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You can’t fix apathy

One of the most frustrating things that you’ll ever find when you’re working with your team or with people from your organization is apathy or a lack of work ethic. There’s nothing more frustrating then watching somebody perform at a subpar level. Actually it doesn’t even matter if they’re performing up to standard but if they’re operating beneath where you believe they can perform its incredibly frustrating; particularly when that apathy is sort of written all over their faces. When someone is less than engaged when you’re sitting in a meeting, they’re checking their phone, or clearly have other things that are of greater interest to them; that to me is the quickest ticket out of the organization.

I feel that an apathetic attitude is the sort of thing that catches. It only takes a few of those types of folks to ruin the spirit and fight of the team. You can cure a lack of training. You can address that. There are many other failings on a team that you can have that you can address in a fairly straight forward fashion either through training, educational opportunities, or helping someone through an area where they’re having difficulty, but it’s hard to cure a lack of desire, broken work ethic, or just a lack of caring.

I’ve found turn for turn that you can address just about anything else on a team. If you care and you’re willing to put in a little bit of work, you can overcome just about anything and I think that is true in your work a day world and just about every aspect of your life. There are very few things that can’t be cured through training, education, and effort. When the problem is someone doesn’t care or they exhibit a lack of effort, that’s the type of thing that as an employer or a team leader you have to identify that and root it out immediately. Whether that means getting that person off of your team or out of your organization, I think it’s something that if you don’t address it; it catches. People see that and they go, “Well why do I care, why am I trying so hard when this person is not.” It’s unfair when you’ve got people that are pushing as hard as they can possibly push to achieve something.

There’s nothing that drives me over the edge faster than a lack of effort. I think, as with many things, you have to address it with the person directly first. I think, as with many things in the office place, you owe it to the people that work for you and with you to address things head on and ask. Maybe there is something that is correctible that’s causing it or maybe you’re misinterpreting something. Either way I think that once you’ve addressed it on that level, if there’s not a change then you have to find a way to move that person out of your organization or off your team. Otherwise they will absolutely cripple your ability over time to achieve things. Eventually they’ll end up poisoning the rest of your team and the rest of your organization.

I’m not sure how other people feel about this but it’s something that I feel incredibly strongly about. When I see this happening, it’s almost painful to watch. I try to address it immediately and it’s something where I’ve don’t have a lot of tolerance. I’ll take a lot more time trying to help somebody through an issue on delivery then I will on apathy. You can hand me things that have mistakes in them a lot more times if I feel like you’re really trying, you’re pushing, you’re just maybe not getting it, or maybe you’re struggling with how to put the pieces together. I’m ok with that if you’re working hard or if I can see that you’re working hard and you’re trying to take advantage of what you’ve got around you. I am willing to accept that and work with that, but you can’t fix not caring.

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Mark Hammer

Nice post.

I was just asking someone about this today over coffee. My question was whether there was a “point of no return” when it came to disengagement, where there was simply nothing – no changes, no incentives – that could ever restore whatever enthusiam might have previously existed for the job/mission.

And if such a point does exist, then I would suggest being aware of individual employees quickly reaching that point is every bit as important, if not more important, than running around measuring “engagement” in the aggregate (which will generally include new hires, who are fired up and pleased about everything). Because, like you say, you can’t fix not caring.

So whose responsibility is it to correct that situation? Is it the employee’s responsibility to approach the manager and declare “I’d like to care more about my job, but none of this really matters much to me anymore. What do we do about it?”. Or is it the manager’s responsibility to take note, approach the employee and ask “It doesn’t seem like you care very much about your job anymore. Am I right, and if so, what can we do about it?”.

Or is it the organization’s right to ignore until employees are dead weight or problematic, and then can them?

Peter Sperry

I have found that apathy is almost always a response to poor leadership. Staff are not going to embrace unemployment so unless there are better options, they will remain with a bad leader but slowly slide away mentally. Ask yourself how often the same document can be cycled through the system to resolve the burning question of whether apostrophes stand straight or are slanted before the staff ceases to care. How many senior executive food fights can filter down 3 to 4 levels before workers below lose interest in whether the CFO or the CIO prevails in the latest beauracratic battle? How many repetative kazon, planning, alignment, vison, architect meetings for perpetually stalled projects which never move from square one can professionals sit through before they would gouge out their own eye balls with a rusty spoon rather tha attend one more?

