A is for Apathy

Jul 17 2015 by Max McKeown Print This Article

A quick search on Amazon reveals just one solitary business book about overcoming apathy. And yet anyone who been a manager for more than a week must surely recognise that this is the essence of leadership: Getting the buggers to care. Isn't it?

Sometimes this is confused with "getting the buggers to behave" but that's more classroom stuff or management stuff if you like - if you can only manage to get the adults to sit quietly with them legs crossed until home time you really haven't achieved much have you?

The manager has to justify his own existence first. So ask yourself: Does your presence at work increase the profits of the company by at least five times your salary?

It's easy to ask the question of other managers you have to deal with first (your manager for instance, or his managers manager, or the whole board if you have the time in between confiscating mobile phones and deleting pointless emails) since it's not hard to doubt the benefit they bring (or why you should be paid more and why they should have to sacrifice their jobs to make the required funds available).

Once that is done - and the general principle established - consider the ways you could increase profitability. Could your people do the same job without you? Would they work harder or slower in your absence? Do you organise them better than they would organise themselves? Do they lack key technical abilities or knowledge that you alone possess? How did they cope before you got the job? Does your existence at work overcome apathy or add to it?

Does your existence at work overcome apathy or add to it?
"The eternal problem of the human being is how to structure his waking hours", in the words of Eric Berne (in his super-cool book "The Games People Play") and it follows, I hope you will agree, that the "eternal problem of the manager" is how to help employees who want to do the work as a way of avoiding boredom.

They may not know it, but as a manager, you are only useful to them if you influence their continued receipt of money and provide them with a way of being emotionally fed (not fed-up).

This means, according to Eric Berne, that they need to gain "as many satisfactions as possible from transactions with other members" including (take a deep breath!) "rituals, pastimes, games, intimacy, and activity, designed to bring "somatic and psychic equilibrium" through relief of tension, avoidance of noxious situations, and procurement of recognition".

If you control the salary payments they will probably "behave", but they are hardly going to dedicate themselves to the cause or come skipping into work. You will get the body only to the extent that you can monitor and control it - not the disposable, floating, discretionary talent that is only applied when the state of indifference is overcome.

Apathy is object- and situation-specific. A perfectly energetic, happy person in one situation can be apathetic, lethargic, and even depressed in another. They can even change depending on who is in the room and what is going on in the room.

You must have noticed the change in energy levels when a phone call is received - sometimes (let's assume a loved one calling) you see smiles and animation - other times (perhaps the boss? Or the dentist) you will see furrowed brows and deflation.

What causes it? Stress can cause apathy - and here the competent leader can help (and others slacker incompetents can learn) by giving back control of the situation to the person who has learned to be helpless at work, or doing a certain task, or simply in your presence.

If experience has demonstrated (in the vicious, merciless way it can) that effort is futile (you are going to lose anyway so less efforts = losing with more grace) then they will stay oh so very passive whenever the unpleasant situation arises or the unpleasant (or apathy inducing) manager is on the scene.

Not only does the description of apathy match your own experiences (doesn't it?) but it is also a well-established psychological principle - inescapable punishment (or simply unpleasant consequences) leads to indifference. Prison, war, disability, famine, drought, and excruciating appraisals with the boss or warped brainstorming (brainbashing) meetings in which no suggestion is ever good enough and no answer ever correct.

Those who become apathetic (or give up) do so because they see the situation as a problem they have personally caused or something that happens everywhere (pervasive) and always (pervasive - so why try and find an alternative?).

Not everyone succumbs to this so-called Learned helplessness. About a third of people figure out that they can change the situation (either from inside or by leaving) and that it isn't their fault, but two-thirds are likely to become indifferent when faced with evidence that effort is futile.

A leader's task is to provide evidence that effort is worthwhile and that things can be better - both generally and particularly. In so doing, they will succeed in overcoming apathy, beating boredom, and restoring purpose to people's lives.

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About The Author

Max McKeown
Max McKeown

Max McKeown works as a strategic adviser for four of the five most admired companies in the world. He is a well-known speaker on subjects including innovation and competitive advantage. His latest book, #NOW: The Surprising Truth About the Power of Now, was published in July 2016.