Corporate Quicksand – How to Engage Passive Employees

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As a leader, you are measured on results and those results depend on people taking action.
A common frustration is how to get the rest of the organization to buy into ideas more quickly and move forward. It turns out that the primary reason why parts of the organization move as fast as sludge is because of a passive-bias. Keeping this in mind will allow the leader to take a slightly different approach to achieving success. 
One of the assessment tools we use with training and coaching participants reveals whether their thinking and behavior is constructive or defensive. Defensiveness is either passive or aggressive or the dreaded passive-aggressive.
A majority of the population – approximately 60% are passive-defensive. They protect themselves with avoidance, being dependance on others, trying to get others to accept them and using policies and procedures as a safety net. Therefore, unless you have skewed your hiring and selection, your workforce is 60% passive-defensive. And in fact a number of leadership teams contain passive defensive thinkers as well.
Passive defensive employees can lull the leader into a false sense of security. Because passive employees do not express concerns directly they can make the leader think there is buy in and agreement when there isn’t. Meanwhile behind the scenes, the employees commiserate. Relate this to how most people deal with a problem with their meal. They complain about it to their dining companion and when the server comes by and asks how everything is, they say “fine”.
You may see the following symptoms that indicate passivity:

  • Complaints without solutions.
  • Hints about a problem without being direct.
  • Saying they will do something and then not doing it.
  • Checking in with the leader even when they know what needs to be done.
  • Looking busy but not having enough to do.
  • Being overly concerned about whether people like and accept them.
  • Avoiding conflict and avoiding decisions.
  • Wanting to take extra long on a project that only requires a fraction of the time.

As a leader, here is what you can do:

  • Listen for hints of problems and dissatisfaction and deal with them directly. In some cases you may even have to say what you think they are thinking to validate it. “I sense that you might have a concern about the project, can you let me know what it is?”
  • Consult and ask questions to get input from passive individuals in advance.
  • Where possible, give advance notice of what you want in order to avoid surprising people.
  • Be specific about what you want and when you want it.
  • Explain yourself – give a logical reason why it is necessary to do what you want.
  • Deal with concerns or potential concerns to show how your proposed action poses little risk and will help make things letter.
  • Ask for a commitment or buy-in instead of assuming there is agreement.

For achievement oriented individuals, this approach will feel excruciatingly slow. However if success is measured by what actually gets done well, this approach will yield better results.