July 25, 2014

Are Poor Attitudes Justified?

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In a recent conversation, I was talking with someone in a leadership position who sternly addressed people in his organization that simply didn’t seem to care. He declared that the people who are just there for a paycheck and don’t put in anything extra to the quality of their work should just be fired.

There is no doubt in my mind that there are people who do the bare minimum, and maybe even less. They show little dedication to larger organizational goals, no ambition, and are, generally, resistant to any efforts designed to increase their own performance, or to stimulate a better environment for everyone else. There are, is simple words, plain ol’ bad people in the world.

I don’t know how it got there. Just push it. That’s your job.

Fortunately, plain ol’ bad people are few and far between, in my opinion. What’s more common are people who have had a lifetime of learning that they have little ability to do and say as they please, that others will take advantage of them, and that there’s no benefit to going the extra mile, since it results in no additional reward, either tangible or intangible. Doing extra simply expends their personal energy, and very little comes back to the reservoir. In short, doing extra hurts.

We have a good sense of what motivates people and, no, it’s neither a carrot nor a stick. Giving people a Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose taps into their intrinsic motivations, such that you never need to create elaborate review, approval, incentive or other compensation teams that require teams of people to manage. What’s sad for many, if not most, is that there are often systemic and cultural structures in place that squash the interior drive. Perhaps, before asking why people have such bad attitudes, we should stop to ask ourselves an even better question: Why shouldn’t they?

Consider what people experience as they attempt to fulfill their needs for each:

Autonomy: When’s the last time you joined a new organization, either as part of a new assignment or a new job? Think back to day #1. Did you come in, bursting full of ideas? Did you try to have your ideas heard and, if so, how often were you told why they wouldn’t work? Did you hear:

  • We have rules here.
  • You’ll have to get along to get along.
  • I know what you’re saying, but that’s not how we do things here.
  • That’s the way we’ve always done it.
  • Get in line.
  • Be a team player.
  • Don’t rock the boat.
  • Do as you’re told.
  • Try to fit in.

Truth is, people in most positions are required to follow a rigid set of rules, or at least conform to a set of norms – even if they are inefficient and ineffective.  People learn to accept their environment and blend with it, or at least tolerate it for as long as possible.  Unfortunately, the inability to pursue what interests them, even if its something as simple as making life easier or the environment less stressful, tend to get squashed.  People are expected to show their worth not by eliminating miserable situations, but by demonstrating they have the intestinal strength to withstand the misery.  Some are even so well adapted that they actually thrive in these situations.  Most, however, don’t.

If they complain, just threaten to move people down a layer.

Mastery: In order to develop one’s skills, lots of experiences are required and, usually, a good deal of experimentation.  There are a lot of places, however, where time to learn is simply not allowed.  on top of that, training is minimal and superficial “OJT” is supposed to replace mentoring and coaching alongside an experienced master.  In these situations, those who are lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time tend to move upward, while those who spend time honing their skills and not just doing the work, but understanding the work, get left behind.  How often have you heard these familiar phrases, whether they were directed at you or someone else:

  • Get it right the first time.
  • We know what works.
  • If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
  • We don’t offer training for that.
  • There’s a mandatory class next week.
  • We don’t have time for that, just go with what we always do.
  • You can learn about that on your own time.

Truth is, there’s not much emphasis placed on true mastery.  It’s better to persist with whatever everyone else has always done, if you want to fit in.  Mastery is seen as a luxury that few can afford.  Of course, it’s the persistent lack of mastery that creates constant turnover, stagnating skill sets, and the need for new hires with more evolved skills and education.  All of these cost more than developing current resources in the long run, of course.  Nonetheless, if people aren’t given something stimulating to do, that they can continuously grow, they will stagnate until they become immovable.  Also, many have experienced circumstances where transferring knowledge leads to dismissal once someone else acquires their knowledge.  By resisting mastery they can guarantees that they’ll never have to worry about losing their income or sense of purpose.

Purpose: After years or decades of experiencing poor examples of leadership, management and the general inequities of life, people will start to focus on the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy.  If you ever have to worry about being out of work, putting food on your table, or your children’s tble, and a roof over your heads, the basic necessities become pretty important.  Many managers will use this to their advantage, and remind you, quite forcefully, that you aren’t really there to think.  You get enough of a paycheck to take care of the basics, and any attempt to rise to a higher point on the pyramid through your employment is your own problem, right? How often are statement like these uttered throughout the workplace?

  • That’s a decision way above our pay grade
  • I’d like to let you take that promotional assignment, but you’re too valuable to me, so I can’t let you leave.
  • It doesn’t matter what management’s plan is.  We’re just here to do our jobs.
  • Times are tough.  Just be happy you have a job.

How much does that erode a person’s sense of purpose?  It’s quite reasonable to expect a person to give up trying, to accept that they are nothing moe than a tool to be used, and discarded, at someone else’s whim.  When someone’s purpose is merely to serve someone else’s purpose, the likelihood of disengagement is great.

It’s easy to characterize every employee who doesn’t behave as you’d like them to as a malcontent deserving of nothing other than termination and replacement.  I do not argue that there are just plain toxic people out there, but I will also argue that not every instance of a poor attitude is unjustified and most are actually quite understandable.

So many of those in leadership positions congratulate themselves for removing people with poor attitudes in favor others who fit in better, or are simply more pliable and, therefore, more easily managed.  Leaders do not demonstrate their own worth by driving out people with poor attitudes, but by driving poor attitudes out of the people.

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  • http://blog.derrickstrand.com Derrick Strand


    Great stuff. I couldn’t agree more. I’ve always found it interesting that leaders like to blame people that report to them for failures. How can that be? Aren’t they responsible for their own people? In my opinion, leaders #1 priority is to make their people successful. If their people are not successful, then the leader shouldn’t be viewed as successful.

    Leadership accountability is severely lacking in today’s business climate. We need fewer leaders/managers who blame others and more that understand what they are accountable for (i.e. other people’s success). Excellent work here!

    Derrick Strand

  • http://myflexiblepencil.com David M. Kasprzak

    Thanks, Derrick!

    Every now and again, a major outlet reports that the vast majority of workers are extremely dissatisfied in their jobs. In study after study the results are the same. Many have also lamented the nature of the modern workplace for decades. Clearly, it’s time to adopt different ways of thinking about work. Here and there, there are companies – including some large ones – where the next phase of motivation, organization and leadership has begun. Hopefully, the trend will continue.