Understanding apathy

January 9, 2014

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.


De-grouping to be a more effective leader

August 2, 2013

LinkedIn logoYou are probably familiar with the term “re-grouping”. It means taking a breath and a step back from a situation in order to re-assess the current state of it.

Lately, I have been “de-grouping”, mostly on LinkedIn. For a number of years, I have been a member of the maximum number of groups allowed, which is 50. I signed up for groups related to topics I was interested in professionally including leadership, literacy, languages, marketing, education and other topics. I tried to read discussion posts and contribute. I thought it was a good way to keep my pulse on sectors and industries that I felt were important to my career.

What I found was quite the opposite. Instead of staying on top of news and trends, I was inundated with messages, many of which did not help me learn, grow or provide many insights.

On the flip side, I was also unable to contribute much of value to many of the discussions.

I have pared down my membership to 10 LinkedIn groups. Here are the three criteria I used to decide which groups to stay in:

  1.  I personally know some or all of the members. I’ve seen the whites of their eyes and I can easily remember their smile.
  2. I learn something from the discussions.
  3. I can contribute something of value to the discussions from time to time.

For me, cutting back on the number of groups I am a member of on LinkedIn has helped free up time and energy for other activities such as tending to my clients, teaching students and preparing upcoming presentations and workshops for the fall. All in all, being more selective about how I spend my time and energy online has helped me to cultivate my professional and leadership skills overall. I’m still online… just more selectively than ever before.

I have increased energy as I am using laser-focus to determine which activities bring value to my profession and where I can also make a meaningful contribution.

Related post: How to delete LinkedIn contacts who spam you (and why you should) http://wp.me/pNAh3-1CO


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If you are interested in booking me (Sarah Eaton) for a presentation, keynote or workshop (either live or via webinar) contact me at sarahelaineeaton (at) gmail.com. Please visit my speaking page, too.

How I finally cleaned up my Inbox — and how you can, too

July 16, 2013

Sarah Elaine Eaton, speaker, presenter, keynote, technology, social media, Calgary, Canada, educator, education, professional developmentI just deleted 5000 messages from my e-mail box without reading any of them. I admit it: I am an e-mail hoarder. I save all kinds of messages that I don’t need to.

This year, my business has grown and I find myself busier than ever before. My messy inbox was killing my productivity and adding to my stress levels. I have missed important messages from clients and colleagues.

So, I went to war with my Inbox. Over the past 24 hours I have been relentlessly and ruthlessly deleting unnecessary e-mails. Here are some of the messages I have deleted:

  • Newsletters
  • Event invitations
  • Thank you notes
  • Updates from friends, colleagues and organizations that I support
  • News alerts
  • Social media messages (e.g. “You have a new Twitter follower!)
  • Meeting confirmations for events that have passed
  • Photos

In addition to deleting unnecessary messages, I filed another 3000 or so. Now every message that I need to keep has been neatly filed and organized into a folder.

How long did all this take? Less time than you might think. Once I put my mind to it, I was focused and diligent. The entire process took less than two days.

The trick is not to open every single e-mail and read though it. I looked at the subject line and made an instantaneous decision: Delete or File.

I have been an e-mail user since the late 1980s — the dawn of e-mail. I have never been able to figure out how to keep my Inbox clean. It has taken me about 25 years to figure out that most messages can be deleted or filed.

It feels great to see, for the first time ever, an Inbox that is manageable.

As I get busier and my business grows, I can not afford to miss messages or have the stress of cyber clutter. For me, cleaning out my inbox has been an important step in developing personal leadership and self-management skills.

Is it your turn to clean out your inbox?


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If you are interested in booking me (Sarah Eaton) for a presentation, keynote or workshop (either live or via webinar) contact me at sarahelaineeaton (at) gmail.com. Please visit my speaking page, too.

21st Century Leadership: How Collaboration is Transforming Business Leadership (Webinar)

May 27, 2013

Chinook learning LogoI’m gearing up for a brand new webinar this week that will be offered through Chinook Learning Services.

Although the core principles of leadership are timeless, the skills needed in today’s fast-paced world are different than in decades past. This webinar looks at what it means to be a leader in the 21st century. Reconsider traditional paradigms of leadership and learn why they don’t work today. Find out why collaboration is the hot new trend in leadership and how to use collaboration to mobilize others to take responsibility and take action.

Participant Outcomes

  • Understand emerging trends in 21st century leadership.
  • Understand how collaboration is an effective motivator.
  • Learn key strategies for integrating collaboration into your leadership practice.

Course Content

  1. Trends in 21st century leadership.
  2. Why traditional models of leadership are becoming ineffective.
  3. The role of collaboration in leadership.
  4. Key strategies for collaborative leadership practice.

Find out more about the webinar here.



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If you are interested in booking me (Sarah Eaton) for a presentation, keynote or workshop (either live or via webinar) contact me at sarahelaineeaton (at) gmail.com. Please visit my speaking page, too.

What Happened to the “Public” in Public Education?

March 12, 2013

Today I received an e-mail about this event. Since it is a public event and they have asked folks to help them get the word out, I am sharing it with you:

Invitation to Participate

Public Education Focus Groups – What Happened to the “Public” in Public Education?

The Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership invites you to contribute to our research on the state of public education in Alberta.

