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The Tripping Point in Leadership: Overcoming Organizational Apathy
From Chapter #1 Apathy: A Natural, Human Instinct I had just finished my introductions in front of more than 70 top executives of an international organization when I made a shocking and somewhat risky statement. I told them that all the organizational problems they had identified on their introductory worksheets were merely symptoms of the same...
From Chapter #1 Apathy: A Natural, Human Instinct I had just finished my introductions in front of more than 70 top executives of an international organization when I made a shocking and somewhat risky statement. I told them that all the organizational problems they had identified on their introductory worksheets were merely symptoms of the same universal problem — apathy. The individual annual incomes of this group ranged from $250,000 to $500,000, and I had just told them they were apathetic! At least that is what they heard. I quickly asked them to withhold their judgment for a moment, and give me a chance to explain before collectively deciding that a high-priced development expert had just insulted them. As a hush fell over the room, I began to verbally review the general list of people problems that they had provided for me prior to the meeting: - indecisiveness - lack of drive - lack of creativity - lack of focus - stagnation - burnout - imbalance - the list went on and on. This was their list, not mine! I paused for a second and just looked at them. Then I asked each executive to write down the following developmental definition for apathy: A natural, human instinct, common to us all, that consistently encourages us to seek a comfort zone in which nothing ever changes. Pens began to move across legal pads. After a few moments, I asked the group this question, "How many of you know someone in your current organization who is impeded by this description of apathy?" The entire group raised their hands in unison. Then I asked the hard question, "How many of you have, at some point, suffered from this same description?" You could hear a pin drop. Finally, one person started laughing and courageously raised her hand. Her actions stimulated other colleagues to raise their hands, and the entire room broke into laughter of genuine confession. Facing the Facts The word apathy is an unfriendly and threatening word to most people, and that is probably the reason I never hear executives use the word to describe problems within their organizations. Instead, I hear the listing of symptoms, such as: - burnout - stagnation - indecision - lack of creativity - lack of motivation - lack of productivity - and so on. These symptoms may sound more professional, academic, clinical, or forgiving, but symptoms, if worked on exclusively, lead an organization on a wild goose chase, fixing symptoms but never solving real problems! Comfortable with the Truth Apathy is a very useful and effective word for me now after years of experience. In fact I have learned that until a person gains an awareness of how the forces of apathy work to impede effectiveness, behavioral change and improvement are out of the question. Awareness begins with an understanding of apathy as a natural, human instinct common to us all. Usually when someone is called apathetic, he or she is being accused of indifference. But the working definition I am using for apathy has little to do with indifference. It has everything to do with describing the relationship between the basic motivation of security and the natural, human instinct described as apathy. Take a close look at my working definition of apathy: A natural, human instinct, common to us all, that consistently encourages us to seek a comfort zone in which nothing ever changes. Now, ask yourself this question, "What is one of humankind's basic, motivational drives?" According to Maslow's famous book, A Theory of Human Motivation, most all human behavior can be traced back to the basic motivation of self-preservation and security. Some may be motivated by higher-level needs, but as soon as their security is threatened, they quickly revert to self-preservation. This process of seeking security and building unproductive comfort zones, if left unchecked, leads to behaviors that are usually described as the causes of people problems and ineffectiveness. In order to demonstrate how the forces of apathy as a natural, human instinct act as the root cause of most individual and organizational dysfunction, I have included the following real case studies, which are typical examples out of hundreds. (Names have been changed and do not relate to the actual client case.) John, a Senior VP John is a senior vice president in a large international company. He is 52 years old and has been with the same company for over 27 years. In talking with John, I asked him this question, "John, do your employees have any consistent criticism of you or your leadership?" He quickly replied, "Indecision." I asked if he believed those critiques to be accurate. He said, "I don't think so because with the company in transition now, I have to make sure my decisions are right. It's better not to make a decision at all than to make the wrong one. After all, I'll be retiring in the next few years anyway." I interviewed several of John's employees, and what I heard most often was this: "John is a good man, but he keeps us waiting forever for an answer to our basic requests. His indecision is causing severe delays in production." The forces of apathy are the cause of John's problems. Indecision is the symptom. John has constructed a comfort zone for himself to avoid the fear of making a bad decision and risking his security. As a result, his unconscious goal is never to make a mistake. John's comfort zone is a place in which nothing can ever change and mistakes can never happen. John's leadership behavior is unproductive but comfortable.
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