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A Cautionary Tale of Workplace Distrust and Inaction

Traci Cumbay
Traci Cumbay

Once upon a time, in a land far, far from our hero’s resume or LinkedIn profile, a dysfunctional system became a work-life ogre.

After a long and treacherous path, our hero reached a job that appeared to be just right — one that would draw from his skills and experience and provide a clear path of advancement doing work he enjoyed with smart people he admired. His manager, Wolfman, seemed to have the kind of leadership skills he hoped to emulate.

Our hero — let’s call him Red — distinguished himself immediately with work that Wolfman howled about throughout the village. Red was delighted by his good fortune and excited about the possibilities before him.

A new look at the supervisor he was sold on

Early on, he got a good look at Wolfman and discovered he was not what he seemed. His deep voice? All the better for dressing down employees who dared to experiment with processes or try ideas that did not originate from Wolfman. All the better for gossiping about those employees and others to Red, who felt cornered by those gleaming fangs throughout frothing diatribes covering a litany of dissatisfactions, slights, and exasperations.

His big eyes were all the better for seeing opportunities to self-promote rather than encouraging and guiding team members, all the better for noting any small deviation from his own detailed dictates of behavior.

Red ran afoul of Wolfman when he stood up for another team member during an in-meeting rant. Wolfman interpreted the protective gesture toward a team member as a declaration of war against himself. The office atmosphere quickly went from bad to worse for Red. Wolfman began to find fault in his work and his methods of doing it. He complained about minutiae, like when Red ate his lunch and whether he reported his location whenever he was gone for more than five minutes.

Finding the problem was bigger than a single dispute

Red took comfort in the support of another manager, who expressed solidarity and her own concerns about how Wolfman ran his team. Employee surveys revealed deep dissatisfaction in the department, the manager explained. Something must be done. Wolfman’s HR file was thick and growing, she confessed. Something must be done. Red wasn’t the first to have trouble; others had quit or changed teams because of unfair and unprofessional treatment by Wolfman. Something would be done.

That something, it turned out, was firing Red.

What lurked in the unknown proved more daunting to leadership than the difficult known.

Another employee quit in protest. Morale fell, and next-quarter survey responses tanked. A major client bailed as the team struggled with customer service during the aftermath.

This isn’t a happy ending. And it’s certainly no fairy tale.

Is there a wolf in your midst?

Stories like this happen in offices of all kinds more often than anyone would like to admit. Sometimes the information is right in front of the right decision-makers, and yet positive change remains elusive.

Trust is an essential element of management. Trust disintegrates when employees reveal engagement-crushing issues in one-on-ones or through confidential surveys but see nothing change. Being asked for input that gets tossed right into the garbage is more disheartening and destructive than never being asked.

Manager evaluations give you the goods on what’s not going as well as it could. But that’s just step 1. Taking action on that information keeps teams functioning well and shows employees that you’re listening. That they matter.

Building that trust isn’t just the right thing to do for people; it’s great for business because a healthy workplace is more productive.

Suffering a rabid manager is a danger too great to endure.

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