What is one of the most difficult problems any manager can have?
Is it technical issues? No. No matter how difficult it is, there is always a solution somewhere. You may just have to kick around hundreds of ideas until you come up with the best option.
Is it operational problems? I never lost any sleep over operational problems during my entire working life because I had my subordinates handle them .
Is it boss/subordinate relationship? Maybe a little bit scary and de-motivating. Either way, it can make your working life very stressful: As a subordinate, your smallest mistake can look catastrophic to your boss; as a boss you will doubt your management skills, or, much worse, be wary of a mutiny in your hands.
In most cases, however, a boss/subordinate relationship can easily be ironed out by a good dialogue. If that fails, it can be raised to Personnel Department for arbitration.
Is it people problem? Well, ask any manager the most difficult problem he/she has faced and they will be one in saying – people problems.
And when it comes to people-related problems, apathy will be at the top of the list.
Apathy in the workplace can make a manager wish he isn’t a manager; it could make him wish to be somewhere else, basking in the sun in some remote island rather than deal with people he has to repeatedly give instructions to, and check on frequently.
It makes a manager lose much time doing productive work because he is constantly monitoring their performance, keeping his ears to the ground to see if they are infecting other members of the group, or cooking up something to sully his reputation or undermine his authority.
Apathy in the workplace is like flu. It is very debilitating and energy-sapping. And it is just as contagious.
Before your entire group gets down with it, and take you along the way, you must do a little doctoring to bring your people back to health.
Here is a kitchen brew that was effective for me (hopefully, it will work for you, too):
There should not be many of them in your group. You would have your hands full if they comprise the majority.
It is easy to know them. In case your naivety gets the better of you, they are those who:
- Procrastinate. They do for tomorrow what could have been done today;
- They wait for others to move before they do;
- They have the “if it ain’t broke, why fix it?” attitude;
- “Maybe,” or “It depends,” are their favorite words when asked to make a decision or a commitment.
- They never volunteer for a project or special assignments;
- They “disappear” when they see you coming.
- They keep their peace and quiet in group discussions.
Talk to them:
Talk to them either as a group or individually.
Be prepared when you call them to your office. Don’t talk about the weather, politics or how their children are faring in school or their love life. Though they make good ice-breakers, you would be perceived weak and wasting their time if you dwell on these longer than necessary.
Talk about organizational goals, your personal goals and that of your group. Explore their own goals and try to connect them with the bigger goals of the organization.
They will agree with you most of the time; they will not argue or raise any furor over these. Remember they are indifferent, and generally don’t care about goals. They have the “I don’t care, I just work here,” mindset.
Go on the offensive:
No, I don’t mean throwing the books at them or wringing their necks to do better.
By going on the offensive, you cite to them real examples where their performance were below par, vis-à-vis, organizational standards; why you think they are apathetic towards their work, to you or the organization as a whole. .
In a friendly manner, explore their reasons for such behavior.
This could be very uncomfortable because, more often than not, you could be the cause of their apathy. Like in a father and son dialogue, the former usually ends up like sitting on a pile of smoldering charcoal.
Do not interrupt except to ask for clarifications. Listen proactively, take notes if you may. They will be will be invaluable in the next step.
Establish working parameters:
When everything is said and done, establish working parameters to slowly bring them out of their apathy and start functioning the way they are expected to.
This is where you bargain and haggle; give or take. This is where your magnanimity as a person and firmness as a manager are displayed. You may have to do a bit of pride-eating. But that is a small price to pay for getting the results expected of your people.
This is where you and your subordinates start the journey of making changes within yourselves as persons and as members of a team.
Before you part ways, get their commitments and give them yours.
Give it a test drive:
With your working parameters established, give it a test drive to see how it is goes in the workplace.
It may not work on the first try. Habits and attitudes are not easy to change. A piece of an agreement cannot change them overnight. But abandoning them is not an option, either.
Keep on tweaking them until it is workable. Get back to the drawing board as often as necessary until you get rid of all the bugs – yours and theirs.
Drive it yourself:
There are management activities that are best delegated and there are those that need personal attention. Curing apathy is undelegatable.
Take charge. Be on the forefront of your subordinates to show them that you mean business; that your goals and that of the organization are nothing to be loafed about.
This is going to be very taxing and stressful, but it will show the kind of leader you are. People always appreciate a manger that is not afraid to roll up his sleeves and be a part of the team. Dig in and get dirty.
Don’t micromanage though. This will make your people over-dependent on you. In fact, this will even be counter-productive in the long run as they will not learn how to make decisions independently.
There is no better job in any business organization than to be a manager, not only for the prestige, the pay and the perks, but of being able to affect every aspect of the organization’s thrust and a direction.
It can also be a real pain if you goof off. And apathy is, in most cases, a management failure.
As the saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” don’t even let apathy develop in your group. If it does, the above suggestions can help you deal with it.
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