Respectful Engagement: The Key To Reducing Employee Turnover With Mitchell Kusy

by | Jun 8, 2023 | Podcasts

SWGR Mitchell Kusy | Respectful Engagement


Many people are fed up with toxic workplaces, so much so that 65% said better pay wouldn’t even be tempting. How, then, can businesses and organizations improve and slow employee turnover? This episode’s guest believes in what he calls ‘Respectful Engagement.’ Elizabeth Bachman invites back Organizational Psychologist and Professor in the Graduate School of Leadership & Change at Antioch University, Mitchell Kusy. Mitch shares how he is bringing civility back to the workplace, co-designing work cultures to empower teams and organizations as a whole. He also brings wisdom from his book, Why I Don’t Work Here Anymore, breaking down the benefits of addressing toxic behaviors. Ultimately, these aspects that are considered soft stuff are actually the hard stuff that creates the biggest impact on the business. Stay tuned and learn more about transforming your workplace today.

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Respectful Engagement: The Key To Reducing Employee Turnover With Mitchell Kusy

Before I go into my very interesting guest, I’d like to invite you to see where your presentation skills are strong by taking our quiz at That’s where you can see in four minutes where your presentation skills are strong and where perhaps a little bit of support could get you the results you need and the recognition you deserve. My guest in this episode is Dr. Mitchell Kusy, otherwise known as Mitch, who has been a guest on this show before. He was so cool so I brought him back. He’s a 2005 Fulbright Scholar in organizational development and a Professor at the Graduate School of Leadership and Change at Antioch University.

Mitch’s passion is co-designing work cultures to promote improved staff and customer experiences that increase team performance, everyday civility and the bottom line. Mitch has consulted and been a keynote speaker with hundreds of organizations nationally and internationally, helping create work cultures of respectful engagement in impacting individual teams and Bottom-Line Performance. He’s previously headed leadership and organizational development at American Express Financial Advisors and Health Partners. His client lists range from A to Z, from AT&T to firms in New Zealand.

Mitch’s work is with the Healthy Workforce Institute focusing on increasing civility in the healthcare field. Mitch is a bestselling author with 6 business books and over 100 research-to-practice articles. His book is Why I Don’t Work Here Anymore. He’s also the recipient of the Minnesota Organizational Development Practitioner of the Year Award and lives with his husband in Minneapolis and Palm Springs. He’s a lovely guy. We had a very useful conversation, full of practical tips. I know you’ll enjoy it. Onto the interview with Dr. Mitchell Kusy.

Mitchell Kusy, welcome back to the show. I’m glad to have you.

It’s great to be here. I love our conversation. I was delighted that you asked me to come back.

I do remember saying last time, you are one of those people whom I thought, “Why haven’t we been friends for years?” We need to have been friends for years. Before I get into the list of questions I have for you, let me ask you this time around, who would be your dream interview? If you could interview someone who would not normally be accessible, who would it be? What would you ask them? Who should be listening?

Last time, I said Beverly Sills. I guess I would have to say Barbra Streisand. I followed her for years. I grew up in Connecticut. I remember taking the train from Connecticut. It was in 1964 or 1965/ I was in high school at the time and she was in Funny Girl. I took the train and I saw her in the original Funny Girl on Broadway. I became a fan of hers. I had been following her for years. I probably know so much about her that maybe even more than she knows about herself.

What would be a question that I would ask her? Barbra said that she doesn’t read music. I want to ask her how in the world she learns to sing a song, particularly if it’s a brand new one. In 1962, when she was learning, I would assume Funny Girl and some of other stuff, how did she learn that? As an organizational psychologist looking at learning, that would be a question I would ask her.

I know that she did learn to read music. This is my Barbra Streisand story, one level removed. When she did the movie, The Mirror Has Two Faces, in the end, they’re in the middle of West End Avenue, New York City, there’s an Italian neighbor in his window looking down at her and Jeff Bridges embracing in the middle of the street. He starts singing Nessun Dorma from Turandot. That was Carlo Schelde, a wonderful friend, tenor and colleague of mine, who’s sadly no longer with us. He told us the story of going to audition for this.

