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Apathy and Leadership

By Jayne Jenkins (1188 words)
Posted in Leadership & Teambuilding on July 16, 2013

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By Jayne Jenkins, CEO, Churchill Leadership Group

When you think about apathy and the impact it can have on your business, leadership may not be the first place you look, but maybe it should be. By definition Apathy is a state of indifference, or the suppression of emotions such as concern, excitement, motivation and passion. Business leaders actively work to reduce apathy in an effort to increase "employee engagement" because once Apathy sets in, individuals become "disengaged" or even "unengaged" at work having a direct effect on the bottom line. Leaders and teams that want to go above and beyond at work achieve greater results.


What happens when Apathy sets in at the leadership level?  What is the root cause?


What really got me thinking about apathy and leadership was observing several news interviews both in the US and in the UK over the last few weeks. The interviews were with everyday business leaders talking about the economy and the future of their businesses. It dawned on me that their focus was so much on what was wrong and what was not possible that they appeared to accept negativity as the norm. They were missing what was right about their business and the potential right under their nose - their people!


The negative emphasis in these interview conversations was on static unemployment numbers, rising global competition and the lack of leadership in government. All of which may be real, however all of which they each had little to no direct or immediate control of.  It made me wonder how the intense negativity and apathy they showed as leaders was showing up with their teams.


Let's think about this in your world? Take a minute to think about the last couple of days of work.  When did you show a degree of disinterest, lack of enthusiasm or even negativity? Do you see it with your peers, maybe your boss or on your team? What is the consequence of such apathy for your business results, to your enjoyment of your job, and ultimately to your customers?


Apathy (and negativity) is like a disease, when it starts it grows, like weeds in your garden. It can transfer from one person to the next, across teams spreading like wild fire.


What are the some of the symptoms that you observe when apathy sets in? Maybe you see a lack of drive in yourself or in others? Low creativity or innovation? Are people talking about problems or solutions? Is there a lack of focus? Do you see burn out or stagnation?


I could go on......


There is rarely just one cause for such apathy and it is key to drill down and understand the root causes.


We see the same apathetic symptoms in teams where there is low employee engagement. If you’ve seen some of Maslow's work on the basic needs of human motivation, you know that most human behavior can be traced back to the basic motivation of self-preservation and security. When our security is threatened, we as human beings quickly revert back to self-preservation, trying to find a place that’s comfortable and safe. When we do this too often, it can lead to behaviors that are usually described as problems and ineffectiveness, such as I described above.


Here is an example: One of our clients was recently going through a period of ambiguity within their company. Would the company be bought or merged? Are they financially stable enough to get through the next year if neither happened? What does that mean for job security? There were many scary unknowns that could affect that leader's future, as well as the future of her teams.


In a situation like that a leader can become indecisive. Indecisive because any decision they make can have such a dramatic effect on the future. In cases like this it becomes so important to a leader that they make the right decision, that in fact what ends up happening is they start to stop making decisions all together. They can become indecisive.


By becoming indecisive a leader in a situation of such scary ambiguity creates a pseudo comfort for them, avoiding the fear of making a bad decision or risking his own security, and that of others. In time they can become "apathetic."


Such a decision is often an unconscious one for a leader. Their leadership becomes ineffective but comfortable. So what can you do?


6 Steps to Overcoming Apathy Within Yourself & Your Team


  1. Leadership starts with you. Observe your own behavior and when apathy is starting to set in for you.

  2. Be aware. Where are you seeing apathy on your team? At meetings with your peers? Maybe your customers are apathetic about making decision to purchase your products?

  3. When you see it, dig deeper, slow down, ask questions, and take the time to understand.

  4. Where appropriate have a conversation to talk about what you are observing with apathetic individuals and the negative impact it might be having on them. Show you care and build their awareness around the consequences of such behavior.

  5. Coach the individual to determine a solution to empower and engage them. Focus on what you can control and the benefits of such a solution.

  6. Follow up and review progress. Recognize success.


When you do notice yourself projecting a negative perspective on your business, make an effort to find solutions.  If you can’t overcome negativity on your own, think about getting an executive coach to help you work through it before it impacts your results.


{#/pub/images/JayneJenkins3.jpg}Written by Jayne Jenkins, CEO Churchill Leadership Group-Jayne, a STAND OUT Master Strengths Coach and Workshop Facilitator, is a leadership business veteran working with some of the largest companies in the world including Exxon, AstraZeneca and Sanofi-Aventis.  She has over 23 years of experience leading successful sales teams and holding positions in Marketing, Strategic Operations and Organization Development.  As CEO of Churchill Leadership Group, Jane consults and coaches teams to maximize the impact of Managers and Teams through a focus on STRENGTHS for sustainable results.


Do you have a question for Jayne?  Post it in our Senior Manager Community and she will be happy to help: Ask an Expert


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Here are some related articles you may be interested in:

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Comments (1)

Dan Russell posted on: July 18, 2013

Great article! I think it is very important to have compassion in a company and ensure that employees are happy. The focus can definitely stray to the wrong areas which makes a business lose its luster. Of course, all those things talked about in the article that companies tend to focus on are negative issues. If you focus on negative things all the time, you can lose compassion and so does the business slowly but surely. It only takes one person, especially one in upper management, to create an atmosphere that opens up all kinds of crazy behavior. We are at work far too long every day to have apathy and indifference such as that. Looking at ones self is probably the hardest thing to do but such a necessary trait especially as a leader. The part about being a leader that some managers don't grasp, is that a leader is someone who serves their employees. It isn't the other way around. If you have compassion and true leadership, you have happy employees, or at least content employees that come to work and want to do their job!

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