Hiding At The Back

I recently came across a post by Andrew Bryant on his Self Leadership Blog that provided some insight on how to spot unmotivated people in the workplace.  From my experience, he’s right on the money – the signs stick out a mile away and can include:

  • frequent absences – these can be traced to social events and, as Bryant notes, generally fall either side of the weekend.  Remember Office Space – the accusation of missing a lot of work was answered with, “I wouldn’t say I’m missing it, Bob.”  Good for a laugh, but true
  • minimal effort – these folks are my favourite – they tend to follow instructions right to the letter; no more, no less.  I’ve always thought that if you didn’t remind them to breathe, they might just pass out
  • back of the pack – next time you have a meeting that can potentially result in work assignments, have a look towards the back of the crowd.  You’ll find them there, hiding behind more engaged people, avoiding eye contact; after all, if they can’t see you, you can’t see them, right?

There’s no question that the disengaged people exist in almost any organization – specialized groups like Doctors Without Borders, Special Forces, MI-6’s Q-Branch from James Bond are probably immune do the high reliability nature of their work and the types of folks they attract and screen for.  After all, unmotivated people don’t tend to run a mile in under 5 minutes or do 100 push-ups in a row.  Or become brain surgeons.   But for most of us, these people can be found within our spheres of influence.

OK, so you found them.  What do you do about them?  Most organizational cultures have ways and means of getting their employees’ attention.  Most of these ways and means are meant to provide a solution for the organization and are administrative in nature (written warnings, performance reviews etc).  Most of these ways and means actually fail to address the problem, and dare I say it, tend to make the problem bigger for the individual.  So placing the manager’s process-driven handbook with all of its flow-charts and consequence tables aside and putting on a leader hat (mine is white with gold trim), we need to find other options.  Some of the strategies that I’ve found successful include:

  • Getting to know your folks. This means going deeper than “nice tie” or “how’s the project coming.”  It means actually knowing things about them that go beyond cubicle number and arrival times.  How many kids do they have, what interests outside of work, what stresses them out, etc.  If you exercise some people skills, you can get a pretty accurate picture about the person you’re dealing with, and more importantly what might be causing them to hang back.
  • Hand out some responsibility. I’m not suggesting you hand over the keys to your office to the guy who takes Fridays off.  I am suggesting that you give them some specific responsibility to the team that causes them to have to perform.  Couple this with positive feedback for the small steps that are done right and emphasis on learning points for things that are not going as well as hoped can help somebody turn a corner.  After all, anyone who has ever been on any team knows that actually contributing to the goal with people relying on you is a powerful motivator.  It’s one thing to let down the manager, but another to let down your peers.
  • Have an open discussion about the work environment. Honest approaches go a long way.  Sit down and mention some of the things you would like to see change (about the workplace, not the employee) and ask them what they think.  If you can get them to talk and you do your part by actively listening, you may discover that some small changes can make all the difference.

If, in the end, your leader hat fails to get the desired result you may be forced to take the other, less optimal options in the managerial handbook.  But in my opinion, a good leader is bothered by motivational failures and uses them as a learning tool for the next time.


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