The (Ironically) Hateful Cycle of Apathy

Many years ago I had the pleasure of working for a brilliant man. One of many, actually, but this man in particular had some of the best lessons for me in terms of managing people that I’ve ever learned.

He hired me to manage a portfolio of trading applications on an enterprise backbone. I had no experience with that in particular and one day I asked him why he hired me.

“Papa Joe’s,” he said. I looked at him askance, remembering a bar I used to hang out at in downtown Singapore. About five years prior he’d visited Singapore and I took him out on the town, as was my way with visitors.

I asked him what that had to do with anything.

He replied, “I was wearing sandals and the rude woman at the door wouldn’t let me in, so you kicked up a big fuss on my behalf. You didn’t have to do that.”

Rather perplexed by the complete non-sequitur, I asked again what on earth that had to do with trading applications.

He said, “nothing. But I’ve gone through three Vice Presidents who haven’t had the chops for this job. The business just runs all over them. Some people can have all the best technical skills, or domain knowledge in the world: if they can’t do a simple thing like stick up for someone or something they believe is in the right, they can’t handle this environment.”

Stick up for something you believe in. It won't kill you.

Stick up for something you believe in. It won't kill you.

Incidentally in that particular job, the head of the business (who was a tough woman to please) commented that she was glad she finally saw the teams working together to solve problems; something she hadn’t seen at all since the inception of the portfolio.

I’ve thought about that often. It’s not like I brought anything special to the table in terms of knowledge or insight. My teams working for me knew way more than I did in their respective areas. How did the fact that I publicly stood up for people help my work at all?

Well, when I watch people in meetings stick their necks out, I am often very surprised at the number of people who will say nothing. Quite likely they’re afraid of taking a position others will find controversial. They may be afraid of being seen on the wrong side of the fence. But here’s my take on what I believe happens:

1) Team members stick their necks out. Frequently in person, although not always. Nobody bothers to support them and they’re left to fend for themselves.

2) Trust breaks down. Why would someone take a position they know others agree with when they will only be cut down by those who don’t?

3) Teams stop collaborating. There’s no point finding out whether or not people will agree with you if nobody will support you when it counts.

4) New ideas stop coming. If people aren’t collaborating, there’s no synergy to spark new ideas or problem solve.

5) Operations become purely reactive. If people aren’t problem solving, they’re certainly not looking ahead. They become stagnant and reactive, only dealing with problems after they’ve happened.

6) Client organizations become very unhappy. You see how that can happen?

The All Too Common Cycle of Apathy

Have you seen this in your workplace?

I’m not saying that this is the only cause for apathy in the workplace, but it certainly happens a lot. Frequently if I’m not in charge, I’m the one to cast my yay or nay vote in a meeting because I can’t stand to watch someone publicly suffer and stand on the sidelines.

When a work environment becomes apathetic (and oh, so many of them are), where is the joy that comes from working and doing a good job? What’s the point of getting up every morning to go to a grind you don’t care about? Surely there must be more to life than that.

But who’s responsible for creating that culture? Well, from my perspective everyone is responsible for it. In much the same way as Code Name: V claimed the people of London were responsible for the totalitarian conditions in which they found themselves in the outstanding film / graphic novel “V for Vendetta”. But as he went on to claim, “some are more responsible than others”. As a manager of people, and the head of an organization, no matter how large or small, you are responsible for the culture you foster in the workplace.

That means, even if you work for a company whose senior management doesn’t care about corporate culture, you are still responsible for the development of corporate culture immediately around and below you. True, you could make it someone else’s problem, but like Code Name: V also said, “an idea can change the world”. If you step up to the plate, you may allow one of those ideas to grow and thrive…and won’t that be worth the risk?

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I’m a professor of project management at the college where I work. My students continually amaze me with their insights, passion and all-around awesomeness. I figure they deserve access to more answers than I can give them by myself. This site is for them.
  • samadaidane

    This is a very important topic Geoff and I am glad you are addressing it here.

