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