Toolpack Consulting: research-based change including surveys

Fighting apathy with engagement

When we look at ways to motivate people, it might be good to first think about the other side.

When people are not motivated to work, they have less energy, are more likely to resist change, and less likely to suggest needed improvements or take that extra step to keep customers coming back.

One reason empowerment and job enrichment tend to work is because they can increase motivation. Apathy, or lack of motivation, is caused by frustration and feelings of powerlessness - even if people have power in reality, if they do not see themselves as having it, there is no gain. In particular, people must feel they control their own destiny if they are to be part of a change effort, provide excellent service, or take risks.

David Kipnis found that giving orders to employees in an authoritarian or forceful way puts "social distance" between the employer and employees. This distance leads to heavier use of direct authority, which further increases the social distance and devalues the employee. In the end, the employer may end up "out of touch" with their employees and, in large organizations, with the business as a whole. The employees may lose their motivation, enthusiasm, and initiative. There are other consequences for the people involved, but many people believe that business decisions should not be influenced by the quality of life of their employees, so we will not delve deeper into that area.

Example: a clerk with an authoritarian supervisor, backed by many rules and regulations, is unable to make any real decisions. Not having any power is frustrating and even demeaning, because it implies that they're not fit. They can react by leaving the job, using their power to enforce rules to the letter (power over customers), or withdraw from the job and settle into apathy.

Giving either too much and too little power can hurt your business' performance in the long run. The best bet is to stay in the middle. Include your employees in decisions which affect them, and the business as a whole. Keep the final decision to yourself, but actively listen to what people say and take it into account. Even if you disagree, if the issue is minor, go with their opinion. On major issues, if you and your employees disagree, sincerely think about what they're saying and let them know your objections and your reasons for taking other actions. Listen carefully to their rationale; it might just turn out that they have information or perspectives which can change your mind. The important thing is to share the power, listen, let people know you're listening, immediately tell the reasons for your decisions, and formally or informally reward them for their efforts.

Raising motivation

One way to raise motivation is to see how the organization's structure, technology, management, or culture may have frustrated them, punished initiative, or rewarded apathy. In some businesses, workers stop innovating or fixing quality problems because "when we stick our necks out they get chopped off."

Even if people are demotivated because of their personal life or past experiences, you can still help them (and yourself). First, reward any initiative they show. The most sincere form of appreciation is adopting their suggestions immediately, where practical, and making sure you link your actions to their ideas (even if it was something you were going to do anyway). Ask for their opinions in such a way that they know you really do care what they think. (The prerequisite is really caring what they think).

Both motivation and apathy are part of self-fulfilling prophecies. If you really believe in your employees, and show it, over time most will meet your expectations and become engaged. They may quickly improve, in a matter of days or weeks; or it may take several months; or you may need to change their job to match their skills. However, the end result is worth the waiting time.

The other side of the coin

We thought twice about including this section, because there are probably managers who would prefer docile, unquestioning, low-performance employees. Fortunately, it is unlikely any of these managers would be reading this page.

There are many ways to create apathy. The self-fulfilling prophecy, which can be used to increase involvement, can also be used to increase apathy. When we have low expectations of people, they tend to live down to them. For example, in one experiment, children classed as "intelligent" had higher performance than children classified as "slow," even though there were no actual differences between the randomly-selected groups. Adults are just as susceptible to others' expectations, even when they're not stated as clearly as with the children in the study.

Sometimes, managers may believe that they care about what people think, when they are only paying lip service.

A college started a suggestion program, complete with incentives and recognition. But the committee in charge of suggestions rarely met, and didn't have the power to take action. Suggestion forms were typed in all capitals, with tight lines, and many unnecessary questions. Some people were recognized, but it took months. The people whose ideas were recognized didn't know if they were actually put into effect. They didn't get any suggestions after the first year. Thus, their system actually increased apathy, not to mention resistance to any sincere future efforts.

Another example:

One office put up a "suggestion pouch" in a prominent location. For months, the pouch bulged with unread forms. Eventually, at the urging of the staff, the manager went through the suggestions. A few weeks after that, some of the ideas were posted with the reasons why they weren't being used. The manager felt no personal stake in the suggestions, and found it easier to rationalize not using them than to see if any were practical (some would have been harmless, easy, and free).

If you ask for ideas, deal with them quickly; and, whether you accept or reject the ideas, immediately tell the employees your reasons. Otherwise, don't ask!

There are other ways to create apathy. When people are giving their opinions, ridicule or demean them; attack the people instead of the ideas; or just ignore them. Promise to do things and never follow through. Take control over every aspect of the business, not letting your employees make up their own mind about anything. These steps virtually ensure apathy, given time.

What to do with engagement

Quite aside from business, apathy is a problem in many societies. Voting rates are low in the United States. Many people feel there's no point in getting involved in how their own town, county, state, or country is run, in the long run allowing a democracy to turn into an oligarchy. Some blame crime partly on apathy; many witnesses ignore crimes because they "don't want to get involved."

Having involved employees is a tremendous advantage. Often, they will be more helpful to customers, and more willing to be flexible. Customer service and overall quality is bound to improve. The apparent intelligence and creativity of your employees may seem to rise sharply.

Having a wide range of ideas to choose from is bound to raise your own decision-making ability, and your employees may bring up points or facts you didn't know. Often, employees at lower levels are more familiar with details of the business which the manager isn't close to (and vice versa). Sharing ideas, facts, and points of view makes everyone more effective and more satisfied.


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