    We all know that a lot of bullying and abuse take place every day in the context of our projects, especially in projects and environments with lots of conflict.

    I am always shocked by how ill-equipped most team members are in dealing with bullying and abuse. It should not be a surprise thought s not very many team members have the training to deal effectively with such dynamics, when they become a victims. It is extremely hard for them sometime to know what to do. And even when they know, they have a hard time summoning the courage to take action.

    As project managers, too many of us don’t know how to help them and stand up for them or to the bullies.

    The most obvious place we see this bullying and abuse is in meetings. It is not limited to meetings among team members but also those with other stakeholders like customers and vendors.

    Unfortunately, too many PMs fail to exercise leadership and do the right thing. We see one of our team members being bullied in a meeting and we do nothing.

    Actually, our number 1 priority as project managers is to create an environment where people can feel safe to speak up and express their ideas, no matter how silly or contrarian others might find them.

    When we fail to do so, the result will be an environment where team members feel afraid to speak up. They will shut down and disengage from all future conversations. As a result, we will not have the benefits or their ideas and sometime one missed idea can mean the difference between success and failure for a project.

  • Your perspective is interesting. I was coming at this post from the point of view of someone watching people NOT stand up for others, taking more of a “not my problem” position. I wasn't considering the flip side of the coin, those people who make sticking your neck out a threat.

    I think there's a continuum here that's worth exploring. I may do so in another post.

  • This post struck a cord with me. At my previous engagement, the Engineering Department was used to being railroaded by management. Promises were always made on their behalf and they found themselves working long hours and weekends. If they didn't make the goals, those who made the promises would never take ownership. If goals were made, they jumped into the spotlight. After I was brought on board, I didn't have a problem looking a Director or CIO right in the eye and telling them I disagreed with them. Sometimes they backed down; Sometimes they didn't. But everyone at that company knew I was honest and would speak up if I didn't agree with something. Everyone knew I was looking out for my people, my department, and my company. I believe positive change rolls up hill, just as sh*t rolls down. Though I “resigned” my position, I have no regrets. Those who bullied so many are no longer there either. I think that's just Karma. Though there was an attempt to silence my voice by decapitating my team, others in the organization saw through the ruse.

    I think sticking your head out is worth the risk. By doing it, people will trust you. With trust, people will do anything for you. With that, anything is possible. What can I say, everyone is happy but the party you had to confront in the first place. Yep, it's certainly worth it.

  • I've been in your shoes Derek, and know exactly what that's like. I will absolutely agree with you that standing by your convictions is the best thing you can do in that situation. The alternative, especially for a leader, is to go down a dark road of second guessing yourself. No good can ultimately come of that even though it sometimes appears to be the path of least resistance in the short term.

    I'm glad you held your ground and displayed your integrity for all to see. People will trust you, and while project people appear fickle (they move on to other things after a project is done), they will remember.

    Once again we have a comment that references bullying. When I wrote this article I had one person in mind who was tough as nails, and very demanding, but fair. That may not be a trait you have to deal with in your senior stakeholders…I think it's worth another blog post that explores bullying and conflict management.

  • I have to clarify the superiors I was referencing weren't necessarily bullying. They would just abuse their position of power and then would never take responsibility for bad decisions they may have made. Additionally, they would never give credit to those who made the impossible possible. Perhaps that's even worse than a bully. The management team I work with now is much more realistic. They may not always agree with me, but I do believe they listen.

    Excellent post, Geoff. It was very thought provoking

  • samadaidane

    Geoff, Derek,

    I definitely think that bullying and intimidation, in the context of projects, would be an interesting topic to explore further in the future. I think it is another problem that leads to the Cycle of Apathy.

    I don’t see enough discussion of impact of this issue on projects and the role of the PM in dealing with it. I think PMs are in a tough position when faced with this dynamic on their projects. While there is lots of guidance on this topic for functional and line managers, there isn’t much out there for project managers to help their team members.

    I look forward to future discussions.

    Thanks guys.

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