Nessun Dorma says that the day is coming. “I will win because the dawn is breaking.” It was filmed at dawn, although Barbra Streisand didn’t know what the words meant. She just liked the tune. He went down to Los Angeles to audition and then she said, “You sang great. Let’s talk. Do you know this one?” She sat down at the piano and started going through her music. They jammed for an hour going through saying, “Do you know this song? I know this song. Let’s sing it.” They went through an hour’s worth of finding cool things to sing. By the end of it, he said, “Do I have the job?” She said, “Yeah, sure. You got the job. Let’s sing something else.” At that point, she had learned how to read music.

I am going to be Googling this because I’m excited. That’s what I would’ve asked her.

I’m sure you would find many other things to ask her once you got on stage with her and we’re interviewing her. Mitch, you are an organizational psychologist. You’re particularly known to have civility in the workplace, politeness, if you will. The last time we talked, we were still in lockdown and we talked about how you deal with toxic people in your workplace.

The COVID restrictions are mostly over but people are scared about the economy. Frankly, some of that’s manufactured but a lot of people are nervous. There have been many rounds of layoffs since the beginning of 2023. Yet every business owner or manager I know is desperate to find good employees. I’m curious, what are you seeing? Can you explain this dichotomy?

What’s interesting is that many managers don’t see how the culture of an organization impacts the business. One thing is when you asked or shared that I had said that my business is about being polite, I want to take a slight civil. Sometimes we have to be direct with individuals. You’re right about what I call respectful engagement. Sometimes you do have to be honest but one litmus test I tell leaders is, “Are you doing this to prove your right or are you doing this to change behavior? If you’re doing this to prove your right, stop it.”

Many managers don't see how the culture of an organization impacts the business. Click To Tweet

I’m going to answer your question about what I’m seeing. Many business owners and managers don’t get that culture is key. They think it’s the soft stuff. One of the things I say to my clients is the soft stuff is the hard stuff. For example, there have been studies, and one in particular I’m thinking about, that 70% of individuals said they would refuse a job if that organization or department was known to have a bad culture. The second part is even more revealing. Sixty-five percent said better pay wouldn’t even be tempting.

I’m seeing in the newspaper all the time, we got to pay people more. Gen Z and Gen X want more money. Maybe some do but maybe some Baby Boomers and traditionalists want more money. Remember that statistic, 65% said that better pay wouldn’t even be tempting. They’re not going to go into a toxic culture.

What I’m seeing is that many managers and business owners still don’t get it. When we were in lockdown, businesses were thriving because we figured out what we saved money in the office. People were working at home and buying. Everything was going well. Now, we’re seeing somewhat of a reverse trend. Subsequently, culture is key. It’s not just superfluous.

I realize after I had asked you that question that also quite possibly one of the things that happening is that the people who are deciding about layoffs are not the people who are leading the teams. The layoffs are coming from the Finance department, for instance. People said, “We’ve got to cut money and expenses.” Your employees are always your highest expense. Employees are also your highest value.

If you see human beings as an expense, then that’s something. You said that managers don’t get it. What can you do if you are working for a manager who doesn’t get it? If you believe in your company and what your company does but your manager doesn’t understand that they need to treat you with respectful engagement, your phrase, how can we manage up?

First of all, share the evidence. My book, Why I Don’t Work Here Anymore, was based upon a research study I had done with Dr. Elizabeth Holloway on toxic behaviors in organizations. One of the things that I have discovered is that by addressing toxic behaviors, organizations can save approximately 6% of total compensation costs. If organizations are spending, let’s say, $100 million on compensation, you could save $6 million minimally by addressing toxic behaviors.

SWGR Mitchell Kusy | Respectful Engagement

Why I Don’t Work Here Anymore: A Leader’s Guide to Offset the Financial and Emotional Costs of Toxic Employees

Many leaders don’t understand that and the why of this. From other research studies, for example, Pearson and Porath who wrote the book Cost of Bad Behavior, they found that 12% of individuals are likely to quit because of these bad toxic behaviors. First of all, it’s turnover, training new people to come in. The costs just escalate. What do you do? It’s important to have a conversation with that individual about what you’re experiencing. Share some of the evidence, a great article and something that you read in a book. It doesn’t have to be my book but some evidence that says, “We need to do something about this.”

Also, one thing I hear from my clients is, particularly if the manager happens to be toxic at demonstrating disruptive behaviors, people are afraid to give them feedback. One of the things that I say as a strategy is if other people are experiencing this, talk to the manager and go in mass to them. It will lay some of the anxiety and there’s a high probability that a manager isn’t going to fire five individuals by saying, “Here are some things that we’re experiencing.”

