A is for Apathy

Jul 17 2015 by Max McKeown Print This Article

A quick search on Amazon reveals just one solitary business book about overcoming apathy. And yet anyone who been a manager for more than a week must surely recognise that this is the essence of leadership: Getting the buggers to care. Isn't it?

Sometimes this is confused with "getting the buggers to behave" but that's more classroom stuff or management stuff if you like - if you can only manage to get the adults to sit quietly with them legs crossed until home time you really haven't achieved much have you?

The manager has to justify his own existence first. So ask yourself: Does your presence at work increase the profits of the company by at least five times your salary?

It's easy to ask the question of other managers you have to deal with first (your manager for instance, or his managers manager, or the whole board if you have the time in between confiscating mobile phones and deleting pointless emails) since it's not hard to doubt the benefit they bring (or why you should be paid more and why they should have to sacrifice their jobs to make the required funds available).

Once that is done - and the general principle established - consider the ways you could increase profitability. Could your people do the same job without you? Would they work harder or slower in your absence? Do you organise them better than they would organise themselves? Do they lack key technical abilities or knowledge that you alone possess? How did they cope before you got the job? Does your existence at work overcome apathy or add to it?

Does your existence at work overcome apathy or add to it?

"The eternal problem of the human being is how to structure his waking hours", in the words of Eric Berne (in his super-cool book "The Games People Play") and it follows, I hope you will agree, that the "eternal problem of the manager" is how to help employees who want to do the work as a way of avoiding boredom.

They may not know it, but as a manager, you are only useful to them if you influence their continued receipt of money and provide them with a way of being emotionally fed (not fed-up).

This means, according to Eric Berne, that they need to gain "as many satisfactions as possible from transactions with other members" including (take a deep breath!) "rituals, pastimes, games, intimacy, and activity, designed to bring "somatic and psychic equilibrium" through relief of tension, avoidance of noxious situations, and procurement of recognition".

If you control the salary payments they will probably "behave", but they are hardly going to dedicate themselves to the cause or come skipping into work. You will get the body only to the extent that you can monitor and control it - not the disposable, floating, discretionary talent that is only applied when the state of indifference is overcome.

Apathy is object- and situation-specific. A perfectly energetic, happy person in one situation can be apathetic, lethargic, and even depressed in another. They can even change depending on who is in the room and what is going on in the room.

You must have noticed the change in energy levels when a phone call is received - sometimes (let's assume a loved one calling) you see smiles and animation - other times (perhaps the boss? Or the dentist) you will see furrowed brows and deflation.

What causes it? Stress can cause apathy - and here the competent leader can help (and others slacker incompetents can learn) by giving back control of the situation to the person who has learned to be helpless at work, or doing a certain task, or simply in your presence.

If experience has demonstrated (in the vicious, merciless way it can) that effort is futile (you are going to lose anyway so less efforts = losing with more grace) then they will stay oh so very passive whenever the unpleasant situation arises or the unpleasant (or apathy inducing) manager is on the scene.

Not only does the description of apathy match your own experiences (doesn't it?) but it is also a well-established psychological principle - inescapable punishment (or simply unpleasant consequences) leads to indifference. Prison, war, disability, famine, drought, and excruciating appraisals with the boss or warped brainstorming (brainbashing) meetings in which no suggestion is ever good enough and no answer ever correct.

Those who become apathetic (or give up) do so because they see the situation as a problem they have personally caused or something that happens everywhere (pervasive) and always (pervasive - so why try and find an alternative?).

Not everyone succumbs to this so-called Learned helplessness. About a third of people figure out that they can change the situation (either from inside or by leaving) and that it isn't their fault, but two-thirds are likely to become indifferent when faced with evidence that effort is futile.

A leader's task is to provide evidence that effort is worthwhile and that things can be better - both generally and particularly. In so doing, they will succeed in overcoming apathy, beating boredom, and restoring purpose to people's lives.

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About The Author

Max McKeown
Max McKeown

Max McKeown works as a strategic adviser for four of the five most admired companies in the world. He is a well-known speaker on subjects including innovation and competitive advantage. His latest book, #NOW: The Surprising Truth About the Power of Now, was published in July 2016.

Older Comments

I tend to think that managers create apathy rather than having to deal with it - if you know what I mean.

