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Is there passive behaviour in your team?

“In team meetings I really want my staff to contribute so I can hear their ideas and issues but often I ask a question and there’s just silence”, said one leader to me recently.


This is a common issue I’m hearing from the some of the leadership teams I’m working with - how to manage passive behaviour from staff? With some team members there’s a sense of them sitting back and waiting, and wanting to be told what to do. Some of the consequences of this are a lack of energy in the team, no new ideas being contributed, people not taking initiative, leaders asking for contributions during teams meetings and being met with silence, frustration from leadership teams needing more engagement from these staff, missed opportunities, and, leaders ending up doing more work due to a lack of support.


In my last newsletter I reported on some staff engagement research done by Gallup. Their 2017 global study found that just 15% of workers were “engaged” in their jobs i.e. “they are enthusiastic about, and committed to their work and contribute to the organisation in a positive manner”.


At the other end of the scale, 18% of workers are “actively disengaged”. According to Gallup, this means, “they aren’t just unhappy at work; they’re busy acting out their unhappiness. Every day these workers undermine what their engaged co-workers accomplish....Actively disengaged workers are more or less out to damage their company”.


In the middle are the rest. Sixty-seven percent of us say we’re “not engaged” at work which Gallup defined as, “sleepwalking through their workday, putting time – but not energy or passion – into their work”. In Australia and New Zealand 71% of workers were not engaged compared to the global figure of 67%.


What a waste of potential! And it increases the burden on leaders – can you imagine working with so many employees who aren’t engaged? Think of the energy and head space you need to put towards these people.


So what can leadership teams do about this?


Two of my driving passions are the beliefs that anyone can lead, anytime, anywhere and that leadership is an activity, not a role. Much of my work with teams around high performance is to grow team members’ self-awareness so they’re able to actively choose more productive behaviours as opposed to their default ones. They’re able to be more accountable and take responsibility for their choices – they’re aware they have choices. It’s also about finding ways for them to be able to contribute their strengths and keep growing and developing which leads to higher engagement.


This approach is supported by Gallup’s research findings which concluded, “Gallup analytics found that, “There is someone at work who encourages my development” is one of the best survey questions that separates enthusiastic, high-performing workers from low-performing, miserable ones.”





To arrest declining productivity they recommend moving the whole world to a workplace strategy of “high development.” They’ve found that the single best activity for any team leader to deliver is not employee satisfaction, but rather employee development.


A new book called, An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization(DDO), by Harvard-based researchers Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey also explores this theme. A DDO creates a safe enough and demanding enough culture that no-one is able to hide and be passive. They found that DDO’s had a“seamless integration of two pursuits as if they were a single goal: business excellence and the growth of people into more capable versions of themselves through the work of the business.”


I’ve identified four groups of staff you may observe in your teams based on their engagement and self-awareness – Leaders, Disruptors, Passengers and Saboteurs.


I believe that providing opportunities for people to grow and develop through self-awareness and having strategies to increase engagement enables people to become Leaders within the role that they occupy.


Recognising a Leader

Imagine what would happen in your team if more staff were Leaders of their own role? You might recognise one of these people because they contribute new ideas, they have energy, they help each other out, they look for ways to support the leader, take on additional responsibilities,they work harder, they access and contribute their strengths, they take less sick days, they’re higher performing, they’re accountable and they are able to be themselves at work.



Recognising a Disruptor

The Disruptors lack the self-awareness of the Leaders so, although they’re very passionate and interested and readily contribute their ideas, they’re not as effective and can lack judgement. They have good intentions but they’re a bit hit and miss.They might overuse their strengths which can be perceived negatively by others but they don’t realise the impact they’re having. They keep doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result. They can have a disruptive effect on the rest of the team as their high engagement means they speak out and want to get involved but they lack the awareness to be situationally flexible and don’t make strategic decisions about their behaviour – they execute their default behaviours.


To move them into the Leader space focus on providing them with development opportunities such as coaching, mentoring and training. They are already “in” with their engagement. Some may just need some fine tuning on their self-awareness whilst others may have quite a bit of work to do.


When I look back on my career I can recognise myself in this quadrant, particularly when I was younger – I really cared, believed and was passionate but didn’t realise how some of my behaviours may have impacted on others or been perceived negatively by others. There’s a sense of a bull in a china shop for some disruptors and for those who are less outspoken perhaps they come across as a bit of a Muddler – good intentions but just don’t quite hit the mark.


Recognising a Saboteur

Saboteurs are disengaged and self-aware and know exactly what they’re doing. They disrupt and deliberately undermine the team. They vent frequently to others, expressing their frustrations and dissatisfactions, publically display a bad attitude and are not as productive. Theyspread negativity in the workplace and damage the bottom line. If they are allowed to continue their behaviour with no intervention they can actually move the Leaders and the Disruptors towards disengagement.


How might we shift them into the Leaders quadrant? They key is to focus on increasing their engagement. Remember though engagement is a two-way street – the organisation must find ways to engage staff AND staff have a responsibility to engage themselves. I’ll talk about this more in a future blog.


To shift engagement talk with them about their goals, listen to them, work with them to look for ways to apply their strengths and understand their role, put development plans in place (and follow through) and provide clear feedback about what is expected. Pay attention to workload, stress and unrealistic expectations.Look at your own leadership style – how might you be contributing to disengagement? Through coaching, work with them to help them identify how to engage themselves.


Recognising a Passenger

Staff who have low self-awareness and are not engaged are the Passengers I referred to at the start of this blog – passive, not speaking up, wanting to be told what to do, not seeming to have any agency. They’re victims with no accountability, blaming others.

They’re generally not hostile or disruptive. They don’t hate their job or set out to wreak havoc. But they lack passion or energy in their role. They merely meet minimum requirements, don’t actively seek out or volunteer for new projects and may spend more work hours doing other things than actual work. It’s hard to increase organisational performance because it’s difficult to accelerate innovation, creativity and productivity. They’re a total drag on the team.


How do we shift them into the Leaders quadrant? Both their engagement and self-awareness levels need to be focused on.


Questions for you to consider

What’s the mix of your team in terms of Leaders, Passengers, Saboteurs and Disruptors? What would happen if you could have more staff in the Leaders quadrant? What are the consequences if you don’t do anything – how does this affect team performance and morale?


Do you recognise yourself in any of these quadrants? If so how might you become more self-aware? Who could you ask for help? If you’re feeling disengaged consider how this affects those around you – it’s de-motivating and can be destructive. How might you take responsibility for engaging yourself whilst at work? What can you get involved in that interests you? Can you find different ways to apply your strengths? Is there any opportunity for a conversation with your manager to explore any of this?


If you’re in a leadership team – which quadrant are you in? The most important thing is for you to walk the talk – are you continually investing in your development and finding ways to use your strengths?


I’ve written previously about how vital psychological safety is for team and individual performance. Do you create a safe enough and demanding enough culture that no-one is able to hide and be passive?

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