Students stop attending classes. Staff members will do anything to avoid a departmental meeting. Voters don’t go to the polls.
Apathy and disengagement abound. For leaders and change agents, figuring out the root causes can morph into an obsession, but “why?” is the wrong question to ask. Chances are, you’ll never find out why. If you ask, you may get an answer that you know is not really true.
Why did you stop attending class? May result in a head hung low and a sheepish, “I dunno…”
Why did you stop attending meetings? May result in a superficial smile and a politically correct, “I’m so sorry… I’m just so busy right now…”
Why don’t you vote? May result in a shrug of the shoulders and a deflated counter-question, “What difference does one vote make anyway?”
Asking people why they have become disengaged or disenchanted rarely results in a useful answer. It takes too much mental energy to think through the answer. Or if the person already knows the answer, it takes too much emotional energy to share it. The probability of confrontation is high. It’s too risky.
To avoid confrontation, those who have abandoned a project, process or commitment may share a polite answer that allows them to sidestep the real issue, or they may shrug it off entirely.
If you really want to understand the reasons someone has become disenchanted, sit down with them, face-to-face, and ask a different question: How do we make it better?
Surveys and e-mails are not an effective way to ask this question. They are impersonal. Quick. Efficient. And ultimately, they send a message that you want something (information), but you’re not willing to invest anything (effort).
If you want insight, you need to be willing to invest effort. If you want depth of insight, be wiling to add a personal touch that is genuine and sincere. Book a lunch (and then pay for it). Invite the person over for coffee (without asking the invitee to bring anything).
Show that you are willing to give in order to get… and do so without expectation. The disenchanted may be guarded, unwilling to take risks or afraid of consequences if they are honest. If you want their input, you need to extend the offer first. Be generous and establish an environment of personal trust and social (or professional) safety. There should be no punishment for sharing viewpoints, opinions or feelings.
When you ask “How do we make it better?” you allow the other to share without the risk of punishment or confrontation. You may never get that person back, but you can figure out what happened so you can improve for those who follow in their footsteps.
Ask, “How do we improve?” Then, shut up and listen.
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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.