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Turning Apathy Into Motivation – Unleashing Inspiration

Written by: Janet M. Harvey, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

Executive Contributor Janet M. Harvey

Have you noticed how hard it is to get another person's attention today? What do you do when people, team members, stakeholders, have Apathy about what you're working on? How do you move them to Inspiration? Sadly, from their first report on employee engagement in 1990, Gallup reports that the highest percentage of engaged employees in the US was 36% in 2020. It fell to 33% by 2022, and the trend continues in 2023, with 31% of engaged employees. Of the 69% not engaged, the definition for those actively disengaged employees includes "those who have miserable work experiences and spread their unhappiness to their colleagues." That number in 2023 is 18%, and those with Apathy make up the difference, 51%. I hope this data catches your attention!

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Only when you’ve first developed clarity, courage and commitment will you know how to exert the leverage to really make a difference.” Dan Millman

Leaders of leaders have a primary job: create an environment through which everybody in the workforce feels the safety, aspiration, and alignment, to contribute. Contribution occurs as each person commits all of who they are, even beyond what they think is possible for themselves, creating that level of stretch invitation in the enterprise so that they are the cause of mission and vision fulfillment. Leaders are the ones who continuously evolve the culture in which they work to strengthen the ability to sustain excellence over time in individual teams and then collectively across teams to deliver customer loyalty. However, tension commonly arises in enterprises of all shapes and sizes across geography, social norms, and economies in the form of Apathy.

It is easy to polarize Apathy and Inspiration. Yet, doing that compromises noticing important information about how the experience inside the enterprise invisibly influences the experience outside the enterprise with customers and in the community that an enterprise operates. In 2018, pre-pandemic, the National Institute of Health estimated the cost of workplace stress and anxiety to be $300 Billion in the US. Does that get your attention? Some leaders ask me, "Do you want Apathy in the organization?" The answer is, "It depends." Our post-pandemic data that suggests a global societal cost of $688 Billion supports the importance of paying attention to the evidence of Apathy.

The quality of Apathy starts internally for a person (and therefore invisible to a leader) and, in their head, might sound like this: "I'm going to hold my energy back on certain things that I'm doing. I'm going to slow down on the things that stress me out (Apathy) so that I can get feel better (Inspiration) by doing other activities." This thinking results in symptoms long after the internal shift begins in the form of missed deadlines and negativity across teams because of poor to no information sharing. When Apathy lingers for a long time, it is contagious and shows up in the slow adoption of change that impacts the customer outcomes the revenue forecast relies upon. The breakthrough wanted for this circumstance arises from understanding what creates the quality of Apathy. That information points to what generates a workplace climate that mitigates Apathy and notices the quality quicker than waiting for the negative impact on bottom-line results to show up.

Discovering what stimulates Apathy drives healthier choices across an enterprise and shifts the focus of the workforce to what Inspiration reveals as new possibilities for learning, development, and contribution. Your best resource is to remember that pause gives more time than it takes. As Einstein said, leaders who stay with a problem in discomfort from a mindset of curiosity and wonder can see that many more than one valuable and worthy answer exists for every situation. Examining problems more deeply through the lens of either of the tension qualities gives a giant playground to determine what solutions to thorny issues could be. The presence of tension tolerated for a little bit longer becomes a way to see how to foster freedom, turning what appeared to be damaging (Apathy) into a resource for perceiving what change to invite and, through that, to generate a more desirable state (Inspiration).

Freedom illustration

There's always a ratio between the two that works. When you can physically stand somewhere between them, feel both of them and sense what's useful and what's not known or misunderstood, you stay alert to what's happening right before you, and you will make better decisions. As you shift your mindset, you think about resources differently. Ultimately, a more deliberate decision-making process mitigates many things that cause expensive rework and emotional frustration for all involved.

