C-Suite Network

Combating Employee Apathy

Today I had lunch with a friend who is a cognitive neuroscientist. She was telling me about her research that identifies which patients are more likely to comply with their doctor’s instructions – whether regarding diet, medication, smoking, etc. – and which are likely to ignore instructions and continue their unhealthy habits, undeterred. She said there was one variable that was the strongest predictor of which path a person would choose: whether or not they demonstrated apathy.

In that situation, apathy stemmed from a variety of beliefs ranging from denial that the risks of their current lifestyle were as severe as doctors claimed, to lack of confidence that they would be able to maintain the new routine, or fear that it would simply be too much work. Whereas her examples pertained to healthcare, I realized that the apathy factor is just as obstructive in leadership and motivation.

For me, the question of converting apathy into motivation brings up an interesting question regarding who is responsible for this change. To what extent is it the employee’s responsibility to motivate themselves to perform better, and to what extent is it yours, as their supervisor, to help them find a reason to feel motivated?

An apathetic employee can be toxic to an organization. The longer you let them be, the more damage they can cause. Some would say that these are the employees you need to terminate, and soon. But sometimes it’s not that simple, such as when the company process for termination can take months or longer, and require substantial consistent documentation. Plus, many have the potential to turn around and become productive contributors with the right guidance and opportunities.

But how can you recognize apathy early on, before it’s too late?

There are a variety of warning signs of apathy. As all communication is conveyed through three primary channels – verbal, vocal and visual – let’s take a look at some of the signs in each area.

Verbally, listen for specific comments that indicate that someone is not on board, or doubts the value or validity of what he or she has heard. Passive-aggressive comments like, “Whatever,” “Here we go again,” or “it doesn’t matter what I say because nothing is going to change anyway,” are clear indicators that there is a serious disconnect between their perception of a situation and yours. Alternatively, a lack of voluntary, proactive engagement in conversations may indicate a lack of interest or a lack of confidence in something. Try to notice patterns in the person’s comments, as the words he uses will often either implicitly or explicitly indicate the nature of the problem.

Sometimes, however, the words themselves may not overtly indicate a problem, but as the saying goes, “it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” It becomes important to listen past the words to their delivery. Vocally, when that person speaks, do they sound interested in the topic, or tend to mumble their way through most conversations? Are they rushing through their comments like they just want to get the meeting over with? Is there something in their voice that sounds anxious, frustrated, terse, sad or distracted? What if you’re not sure what you’re hearing? The answer is simple: Ask.

Finally, trust your eyes. Look for behaviors that indicate a lack of connection, such as substandard performance, poor attendance, or lack of participation in group conversations or activities. Physical and behavioral signs can also include sighs of resignation or exasperation, eye-rolling or lack of eye contact, poor posture, and frowning.

It’s not to say that the occasional demonstration of any of these signs is an immediate red flag; after all, we all have good days and bad days. But when the behavioral exception turns into the rule, it’s time to give it a second look.

At that point once you have identified some patterns, it’s critical to speak with the employee and get to the heart of the apathy. You can’t determine a solution, or even guide someone else to finding their own solution, unless you find out what the root cause of the problem is. Often, apathy can be an indirect cry for help.

This kind of conversation can be one of the most intimidating and challenging conversation for leaders, but whatever you do, don’t ignore apathy. For those who are conflict-averse to start with, the issue is fraught with hazards and uncomfortable topics from the employee’s objectively poor performance to their subjectively negative attitude. If you need some help in broaching this discussion, check out my previous post and video for strategies and tips on how to initiate sensitive conversations.

You might discover that they don’t understand the importance of their role or how their work fits into the big picture. Alternatively, the work could be too easy and thus unstimulating, or too difficult and thus overwhelming. Maybe they are dealing with a stressful home situation such as a sick and elderly parent or child with special needs. Or they could feel like they don’t know how to fit into the company or departmental culture, which can be demoralizing.

Naturally, some of those issues are easier to address than others in helping the employee find solutions that inspire internal or intrinsic motivation (see Sharon Smith’s series here on this issue). But through constructive dialogue, you can determine mutually beneficial and responsible steps to take, such as empowering the employee with training for greater skills development and future career opportunities…. Or you may jointly decide that it’s in everyone’s best interest for you to introduce the employee to someone outside the company who could offer them a position that they will find fulfilling, and leave of their own volition, on good terms. But sometimes, just knowing that you noticed and cared enough to ask what’s going on can be a huge first step toward overcoming apathy, and changing attitudes, behaviors and performance.

Of course, the employee has to make the ultimate choice for him or herself, but part of leading and mentoring is helping people gain new perspectives and grow. The best leaders can find the right path to lead anyone.

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