One is going to the individual and the second is what you say to that individual. I have a four-step process that’s called intro, behavior, impact and toss back. For example, intro, “We would like to talk with you about something that is bothering us and preventing our team from being as effective as possible.” Behavior, “What we’d like to talk with you about is these team meetings when you are interrupting us many times. We can’t finish our sentences and feel that we’re not valued on the team.” Impact, “We are starting to shut down. Our creativity is descending.” Toss back, “When might be a good time to talk with you about this?”

It’s important to have that conversation and if it helps, do it with others. Also, if you’re the only one experiencing that and you have a Human Resources professional there, go in with the Human Resource professional and have the conversation. The conversation is better coming from the individual experiencing this. Those are some immediate kinds of to-dos.

I’ve been in a position where I was the designated target. The manager didn’t like me so everything was my fault. Nobody else wanted to be the target so no one else would stand up for me. Sometimes it seems like since so many people have been laid off, a lot of CEOs or upper managers and directors seem to be happily returning to the old system of treating their employees like peasants and we are the elite. We answer to our shareholders on the stock market and we don’t care what the little people think. It feels that way. I don’t know if that’s from rumors I’ve heard from clients. It feels like backsliding. I don’t know if you’ve seen this or is it just that I’m being made aware of things that have always been there?

I don’t know the answer to that one. I have to say I haven’t been experiencing that. Remember with my clients, they’re coming to me and saying, “Something’s wrong here. I want to change the culture of this organization and do something about it.” There’s a different momentum going on. The good news is I don’t want to say I’m not experiencing that. Something is going on in these organizations where I’m coming in helping them begin to change the culture and they’re telling me these kinds of things.

It’s spearheaded by individuals who are in key positions saying, “Something’s awry. I want us to get back on track. We’re seeing individuals who are backstabbing others and a lot of gossip going around. Many things are starting to erode our team’s effectiveness. What can you do, Mitch?” I don’t want to say you’re not hopeful. I can’t think of the right word but I’d have to say I’m more hopeful.

Let me phrase this a different way then or to a different side of this. Quite often, their managers tend to be control freaks. They’re threatened by anyone in their team who is talented moving up. I have a client and we’re dealing with her boss who controls access to the rest of the company and he takes credit for all her ideas. I see that as a scarcity mindset. As someone who thinks of a zero-sum game, if my team member does well, that’s going to damage me because she had an idea that I didn’t have. Is there a way you can deal with that situation?

One thing I do want to be clear about when you’re talking about managers is it’s a small segment of individuals who are stealing credit for the idea of others. Many managers are so gracious about extending compliments and not just compliments saying, “This person is the one or this team deserves the credit.” Back to your question, “How do you handle when someone is taking credit for the ideas of others?” First of all, it’s important to give that individual feedback.

The managers who steal the credit for others' ideas are only a small segment of the whole. Click To Tweet

It’s threatening, I understand. If there are other individuals that are experiencing that, give that feedback collectively to this individual. If it’s only you, then it’s going to be more threatening to find someone to collaborate with someone from Human Resources to go in with you. What do you say to that individual? It’s important to frame it positively and talk about concrete and behaviorally specific behaviors. First of all, to just say you’re stealing credit for my ideas is quite inflammatory to that individual. “No, I don’t. I remember when I did and give you credit.”

What you want to do is be specific saying, “In the last meeting, I want to talk with you about something.” You go through the same process that I shared with you, intro, behavior, impact and toss back. “I want to talk with you about something that’s bothering me,” intro. Behavior, “The last time we were together and your boss was there, you had shared with her that you were working on this and I supported you in this.”

Impact, “When you do this, it makes me feel that I’m not valued because I didn’t only support you but I was the lead on this project.” Toss back, “How can we course correct this? Maybe there’s nothing we can do now. How can we change this in the future so that this doesn’t happen again?” You need to have those critical kinds of conversations with individuals and a way to do this. I recommend the intro, behavior, impact, toss back. I do a lot of work with the Healthy Workforce Institute and one of the things that we talk about is script it ahead of time and practice it with someone because these interviews are highly not part of me. These solutions are highly threatening.

One of the things about scripting it is the same if you’re giving a speech as a speaker trainer. It is a presentation. Speaking is a physical act. You have to train your lips and tongue. If you’re emotionally involved and your emotions are high, you are going to have a hard time saying what you want to say.