Three ideas for the tension of presence: Apathy and Inspiration

There's always a ratio between the two that works. When you can physically stand somewhere between them, feel both of them and sense what's valuable and what's not known or misunderstood, you stay alert to what's happening right before you, and you will make better decisions. As you shift your mindset, you think about resources differently. Ultimately, a more deliberate decision-making process mitigates many things that cause expensive rework and emotional frustration for all involved.

1. Conduct a Workforce Stay Interview. When the quality of Apathy operates unrecognized, or leaders deliberately ignore it because it's occurring for only a tiny percentage of the workforce, the cost of inaction at least doubles because of the failure to inspire action that delivers customer outcomes. Similar to a "stay interview" with an individual, consider the questions below a way to explore a workforce "stay interview" that reveals the current tension in your workplace between these two qualities of Apathy and Inspiration.

  • What have you been ignoring?

  • What is your cue to be authentic and bold and inspire a new team environment?

  • What inspires you right now?

  • And what would you share with your team?

  • What is the structure you want in place to support and continue the evolution of your team's climate?

  • What do you want to shift and produce differently in the employee experience?

The central idea offered here by these questions empowers leaders to answer an overarching question: "How do I learn to tolerate the tension present and use curiosity and wonder to discover the rest of the story?"

2. Pay attention to a broader range of experience. Let's build on your listening strengths to transparently incorporate perceiving and sensing that relies on instinct and intuition. Active listening is one of those things I'm sure you've learned a lot about along the way. I want to challenge your assumptions; you don't know everything there is to know about active listening. These ideas arise from the professional coaching methods applied to leader performance and development. As a manager of people or a leader of project teams, I'm sure you desire to have a great deal of influence and impact, and often that's the only way you can get things done. What's important here is to realize we must listen beyond the words. Your sensory systems always receive clues about the experience of the other person. Unfortunately, you don't always pay attention to those clues. Experiencing another person means you're observing with your instinct and intuition. You may have a limited amount of practice at paying attention to the wide range of ways you experience another person, and this is your opportunity. Suppose you give more attention to perceiving what someone means and get curious so you don't operate from assumptions. In that case, you now possess a game changer in demonstrating respect, confidence, and trust in the other person's point of view.

3. Perceive energy shift and wonder. It's easy to shortcut your interactions in the workplace based on your assumptions. You anticipate and then listen to see if your assumption confirms what you perceive about the person and the situation. With confirmation, you know the answer, you answer, and you are off and running. Unfortunately, what signals to the other person is that you don't honestly want to know what they think or what they might contribute that's different from what you already know. You create partnership when you replace your assumptions with curiosity and then wonder, giving your rapt attention and astonishment to another person's perspective. When you move too quickly from assumption to action, you will fail to create a partnership and generate resistance to Inspiration. By giving yourself time to spend a bit more energy on observing, and listening internally for what your intuition picks up with what you're sensing in the other person's point and that impact on you, be open about what is happening and invite each other to participate in saying, "How do we navigate this very unknown, uncertain territory together?"

Time is your only commodity as a leader. Everybody watches what you choose as your action and behavior. Instead of listening to the words, they will interpret them for their meaning. Be thoughtful about your active listening, presence, and perception to telegraph the relevant and valuable balance between Apathy and Inspiration. If you follow these three practices, you will utterly transform the experience of this tension and learn to invite others to strengthen their commitment to listening into and observing the workforce for the presence of both qualities while being patient to unearth the motivation that restores a healthy ratio between Apathy and Inspiration.

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Janet M. Harvey Brainz Magazine

Janet M. Harvey, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Janet M. Harvey is CEO of inviteCHANGE, a coaching and human development organization that shapes a world where people love their life’s work. Janet is a visionary leader in the global professional coaching industry with an International Coaching Federation Master Certification. Janet is an accredited educator who has engaged adults, teams, and global enterprises for nearly 30 years to invite change that sustains well-being and excellence. Janet uses her executive and entrepreneurial experience to cultivate leaders in sustainable excellence through Generative Wholeness™, a signature generative coaching and learning process for people and systems. Janet has served as a global board leader for ICF, as a director.



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