Alain Meunier Marseilles

Chance led my to this article on apathy, and how managers can be either the source of it or the cure for it, and I can only say that I wish more people, both apathethic employees and their micro-managing, control freak bosses, would suddenly be able to access your inspirational thinking! Thank you for making my day!

Kenya Lowther Perth, Australia

I'm apathetic, and I'm going to quit my job over it. We have a director who dictates how technical work is done, and he is an old time programmer who is clueless about software engineering principles. His managers, who have engineering degrees, act as customer support reps answering user questions. As a result, no one cares to learn anything, and new ideas are shot down because the director doesn't understand them. Doing a good job and writing well-architected code is the frowned on for the time it takes, and writing slopped-out junk is praised, never mind that it has to be re-written and is full of bugs. No one in the department cares because a big reward for extra effort is $50. Everywhere I've seen, management creates apathy.

Adam Smith US

Try delegating the objectives to those requiring nanagement; rather than delegating your version of management. The day you involve your employees as superior is the day you become a great manager. emply people who are smarter than you. There's the challenge. management isn't a promotion; its a necessary function of a thriving company. And; you don't need to show them that you can do it; just that you welcome their strategy in meeting objectives. Then, they feel important, give value and empathetic. Think how you feel when your boss gives you credit. Its you who have put this fabulous team together. It shouldn't require effort, tenacity or long hours solving problems that involvement would solve. Cause a little friendly disagreement and instead of compromising with a mediocre result that encourages apathy; try fora higher resolution of conflict. ORIGINALITY. Thanks for the word. The Baldchemist

The Baldchemist

If Imay add a little something. Management promotions usually bring out the very worst in what was once a reasonble human being. Delusions of grandeur, paranoia, narcissism and megolamania appear in authority and those that receive it. The Baldchemist

The Baldchemist

I loved this article. Having been micro-managed by a control freak boss who lacks any focus or skills in directing her team (other than directing us to become more confused) for some time now; I have accepted an offer to step into a management roll myself. Understanding what motivates different individuals in your team is very important and keeping your team members inspired should not be that difficult. Everyone of us has an understanding of where our interests lie and what our strengths are. Just ask an individual what they think they are good at...and nurture that side of them first and foremost. Secondly develop the areas where they are lacking skill while supporting their efforts all the way. I have a feeling that my experience of being apathetic will make me a better manager. I am sorry for the company that is losing such an isightful team member. ;)

Being Micro-Managed Toronto.Canada

Unfortunate Adam? Is it? Some people never get it Adam and they cant be helped. Add a little coffee machine politics in the apathomixer and poof!!! Lost another up and coming forward thinking team player future money making machine for the shareholders.


You can tell an 'apathetic' company instantly, almost as soon as you walk in the door. You can feel the lack of energy and enthusiasm on the part of the 'zombies' walking the halls. On the other hand, a company that is vibrant, resiliant and excited exudes energy and there's a palpable 'vibe' in the air. The difference is leadership. Leaders of the latter type of company have created and maintain an environment where everyone feels engaged in the purpose of the company, understands how they create value, and feels respected for their role. In this type of company, employees aren't 'pushed' to perform, they willingly devote their best effort and thinking to the tasks at hand. They feel a 'pull' force field that's based on providing value and service to their served markets. The difference in profitability between the two situations is remarkable.

Ron Strauss Atlanta, GA

I was going to comment on this article but I couldn't be bothered.

Tony Mascuzzi Llareggub, Wales, UK

Someone once defined the opposite of love, not as hate but as apathy or indifference. Apathy is a 'state' and the conditions for it are created. Think of those workplace stories we hear of where adults are treated like children. You can't do this and that. High control workplaces may have their place in some sectors but may have more to do with low trust environments. Leaving it unchecked may mean that people learn to leave their creative selves at home and switch off their ingenuity at work. Hardly what we need in today's world. So what to do about it? Change 'state'. Do what you can to brighten your thinking and immediate environment. What were the hopes and expectations you had when you first started working here? In an ideal workplace what would you be thinking, saying and doing? Could you be the change that you want to see in this workplace? Could you do that by Building rapport, Noticing your co-workers more, Finding plusses to praise, Welcoming contributions, Practising attentive listening. Encouraging. Relating. Connecting. Things may have got so bad that you just want an exit strategy, a divorce from the organisation. But in this climate that may not be realistic for many. In that case, you might need to follow the old adage to love what you do until you can do what you love! Love after all is the opposite of apathy.

Chris Tracey Belfast, Northern Ireland