What’s interesting about this is the scripting ahead of time and then talking with someone you trust. Many people don’t do this. It’s a very simple strategy. One word of caution is that if you find someone who you are practicing this with, make sure that you’re not doing it just so that they would agree with you. Isn’t it awful? What a terrible person to have to report to that individual. What you want is you want that individual to give you feedback on what you’re saying.

SWGR Mitchell Kusy | Respectful Engagement

Respectful Engagement: What a terrible person to have to report to that individual. What you want is for that individual to give you feedback on what you’re saying.


Tell them you’re practicing. I often think of it as a living mirror that you need their feedback. What doesn’t make sense is if they can put themselves into the shoes of the difficult person. “Pretend you are that scary manager and then listen. How is that going to feel to you?” That’s an old acting technique, a lot of centuries old.

Do you know what’s interesting about what you said? If you don’t do this and you want the person to corroborate with you, isn’t it awful? What it becomes is a form of gossip. It’s a subtle way of gossiping about that individual. If your intent isn’t that but the other individual says, “It’s so awful. I feel so badly for you. You need to stop them,” I don’t want to talk about how awful this is. What I want to practice with you is how I can put my best foot forward with this individual and get my point across.

That’s a very good point because we’re conditioned to be sympathetic and say yes indeed. If you can get somebody to think like the person who’d be listening and what’s going to make sense and what doesn’t, that’s excellent. We’re in the era of tightening budgets. People get nervous. Have you seen that toxic behavior rises when people are generally scared?

It’s interesting. One would think that when people are frightened, we might see more toxic behaviors. I have to say I have not. When I’m little line of demarcation about toxic behaviors, one of the things that as part of my work with the Healthy Workforce Institute and that I learned from the CEO there, Dr. Renée Fleming, is when you look at these kinds of behaviors, we’re looking at three benchmarks. Is it targeted, harmful and repeated?

It’s not just getting up on the wrong side of the bed or having a bad day. It needs to be targeted to an individual or a group. When it’s targeted to a group, it’s often in an organization called mobbing. Is it targeted and harmful? It doesn’t matter what your intent is. If it’s harmful to that person, it’s harmful. Third, it’s repeated over time. Targeted, harmful and repeated so that we’re seeing a pattern.

Those are some of the dimensions of toxic behaviors that are most critical. I have not found to answer your question directly. When people are frightened, we might see that more. It could even be the opposite. When people are frightened thinking of losing their jobs and they have a tendency to do this, they’re going to be less likely to do it.

That’s a great way of thinking of it. There’s a part of me that has a hard time imagining why people would do that. I had a happy childhood so I don’t tend to do that. I have a hard time putting myself into the shoes of the people who are being toxic.

I agree 100%. One of the things I say to leaders when I’m working with them is, “Stop trying to figure out why. Just deal with the behavior.”

Stop trying to figure out why. Just deal with the behavior. Click To Tweet

We don’t have to be therapists.

We shouldn’t be. We learned this in Management 101. I remember this scenario years ago when people used to have cocktails at lunches. They’d come back and some people would be a little bit more inebriated. You talk to someone. One of the things about their behavior you don’t want to do is you’re coming in drunk or you are alcoholic. We’re not diagnosticians. What we need to do is call them on their behavior. People are saying that they smell alcohol on your breath or if it’s contemporary, you are erratic at meetings and we’ve noticed this. A number of people have said that you’re raising your voice and missing meetings. “This needs to stop. How can I help you do this?”

If the individual has a drug problem, that may come out but that is not a leader’s job to be diagnosticians. Like with toxic behaviors, you have a toxic personality. Many people aren’t psychologists so they shouldn’t be assessing personalities. They should be calling people on their behavior in a concrete and behaviorally specific way.

How does this coordinate with knowing your audience, which is rule number one for a presentation? The majority of the work that I do is helping people present themselves well in an organization. Speech is the top 10% but knowing your audience, the way they like to listen and what motivates them is how you get things done, in my book at least. Where does that cross the line into being an armchair psychologist?

A general question that’s a good question to ask, whatever the behavior that someone is demonstrating is, “Help me understand what’s going on.” You’re not asking for someone to say, “I’ve had a bad childhood. Help me understand what’s going on.” If they launch into something like, “I’m going through a divorce,” you can be empathic and say, “I’m sad to hear that. What kind of support can I be to help you get back on track here at work?”

