Apathetic Failure – The Zero-Sum Danger

So far I have outlined three kinds of failure: Intrinsic, Catastrophic, and Pandemic.  (A great podcast discussion centered around these three types.)

The fourth type is Apathetic Failure.

This type of failure can often be seen behind the statements, “I only neet to hang on a few more years until I retire,” or “Whatever they want, I will do.  I’m tired of fighting.”  They come from those who are unempowered, unmotivated, and lack care –  and they are often a product of their culture.

It’s not Pandemic where there is a lot of complaining but no action.  In Apathetic Failure, the evaluation to find something to complain about rarely happens.  Their unofficial motto is, “Whatever happens, happens.”  A “Hakuna Matata” attitude.  As was sung in the Lion King, “It’s our problem free philosophy.”  It is problem free because of the lack of evaluation.  And that happens because of a lack of caring.

Apathetic failure is quiet – hidden.  It may be visible to those close to the person, but not necessarily management.  They fly right under the radar.  Some come in exactly on time, take all of their breaks, leave exactly on time, and spend more time on nonproductive tasks.  They aren’t doing anything that will draw attention to them – for good or bad.  They will do the minimum and rarely much more.

Intel has a way to vet them out: R&Rs, or Rank and Rating (I believe they still do this).  A group of managers ranks the collective employees from most valuable to least.  For example, if I was a project manager, I would be ranked against the other project managers in the group.  Those who were at the bottom (I believe) 10% were put on notice.  Some employees don’t like the method as it forces employees to be put on a plan no matter how good they may be.  But one thing it does do is weed out the apathetic employees.

Law of the River

Why is this a failure?  It has to do with what I call the Law of the River.  I grew up less than a mile from the beautiful McKenzie River.  One of my most favorite things to do is just sit and listen to the river going by.  I would often see a drift boat float along with the current.  For them to do down stream they didn’t need to do anything (minus keep away from the bank).  The river took them where the river took them.

This is fine for drifting, but in the world we rarely want to drift.  We want to go up stream.  To do that, we need to exert some energy and row.  If we do nothing, we go down stream away from our goals.  Those who fail apathetically are not rowing, but they are not overtly trying to get down stream either.  They just float along.

These employees are zero-sum.  They neither add to nor take away from the organization.  They are being paid to maintain the status quo.  I don’t know any company who can afford this, especially in the competitive landscape we all work in.

We fail apathetically when we just allow things to happen without influencing them for the better.

Although they haven’t made the best strategic decisions lately, Netflix has a slide deck that impressed me.  (I am assuming it is official, but cannot confirm.  If not, I love a lot of what it says).  They will not tolerate Apathetic Failure and do all they can structure the company’s culture so that it does not affect their employees.

My Challenge For You

1) Evaluate yourself to see if you are failing apathetically and decide to either drop the cause or, if it is worthy of your attention, to step up your involvement.

2) Find those in your organization who fall in this category and take appropriate action.