From Apathy to Commitment

 A topic we evangelize at Switch and Shift is 21st century leadership. The shackles of command-and-control leadership have done its fair share of limiting not only organizational success, but employee contribution. As we move into our third week of Winning Employees through Engagement series, our friend Frank Sonnenberg paints a compelling picture of engagement and 21st century leadership. Take it away, Frank!

Why are managers puzzled by employees who are highly motivated outside of work but show little initiative on the job; people who put in time but no energy; people who spend more time working on their résumés than on the activities at hand. A management style that produces these results obviously won’t be enough to compete in today’s global economy, especially given changes taking place in the attitudes of workers today.

Employee satisfaction can be identified more easily if you view it on a continuum starting from a high of employee commitment to a low of apathy. By measuring employees on this scale, apathy may be more apparent—and therefore something you can rectify.


Every organization wants to strive for committed employees. These individuals have moved beyond loyalty. They are so deeply moved by the organization’s values and purpose that they continually look for creative and innovative new ways for the organization to grow and develop. Their excitement, with its passion and sense of ownership, spills over onto others.


These are employees who enjoy coming to work, believe that they are making meaningful contributions, acknowledge that they are fairly recognized and rewarded, but most of all care deeply about the organization. Loyalty, however, does not always encourage creative and independent thinking, stimulate initiative, or instill a sense of ownership.


Management is doing a good job of keeping these employees happy. They are content with their present situation, but that feeling may be temporary. The things that motivate them today may be taken for granted tomorrow. At this stage, an individual may also care more about personal than organizational success. The result is that a better offer may be tempting.


Employees want to work for a company where they are encouraged to make a meaningful contribution



These employees do enough to get by. Whether they are acting out of fear or trying to avoid personal conflict, they are unwilling to do anything that would set them apart. They are good soldiers who follow orders, but they have little interest in doing anything to make the organization more successful.


These individuals’ hopes, desires, and expectations are not being met. However, they still care enough to try to change the situation by voicing their discontent. They demonstrate their displeasure by telling you that they’ll do something “as soon as they can get to it.” If you’re listening carefully, you will know something is bothering them. If you don’t catch the signals they’re sending, they will either reach their limit and leave the organization or become apathetic.


These employees are commonly known as deadwood. Their behavior can be characterized as having a lack of interest and/or caring. They sit at their desks shuffling papers and watching the clock; they take every sick and personal day allowed. They never make a suggestion or volunteer for anything. They accept assignments and deadlines with little visible reaction and respond with a shrug when asked if there is a problem. This general air of lassitude and disaffection is as contagious as enthusiasm in an organization.


The things that motivate them today may be taken for granted tomorrow


The bottom line is that great organizations conduct a never-ending search for the best and brightest people; it encourages managers to develop their people both personally and professionally; it recognizes and rewards employees for their unique contributions; it delegates responsibility not just accountability.

Employees want to work for a company where they are encouraged to make a meaningful contribution; where procedures, policies, and paperwork are never more important than results; and where building bonds between people is considered as important as the bottom line. The question is, “Is it possible to create this kind of environment and strive for market leadership?” The answer is, “You don’t have much of a choice.”

Connect with Frank

Frank Sonnenberg has written four books and published over three hundred articles. This article was adapted from Frank Sonnenberg’s new book, Managing with a Conscience: How to Improve Performance Through Integrity, Trust, and Commitment (2nd edition). The book was named one of the Top 10 Small Business Books of 2012 • Trust Across America named Sonnenberg one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders of 2011 and 2012 • In 2011, Social Media Marketing Magazine (SMM) selected Sonnenberg as one of the top marketing authors in the world on Twitter. • Sonnenberg was nominated one of America’s Most Influential Small Business Experts of 2012.


Art courtesy of  Laura Lukauskaite

Frank is an award-winning author. He has written five books and over 300 articles. Frank was recently named one of “America's Top 100 Thought Leaders” and nominated as one of “America’s Most Influential Small Business Experts.” Frank has served on several boards and has consulted to some of the largest and most respected companies in the world. Additionally, FrankSonnenbergOnline was named among the “Best 21st Century Leadership Blogs.” Frank’s new book, Follow Your Conscience, was released November 2014. © 2014 Frank Sonnenberg. All rights reserved.

  • Another excellent post here Frank. Thanks. Great points, All.

    Take CARE.


  • I love how you mention the management style as the cause of these circumstance. I would go even further an suggest it is an entire workforce model that is to blame. A model with a long-standing 70% fail rate when you consider less than 30% of workers are fully engaed in the work they do.

    Most organizations make hiring decisions based on factors that don’t guarantee job success and then wonder where the commitment is. They focus on skills and experience and are too afraid to risk hiring someone that simply has shown a commitment to company values and purpose regardless of their background.

    Many companies work wihout clear purpose and values. Thus making the top three categories on the scale near impossible.

    You mention that employees want to work where contributoins are more important than paperwork. In most organizations, paperwork is neccessary and as long as it is neccessary, it must be accurate. Employees will always need to serve two masters, the client and the paperwork.

    Good start…

  • You make some great points Michael. I especially like, “Many companies work without clear purpose and values. Thus making the top three categories on the scale near impossible.” In my mind many leaders dismiss values as soft, when in fact they make all the difference in the world. We often forget that companies are comprised of people. And, there must be more to life than the almighty buck. Have a wonderful day, Best, Frank

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