Is it Apathy?

How often do you think about the people around you in your business and what you're thinking is that they just don't care enough - "that's why our projects run late, that's why our customer satisfaction scores are low, that's why we just aren't as competitive as other firms around us...

" It's something I hear quite often. Not necessarily in the exact words of course but variants of this theme - that "culturally we're like treacle" (or "quickening cement" as one client referred to it), that "there's no point doing that because our people aren't interested".

Then last week I finally received the inspiration to write this piece. I was with an executive of a major insurance company and we're talking about the things we normally discuss - how the business is going, how it feels for the people, what results he's seeing etc.. and then he told me about a great engagement oriented event that he'd held last year - essentially he'd had his entire team together (a couple of hundred people) and worked with them to develop their strategic priorities. In total, they came up with 6 (a little too many for my liking but...) and by the sounds of it did some really good work allocating a responsible person for each. Then he concludes the story... "when we'd finished, I stood up and told them all that if they don't deliver then it was because they didn't care enough".

"If you don't deliver what we have agreed today, then it's
because you just don't care enough"

So, this got my attention. He went on to say how in two weeks time the group was coming back together and each of the 6 responsible people would be standing in front the group and describing what they'd achieved or in the event that they hadn't achieved much, they'd be explaining why they didn't care enough. I already feel nervous for those 6.

The conversation immediately reminded me of a TED-talk by Dave Meslin that I'd seen some time ago, called "Redefining Apathy" (I've included the video at the foot of this article). He challenges the assumption that people are "too lazy, too selfish and/or too stupid" to bring about meaningful change and whilst his talk was about public policy and societal change, his message resonates clearly with what we observe in the companies we work with.

Now I don't believe that what this executive was doing was terrible, in fact, we know that fear of failure is a very powerful motivator and in some instances it can be used with great effect. In many respects he was using this to light a fire under the team to encourage them to do more than he thought they might do without a push. I wasn't convinced, however, that it would result in him getting the quality he would want from such an exercise.

If you ask yourself how you would feel in the shoes of those people and the idea that someone else might consider you lazy or think that you don't care enough because you were unable to achieve something - I suspect you'd feel somewhat aggrieved. The reality is that it diminishes what you have achieved and dismisses as trivial any of the challenges that contributed to the end result.

Of course, sometimes the issues are far more deliberate. I worked recently with a firm where a small number of executives essentially killed an initiative that was being led from elsewhere in the business by simply not showing up to meetings or controlling agendas of critical team meetings that they did attend. They effectively starved an exciting project of the oxygen it needed inside the business. The effect of these sorts of actions is that the people involved in that project will think twice next time before trying to make a difference. They're also the kinds of behaviours that those leaders will regret when they find themselves unable to encourage participation again in the future.

It is a sad fact that many executives are blissfully unaware of the things that prevent success in their own organisations whether they are deliberate behaviours or unintended consequences of other actions. Instead they choose a route of encouraging harder work, more work, or a "failure is not an option"-style mantra and unsurprisingly these approaches don't breed the best working environments or the healthiest businesses. At best the promote short bursts of good work.

Most people come to work to do a good job, and as leaders the one we should be doing is creating the environment for them to do not only a good job but the best job they possibly can.

So, next time you find yourself thinking about your people as apathetic or lazy or not caring enough - give some thought to Dave Meslin, and then consider what could be going on inside your business that might be preventing people doing their best work.

"There is less to fear from outside competition than from inside inefficiency, discourtesy and bad service." Anonymous


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