You Get What You Tolerate

Tolerance. It’s something you do without thinking. You put up with or ignore things. You’re busy, have multiple priorities, maybe avoiding something, perhaps tired of asking. The problem is, when you tolerate something, you’re stamping it with a seal of approval.

Do you ever ask an employee to do something and it doesn’t get done? Or doesn’t get done correctly? Wise words from one of my past mentors – ” You get what you tolerate.”

In other words, anytime you let something continue to happen, you’re accepting it as okay.

The Unmade Bed

Having children was not only a wonderful experience in my life but it also taught me a few things about managing employees.  I’m not saying that employees are childish (well, some are), but managing is a bit like having children in the sense that it’s up to you to set examples that influence their behavior.  Recall the post titled Everyone is Watching You.

Most parents ask their child to make their bed everyday. Some kids might do this just because you ask them, but if it’s not an activity that feels important to the child, they probably won’t. So you ask your child to make their bed and show them how. Next day, you remind them again. You jump in the shower and instead of making their bed they go watch cartoons. Later when you ask them again to make it, they say “I will”, and instead go get some cereal. You’re on the way out the door for work and what do you see? What happens next? Do you quickly make it because you are going to be late for work and can’t stand an unmade bed? Then grumble about how your kid doesn’t listen. Maybe you don’t have kids, maybe you’re the kid who got away with not making the bed.

photography of bedroom
Photo by Monica Silvestre on

I think you get the picture. When words say one thing, actions another, and there’s no consequence to that action, nothing is going to change. It’s human nature to keep doing the things you want to do and not do the things you don’t want to do unless there are consequences to continuing on.

Tolerance in the Workplace

Now let’s go back to the workplace. Have you ever asked an employee to do something, and either they don’t do it, or do it incorrectly, so you just do it yourself? Anytime you do that you send a message that says “It’s okay not to do this.”

Often, it’s just as much about inaction, or lack of follow up. I started work in a location once where most employees didn’t wear their nametags; however, the company’s mandate was that all front line staff wear name tags. I asked the staff why they weren’t wearing name tags and got a variety of answers. They couldn’t find them, they didn’t know they had to, or just, “I don’t know.” The previous manager had asked them to wear name tags but didn’t follow up to make sure they did. And by accepting it when they didn’t, employees received the message that it didn’t really matter.

For me, things like filing and organizing paper never felt important. So my office was a mess and anywhere I worked it seemed the filing never got done. My actions sent a message loud and clear that it didn’t matter. However, it was embarrassing and unprofessional when you couldn’t locate client documentation. And guess what? When I asked employees to clean up the filing, somehow it never got done. No one liked doing it, including myself, and clearly I tolerated it.

We all get busy, get tired of asking people, and other priorities come along.  Sometimes you just end up doing things yourself because  a deadline is looming or you’re in your martyr mood that tells you, “I may as well just do it, then it will get done the way I want.”  But every time you ask someone to do something and it isn’t done and you let it go…you’ve just tolerated it. 

How do you stop tolerating?

  • Make sure that if you ask something, you follow up. Inspect what you Expect. Eventually people will realize that you expect what you ask and you won’t need to keep following up. In the example with the name tags, I let everyone know I expected them to wear a name tag every day and made sure each employee had two. A few reminders let them know that this expectation wasn’t going to change.
  • Watch your asks. Are you always asking for things and then changing your mind?  If people think you’re going to switch gears they won’t bother to do what you ask them to.  Are you asking people to do things that you would never do yourself? As in the example with the name tags, it was important that I wore mine every day.
  • Give Feedback. A thank you goes a long way. Feedback re-enforces your messages.
  • There needs to be some kind of consequence if what you ask doesn’t get done.

What do consequences look like? 

Here’s where a lot of people struggle. Consequences sounds like a bit of a strong word, but it doesn’t mean that there has to be some kind of severe action taken.  A consequence really just means that there is a response to something that someone did or didn’t do.

Positive consequences

Positive consequences are simply an action that re-enforces a behavior. A simple thank you is a positive consequence. A perk or an acknowledgement at a meeting can go a long way. In many cases simple, positive consequences are effective.

Negative consequences

These may be a bit more challenging. They can be as simple as, when you’re in a meeting, asking employees to talk about how they are doing on the project you gave them. It may be a little uncomfortable for them if they haven’t done anything yet, but that’s okay. Often, that’s enough for people to realize that you expect things to be completed. 

In the name tag example above, I asked the staff what should happen if someone wasn’t wearing their name tag. They decided on a loonie jar. If someone forgot their name tag they paid $1 into the jar. At the end of the month we bought muffins with the money. The jar became obsolete within a month. In this case all that was needed was a simple consequence for a simple fix.

But you’re going to have those repeat offenders who will try and get away with not doing stuff and a reminder won’t help and $1 in a jar isn’t the right solution. When you follow up with them and they say they didn’t get to it yet don’t say, “Okay, no problem.”  Ask questions like, What got in the way? or When can I expect that by?  Let them know you are serious about your ask and that they are not off the hook. Then put the ball in their court and ask them to let you know when it’s complete.  So if they say, I’ll have it done by Wednesday, let them know you expect to hear from them on Wednesday.

If they’re still not getting things done, then it’s time for something more focused and that’s when you get into the art of performance management, starting with a difficult conversation. Here’s some help if you need to do that. How to Have a Difficult Employee Conversation.

In Summary

If things aren’t getting done in your workplace, check how you may be tolerating it. Then Ask, Follow-up, give Feedback, and implement Consequences.  

Share your thoughts in the comments!

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