Managers Are People Too

I have been a passionate advocate of healthy workplaces for several years now. Compassion, respectful adult relationships, and the intrinsic value of a collaborative culture have been consistent themes in my columns, books and workshops. Perhaps that stems from consulting experiences with toxic work environments where stress, conflict, disrespect, and a lack of trust are the norm. And my early career exposure to dark-side managers probably shaped my thinking too. Believe me: I have been on the receiving end of some downright brutish management styles.

I’ve consistently challenged managers and leaders to accept responsibility for building and sustaining healthy workplaces. Organizational life must be seen in terms of its human dimensions and outcomes, rather than simple “bottom line” statistics. In fact, I challenged readers in the Oct-Nov 2005 issue of Your Workplace to “imagine a time when organizations and their leaders would be charged with intentionally creating a toxic work environment.” That’s a rather radical approach to managerial accountability.

And then, two weeks ago, I received an email from a manager in an organization that I’ve worked with over the years. The management team is intentionally working on building a healthy, compassionate workplace culture. In fact, that vision is front and centre in their statement of core values. They have accepted a shared responsibility for the quality of the workplace.

But it appears that some of their frontline colleagues don’t feel thatmanagers also have a fundamental right to the same culture and respectful relationships. Hence the request for an article or reading that would make the point that “managers are people too.”

Hi Sandy,


I’m a manager and have participated in some of your presentations over the years.

Recently our management team has noticed that there are times when we may not be treated by staff with what we would consider respect. (Not often, but enough to cause some concern.) We have been brainstorming around a way to try to address this and I remembered that you seemed to have a great reading list. What we are really looking for is an article or something that gets the point across that “management are people too.” Do you know of anything that we could use that would make this point?

Any suggestions that you have would be really appreciated.

Let me be very clear here. I know that this person is a compassionate, supportive manager who genuinely cares about employees and the organization’s goals. The email is neither trivial nor frivolous: it’s a request for reading material that will generate dialogue about the need for shared responsibility for workplace health.

I’ve been rummaging through my files for two weeks now, and I haven’t found the article that just might respond to the request. For the most part, it seems to be simply assumed that managers get enough respect—plus perks, status and power—by virtue of their exalted positions in the organizational feeding chain. To be fair, there are some materials that suggest that workplace health is everyone’s responsibility, but employees are not challenged to share accountability for that complex outcome.

That’s in line with my own observations over the years. Workers want to be treated as adults, and they want managers to treat them with respect. But they reserve the right to regress to adolescence— and even rebellious childhood—when they feel managers aren’t meeting that obligation. And they dance away from a more complex, and more inclusive understanding that managers have the same right to respectful relationships. The idea of authentic collegiality, of shared ownership in the creation of a healthy workplace culture never enters their minds. Reciprocity in rights and obligations so fundamental to workplace civility, never gets discussed.

I am not sure that one article will change this general situation. It might start the conversation and over time, shared norms for healthy relationships might be developed. (We need to understand, though, that a small percentage of employees will never accept adult responsibility—they remain rebellious teenagers all their lives.) Personally, I think that’s a worthwhile venture for everyone, whatever their level of responsibility in the organization.

The bottom line is that managers are people too. Certainly, the Human Rights Code doesn’t exclude managers from basic rights to workplace civility and fair treatment. And we need to remember that almost everyone pays their dues at the bottom before they get to the top. People who become managers remain people, and their basic rights don’t change. In that respect, it’s similar to becoming a parent. But that’s a topic for another column.

By the way, this column is my reply to the thoughtful and compassionate manager who sent me the email two weeks. I hope it helps.

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WRITTEN BY
Dr. Sandy Cotton
Dr. Sandy Cotton taught leadership at the Queen’s University School of Business and the Royal Military College for almost three decades. He is a permanent Deacon of the Anglican Church of Canada and continues to consult and lead workshops.