Apathy is in fact one of the easiest things to cure. Just demonstrate that caring actually results in some sort of progress. It doesn’t have to be a lot of progress; but there has to be some meaningful difference in outcome that reflects the effort invested. Otherwise, why should they care?

Henry Brown

IMO you can fix not caring…

First one has to truly identify those who don’t care or, if you will, are suffering from apathy… Often the reaction of some would be to display “I don’t give a S_ _ _ attitude when they in fact have other issues with the tasking. …

With those who have been identified as truly not caring, often times the recognition of the “issue” is enough to get “the juice flowing again” other times a slight change in assignment, I have found, seems to work

Granted in some cases, especially those who have been suffering/displaying this attitude for extended periods of time, it is much harder to solve the problem. I believe that if every leader took the time to address the lack of caring by ANY team member instead of just pushing them off to someone else to solve their would be a whole lot less of localized apathy…

Having said this I am not sure that there is anything that can be done about institutionalized apathy

Joshua Millsapps

I love Peter Sperry’s response to this and to be honest it forced me to question my own real world situation that prompted the post and guess what…there was plenty of fault on my side. Once I get over the smarting sensation of being the source of my own problems, I’ll probably post something about how I resolved the issue and what I did wrong to end up where I did. Thanks to everyone for making this a conversation and a learning experience as well as an outlet.

Eric Erickson

Apathy is often a symptom of frustration. After all, why care about a problem when every time you propose a solution it’s shot down? Eventually you just give up, shrug your shoulders and collect a paycheck.

Apathy is not some external virus that infects your workplace. It’s a defense mechanism people employ when they are stymied in their jobs. Those people would probably jump at the next job offer to find a place where their passions are appreciated, not suppressed.

Kim Beedle

Joshua I’m not sure how come your automatically ruling it as apathy??

Many people process differently than others due to the way their brain is wired. For example I have ADHD coupled with other learning disabilities. I could take notes write a letter or doodle and still be paying attention to what is being said. Sometimes using another part of the brain enhances the ability for another one to listen and process etc. Most people don’t say they have a disability because they have worked around it. Some have no clue that they have one due to their school etc missing the boat when they were there. And some may never tell you for fear of retaliation or judgement of something that is rarely understood by those who do not have it.

Maybe a family memebr is ill or there is stress outside of work. While we all want to check those things at the door it is sometimes impossible to do.

On the other hand I have also been on the receiving end of ridiculous time wasting meetings that are not focused or have no intent/point. I have sat in meeetings where it was just a way for the person in charge to puff his chest and let us know he was in charge. It was a complete waste of time. He could send everything and I do mean everything in an email and let me be doing my job and not wasting my time with quotes he just had to share that were targeted to a certain person and other miscellaneous items on his “agenda”.

So that brings me to leadership. I can follow a great leader any day anywhere anytime. Keep in mind that a lot of the time the lack of performance is probably due to bad leadership. Not everyone in a supervisory role is a good leader. As we all know many get theior positions from who they know or who they smooze up to. Leaders need to be, know and do and actually be able to engage all members of their team and inspire them. Sometimes communication is the simplest form of leadership.

I can go on about leadership but for now just know that there are likely a whole lot of things that you don’t know that are going on with someone or the team etc. Climate surveys are a great means to identify issues that are going on. One that I did I found out that a several were being sexually harrassed by an individual. Had I not done that survey I would have not known the scope. I suspected that it was going on and I found out the depth.

Joshua Millsapps

Kim – I appreciate the feedback and as many have suggested the problem can be with the person doing the leading. There are an enormous number of factors that play into our work day performance. I recognize that and I understand that as a leader part of my job is helping create a climate conducive to high performance. Thanks for mentioning climate surveys and other tools that can help shed light on the causes of some of the ambivalence that can be seen on the job from time to time. It is certainly true that by getting a better picture of what is going on you can help prevent these issues on the job.