What if people just don’t care?

You are a manager. You are responsible for getting the best from your team. You will be held to account if deliveries don’t happen, if deadlines are missed and if budgets overrun. But of course, you are a good manager and those things rarely happen.  You know how to engage, motivate and inspire your people. Don’t you?

We’ve all had those conversations with people where you’ve had to lay out what’s on the line.  Why it’s so important this time – again!  And, on the whole, those cosy chats work. People walk away from those sessions, and they get on with it. They pull out all the stops and you can all go down the pub and enjoy a few drinks to celebrate the team’s (and your!) success once again.

But, what if it just doesn’t matter to them that much? What if they don’t care?  Or, they just don’t care enough?  What’s the right conversation to be having with that person now?

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Getting someone to pay attention to an issue that they don’t care about is difficult and frustrating?  In your mind it may be important. So, why can’t they see it?  You feel they SHOULD be worried but they are not. You can of course resort to the ‘instruction’. In the end that will probably get it done, but it will be stressful. You’d prefer buy-in, understanding and commitment, but instead you now need to be on their case, checking-in and micro-managing.  How many times can you put up with that?  You probably don’t have the bandwidth in any case.  And what if there’s more than one person like this in the team?

You can try getting tough, laying down the law or arguing over what their contract actually says. They may hide behind ‘their rights’, they might say they are doing exactly what they are being asked to do. Nobody said they had to be happy in their work. They turn up, do what’s asked (no more) and go home. As long as they get paid then they’ll keep coming – for now at any rate. But you want so much more. You want engagement. You want motivation. You want ideas for improvement. You want collaboration. You talk about leadership and empowerment. But they just don’t care.

So, what do you do?  Well, you might decide it’s a fight not worth having.  Or you might decide you need to tackle it.  But what is there to tackle and how do you do that?  Well the easy answer is that it should start at recruitment. If you don’t want people in your organisation who don’t care, you shouldn’t recruit them in the first place.  But we all know reality is somewhat different from that. Maybe you were not part of the recruitment strategy. You inherited these people. In big organisations especially, people get passed around departments for “development” purposes. That can be a euphemism for “moving the problem on to somewhere and someone else”. What do you do when its your turn, and the problem becomes yours?  You might at first believe that what this person needs is someone who believes in them. Someone who can coach them and take the time to understand them – to know what motivates them. And that is true. That can sometimes be the case. There are countless cases of people who have flourished under the right manager, coach or mentor. Someone who is prepared to take the time to listen, understand and inspire.

But what about when – despite all best efforts – you reach the same conclusion as everyone else.  Is it time to move them on again or is it time for a different conversation?

The evidence(*) suggests that managers consistently struggle with their most important role – bringing out the very best from their people – because….

  • They don’t give people the straight story about the gaps in their performance, behaviour and capabilities
  • They don’t create enough ‘constructive discomfort’ and end up either over-helping or under-supporting
  • More ‘directive’ managers may get results, but gains are temporary & require micro-management
  • Their assessments of performance and capabilities are often soft and grounded in outdated standards

And they consistently struggle to get the cooperation they need because….

  • They too readily accept the barriers in the system instead of finding ways to get the collaboration they need
  • They don’t make a compelling case for why others should care given their priorities and pressures
  • They are too easily placated during meetings, mistaking nodding heads and ‘yes-es’ with agreement
  • They don’t spend the time required to generate commitment to the problem and the solution
  • Frustrated by a lack of cooperation, they insist, escalate, do it themselves or give it to someone they trust more

Generally, we find that managers are not trained in the skills required.  We promote people into managerial positions more often on the basis of their technical or skills-based proficiency than on their competence in understanding human behaviour.  It should be no surprise, therefore, when we witness managers stuck in knowing how to deal with knotty problems that are down more to psychological factors rather than issues about technical competence.

So, while it may be tempting to ‘blame’ people for not caring enough, or not caring about what you care about, consider that this is actually the very heart of successful leadership. Creating the compelling case for why people should care can be difficult, but creating the conditions for a courageous conversation that explores these matters is key to gaining a breakthrough in thinking.

And in that conversation, managers need to ,,,,,

  • Toughen up their assessments of performance and capabilities and base them on an understanding of what it takes to compete and win today
  • Give people the straight story about the gaps in their performance, behaviour and capabilities
  • Create and maintain ‘constructive discomfort,’ push the work back onto people and provide frequent feedback and coaching
  • Put in the work required to push people’s thinking, generate insight and create buy-in
  • Express frustration with a lack of execution directly and productively
  • Become more savvy about human and group dynamics and persist past nodding heads and superficial ‘yes-es’

So, perhaps, before you pass your next ‘problem person’ on to the next ‘lucky manager’ to deal with, or call HR for guidance, ask yourself if you have had the courageous conversation that is required.


If you believe that you and/or your teams would benefit from becoming more proficient in handling courageous workplace conversations, please get in touch. Learning programmes are available that focus on developing the skills necessary to overcome the difficulties frequently encountered by people. Simply submit your contact details on the Contact Us page and I will be delighted to get in touch with you for an informal initial chat.

(*) One of the best sources of evidence is from the work of Chris Argyris see this link


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