It is important that the manager addresses the behavior. If they say, “I don’t know how or if I can,” then I’m not the manager talking with this person. “I’m not a psychologist. You need to get this taken care of because what I need you to do here at work is the following.” If it’s possible, say, “Maybe you want to consider taking some time off.” What’s important is that you are supportive and that you have a team to take care of as well and manage that performance.

Tell us a little bit more about the Healthy Workforce Institute. You said Renée Fleming because we were talking about opera singers.

I called Renée Fleming. It’s your Dr. Renee Thompson.

You need to send her a CD by Renée Fleming.

Here’s the interesting thing. When we interviewed last time, I didn’t talk about Renée Fleming. For those who don’t know, Renée Fleming is a wonderful opera diva. She went on a sidetrack leaving the Metropolitan Opera but she’s back, believe it or not. What I meant to say is Dr. Renee Thompson. Dr. Renee Thompson is the CEO of the Healthy Workforce Institute. I do a lot of work with them. Their mantra is to eradicate bullying and incivility and the domain that we operate there is healthcare.

When I’m working with Dr. Renee Thompson, CEO of the Healthy Workforce Institute, we focus on healthcare and how we can help that targeted population eradicate bullying and incivility. What we know from thousands of articles is it impacts not only personal well-being and team performance but also patient experience and safety.

You’re talking about healthcare in hospitals and clinics.

Outside of the Healthy Workforce Institute, I work outside of healthcare as well. When I’m working with Dr. Renee Thompson at the Healthy Workforce Institute, her area is healthcare. I’m glad you corrected me because you have an opera on my mind.

Many years of me being paid for that and then still loving it. Probably that many for you to love it. That sounds like a fabulous place to finish this. If you have one suggestion for someone who feels like they’re being bullied or they have somebody toxic who’s not being good to them, what’s one thing you can do if somebody here is listening and said, “That’s me?”

Take baby steps the way I shared an intro, behavior, impact, and toss back. “If I give this person feedback, is it likely to backfire?” Ask that yourself. If you determine that it’s likely to backfire, it’s going to be a horrible work situation for you or you could be fired if it’s your boss, ask someone you trust that same question and then make a decision. If the decision is to say nothing, then you need to have a plan B for yourself.

SWGR Mitchell Kusy | Respectful Engagement

Respectful Engagement: If I give this person feedback, is it likely to backfire?


Plan B could be, “I’m going to let this go. When I’m treated this way, I’m going to let it go over my head.” If you can’t do that, then you have a decision to make. If you’re not going to give the individual feedback or try that process to give the feedback, then what’s important is that your plan B then becomes, “Maybe I need to look for another job.”

Mitch Kusy, thank you so much for being my guest again. This was fun.

I loved it. I hope you’ll ask me again.

You and I are going to be in the same city at the same time and we’ll go to the opera together. How’s that?

I would love that. Thank you, Elizabeth.

Thank you so much for joining me. If you enjoyed this episode, tell your friends. Subscribe to us on YouTube and on whatever platform you’re using. Please, leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. That’s the one that counts. We need reviews and followers. Thanks again to Dr. Mitch Kusy for being my guest. I’ll see you on the next one.


Important Links


About Mitchell Kusy

SWGR Mitchell Kusy | Respectful EngagementA 2005 Fulbright Scholar in Organization Development, Dr. Kusy is a professor in the Graduate School of Leadership & Change at Antioch University.

His passion is co-designing work cultures to improve staff and customer experiences that increase team performance, everyday civility, and the bottom line.

Mitch has consulted and been a keynote speaker with hundreds of organizations nationally and internationally, helping create work cultures of respectful engagement impacting individual, team, and bottom-line performance. He previously headed leadership and organization development at American Express Financial Advisors and HealthPartners.

His client list ranges from A-Z from AT&T to firms in New Zealand. His recent work is with the Healthy Workforce Institute, focusing on increasing civility in the healthcare field. Mitch is a bestselling author with 6 business books and over 100 research-to-practice articles. His most recent book is Why I Don’t Work Here Anymore.

Dr. Kusy is the recipient of the Minnesota Organization Development Practitioner of the Year Award. He resides in Minneapolis and Palm Springs.