- Steve Sphar, JD, ACC
Antidote to Apathy is Action: An Election Day Story
Apathy is an insidious pattern of self-perpetuating beliefs that is devastating to both morale and performance. As a leader, there are a few small steps you can take to eliminate apathy and revitalize the energy and perseverance of your staff.
One of the saddest things I see in organizations is apathy. People start with a natural desire to care and contribute. When this drive is frustrated, people can become convinced that their goals are unattainable and their actions pointless. They pretend not to care and stop giving their full effort. To explain what I mean, let me tell you a story.
On November 7, 2000, I arrived at the polls at 7:30 in the morning. Ahead of me in line was a large man, balding, with a beard. He was showing a large piece of paper to the registrars.
“I became a US citizen 42 years ago today!” he proudly told the volunteers seated behind the table. I looked at the piece of paper in his hands. It was a faded green official looking document, which he had laminated.
“Exactly 42 years ago, today? November 7?” I asked.
“Yes, today,” he said with a broad smile. He turned toward me and held up the document like a newspaper headline. I saw a picture of a him as a teenage boy in a sea of ornate script in a language I did not recognize. He had a very faint accent, almost indiscernible. I wanted to know what country he had emigrated from, but something kept me from asking.
It was obvious this man was already registered to vote. He was not required to bring his citizenship papers with him to the polling booth. He brought it because he was proud that he had the right to vote in the presidential election.
“You know,” he said to the registrars, “I could never have voted behind the Iron Curtain.”
I tried to imagine what it must have been like for him, traveling to America from the Eastern Bloc in the 1950’s. I wondered what his story was, what he had seen, what hardships he had endured.
Why did this man bother to vote when so many others didn’t? Voter apathy in 2000 had reached near-record lows – barely half of the eligible voting-age public cast a ballot. Perhaps they thought that one vote in a hundred million couldn’t possibly make a difference. Or, dissatisfied with the choices presented to them, they simply stayed home. But this man was not apathetic, he was enthusiastic. While others wouldn’t walk half-a-block to their polling place, this man had traveled half-a-world.
The seeds of apathy are sown in the workplace in the same way they are sown in the electorate.
People want to know that their efforts will result in something useful. The line-of-sight between the worker and the customer is often too remote and obscured by rules, red tape, turf battles, and petty rivalries. I see too many people in organizations today who feel like they have to fight their own corporate bureaucracy as much as the competition in order to get anything done. These internal battles drain people’s motivation and lead to cynicism and apathy.
I learned something about leadership from the man at the polling place that morning. He was strongly motivated by his internal values and was willing to take a small, visible step to further those values. The prospect of being a free citizen in a country that allowed public participation in the selection of its leaders must have been very dear to him. In the razor-thin margin that decided the 2000 election, I wonder how many others who did not vote realized the value of the gift they’d thrown away.
As a leader, you continually face challenges where you must decide whether to take action in the face of long odds.
This is particularly true when fighting bureaucracy, internal silos, office politics and hidden agendas. Why should you bother to act? For the same reasons as the immigrant who voted that morning: because you are motivated by your internal compass to do what is right; because you know that visibly demonstrating your convictions may inspire others to believe that something different is possible; and because, who knows, this time it just might work.
When I read about the latest political maneuverings each morning in the paper, I understand how people can become deeply cynical. Our electoral process is at times ugly, divisive, and fueled by ambition; just as it can also be noble, uniting, and filled with hope. Our political process is a thoroughly human system, with all the good and bad that the word “human” implies.
Our workplaces, too, are messy, noble, “human” institutions. In any organization, it is easy to see only the things that don’t work. And if the people in those organizations are allowed to dwell on that, then apathy is the logical result.
Taking small, consistent steps in the direction of your convictions is the antidote to apathy.
Each small act is, in essence, a vote for creating a workplace worth working in. It will be a long time before I go to my polling place again and do not remember that beaming man holding a document from his faded childhood, declaring his pride in our system of collective decision. He may have understood better than most native-born Americans that the strength of democracy lies in the combined participation of many voices, and that when some voices fall silent, something is lost for us all.
About the Author
Steve Sphar is a seasoned leadership consultant with over 25 years experience partnering with executives and managers to create sustained positive change. He was a practicing attorney for 12 years before turning his law and business experience to the field of leadership consulting. He helps managers and executives develop their leadership potential though one-on-one coaching, leadership training and facilitation of executive retreats.