Are Your People Phoning It In? Ask Madeleine

Young Attractive Businessman Working At Office Desk With MobileDear Madeleine,

I am a staff manager at an academic institution. Of my eleven direct reports, seven have been with the University for more than thirty years and the rest have also been here for a long time.

They are smart and capable and very good at what they do, as they should be—they have been doing essentially the same job for most of their working lives. And that is the problem. I can get my people to do exactly their jobs and nothing more.

I read about work passion and engagement and achieving great things by harnessing discretionary energy, but this feels impossible with the culture in my department. I would bet that most of my people could get their jobs done in twenty hours a week and use the rest of the time for special projects that would enhance the department and benefit the organization. But anytime I throw out ideas for projects and ask for volunteers, I get blank stares and silence.

When I try to force the issue, I get constant pushback: “the busy season is just starting,” or “so and so is out on maternity leave and covering for her is overwhelming me.” You know the drill. It is so frustrating. How do I get these people inspired and energized?


Dear Discouraged,

You are not going to like what I have to say about this. (I don’t even like it.) But I know from research and vast experience that it is true. Ready? Here goes: any institution that has not had to keep up with constant change can become a safe harbor for people who are set in their ways and happy to stay in their comfort zones. What you are actually talking about it is total culture change. You can never underestimate the power of culture to kill any plans you might have to change things. The culture you are fighting has been shaped over years and it does not welcome anything new including variations that might require a little extra effort. Revolution is not welcome here. You might be able to shift the culture to get people to step up—but I warn you that you will need both some serious grit and the following:

  1. A fundamental shift in expectations for work production that is passed down from the highest possible leadership. If your department hasn’t been targeted for budget cuts, it is only a matter of time before it is. You can ask your boss what the future holds and get senior leader support for adding tasks or even whole key responsibility areas to individual workloads.
  2. A plan to match people with tasks and projects that are interesting to them. You will need to have conversations with each person and ask big, open-ended questions that will get them thinking about what would make something new and different feel exciting instead of burdensome, or worse: scary. Examples of such questions:
    • “What would make you feel like jumping out of bed in the morning?”
    • “What made you interested in working in this field in the first place?”
    • “What do you read about/learn about in your spare time?”
    • “If you could wave a magic wand and do anything you want for work, what would it be?

Using this information to shape the right project for the right person will require some creativity but it should help your people feel some initiative and ownership for any new tasks.

  1. An extremely compelling reason for people to change. In this way, motivation is less of a mystery and you can tap into what really motivates each individual person on your team. Each person will have core needs that get met at work—and it will be critical to understand what those are so that any change won’t affect them. In addition, the science of motivation tells us that people are most impacted by changes in their autonomy, relatedness, and competence, so focusing on how change will affect people in those areas will be key. Click here for more information on the art and science of motivation.

Finally, you might want to consider your own motivation—it sounds like your department is getting along just fine. Why fix something that isn’t broken? Perhaps your people are just dandy but you crave the excitement of a fast-paced, super challenging environment? It might be easier to move yourself to a new location than try to change the one you are in.

I warned you that you weren’t going to like it. I’m really sorry. I’m not saying you can’t do it—I’m just saying it will be the fight of your life and you’d better really, really want it.

Love, Madeleine

About the author

Madeleine Blanchard

Madeleine Homan-Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

2 thoughts on “Are Your People Phoning It In? Ask Madeleine

  1. Great response Madeleine. I totally relate to your answer base on my 25 years as an academic administrator and 43 years as a faculty research laboratory director. During those overlapping years (1969–2012) we came through several “outside threats” I addressed as an opportunity for advancement of our vision. The first response of the faculty or researchers was to take a defensive stance but once I and they worked through that response we were “on fire” and broke out of our comfort zone and took the department, school and laboratory to a much higher level—which evoked terrific pride in most (of course a few were left behind and wrapped up in the defensive posture). Thanks again Madeleine.


    On Sat, Feb 13, 2016 at 9:05 AM, Blanchard LeaderChat wrote:

    > Madeleine posted: “Dear Madeleine, I am a staff manager at an academic > institution. Of my eleven direct reports, seven have been with the > University for more than thirty years and the rest have also been here for > a long time. They are smart and capable and very good ” >

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