The Foundation is conducting focus groups in Alberta cities and towns to gather information about the opinions, experiences and values of Albertans regarding public education as a public institution in the province. Discussion topics will include the purpose of public education and the type of community and democracy public education should encourage.

The Foundation is holding a focus group in Calgary on March 19, 2013 from 5:00-7:00 pm. Participants will receive a $20 honorarium and dinner will be served.

They welcome input from all Albertans, with and without connections to the public education system.

Please pass this invitation along to any friends or family you think may be interested in participating in a focus group about public education.

To attend this focus group, please RSVP to Jasmine Ing at

jing @ chumir.ca or 403-244-6666 by March 15, 2013.

When you RSVP, please include your name, phone number, and city or town.

The Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership is a non-profit organization based in Calgary which conducts activities across Canada.


I am not personally involved in this event or the Foundation, but I do think it sounds like a pretty interesting conversation to be part of.


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If you are interested in booking me (Sarah Eaton) for a presentation, keynote or workshop (either live or via webinar) contact me at sarahelaineeaton (at) gmail.com. Please visit my speaking page, too.

How checking things off your “to do” list is different than solving problems

December 7, 2012

I am in the middle of a small war with the management company of our condo complex. As the board president, I constantly liaise with our property manager about problems that need to be solved on the property. A recent issue is an excellent example of the difference between management and leadership.

There are 110 town homes in our condo complex that are approaching 40 years old. Structural wear and tear is starting to be a problem. This year, one unit had a major ant infestation. We got an exterminator to deal with the problem immediately. He said that the ants were entering through small holes under the kitchen window and in addition to his extermination services, he recommended that we fix the exterior by plugging up the holes that the ants use as entry points to the house.

Since the beginning of August I have been sending in requests to get the holes around the exterior of the windows fixed. I am not an expert in windows or building envelopes or exterior structures, but it was pretty clear where the holes were. I sent in a request to have the caulking around the outside of the window

The property manager has a construction company that they send out on a regular basis to do jobs on the property. I have met them and they are actually great guys. They know what they are doing. They arrive on time, they do a good job, they clean up after themselves, and they are pleasant to all the residents who live here. It doesn’t really get much better than that.

But this ant issue has recently turned into an all out war.

Last month I said, “I have been asking for this to be done for 3 months. Please have the work done.”

His reply, “I have talked to the contractor. He says the work has been done.”

Yesterday I looked at the unit. The entry points for the ants are still visible.

I wrote again, saying “Four months have now passed since I sent in this work request. This work has not yet been completed. Please have the work done.”

The reply came back, “The contractor assures me that he has caulked around the window. Can I give the contractor your phone number and you can deal with him directly?”

I went outside and looked. Indeed, the area around the metal frame had been caulked, but the entry points for the ants were still wide open. I took some pictures. I highlighted the areas where ants were entering:

Ant photos.001

Here is the second photo:

Ant photos.002

I sent the photos together with this letter:

Dear John:

I’ve been thinking about this. If you say to a guy, “Go caulk around the window.” He’s going to come over and caulk around the window. The job is done because the job was “to caulk around the window”.

 If you say to the guy, “This place has an ant problem. The kitchen wall is covered with thousands of ants. The exterminator says they are coming in from outside, specifically from around the kitchen window. Go over there and have a look at the outside of the kitchen window. Figure out every possible entry point for the ants to get in around that window. Plug each and every last one of those holes up, so the little buggers can’t get in.”

The job is done when the window is turned into an ant version of Fort Knox. No one — not one little ant — gets in.

That is an entirely different job than, “Go caulk around this window.”

The job we need to have done is the second one — plug up every possible entry point for ants from around that kitchen window.

If you need to give the contractor my number to explain that, then go ahead, but I’m pretty sure you get the idea about what we are after here, which is a solution to the problem of blocking how the ants get into the unit.

Every time you send a guy — or a couple of guys — to our property to do a job, they are not just checking off items from a “to do” list. They are solving problems for the people who live here. In doing that, they are making their life better.

I’m not trying to be melodramatic here, but every time one of your guys comes to our property to fix a problem for a resident, they get a chance to be somebody’s hero. They do that by solving a problem that the owner can not solve by themselves, because they either do not know how or they do not have the skills, expertise, materials, or maybe just the time. That’s one reason people live in condos.

I guarantee you that the single lady who lives in that unit does not have the skills or materials to fix this problem herself — or she would have already.

Your guys have all that — skills, talent, expertise and materials. We rely on you to hire smart guys and you do that. We see it time and time again. They’re smart, they’re capable and they can solve problems. In a small way, they can be somebody’s hero.

So tell your guy that this is his chance to be a hero for Marilyn, the lady who lives there.



When it comes to leadership, it is important to give people all the information they need to solve a problem. If you hire smart people, then do not simply give them items to check off their “to do” list. Engage people’s skills, expertise and problem-solving abilities to make them part of the solution. In doing so, you are likely to make their work more meaningful… and both they — and their work — will have a greater impact on those they are helping.

I believe deeply in people’s capacity to solve problems, help others and do meaningful work.

Checking items off a “to do” list does very little to connect the work to the people who may benefit from it. Besides, work that only involves checking items off a “to do” list often lacks meaning, especially when that list is assigned to you by someone else.

Engaging smart people to develop sustainable solutions helps everyone over the long term.


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If you are interested in booking me (Sarah Eaton) for a presentation, keynote or workshop (either live or via webinar) contact me at sarahelaineeaton (at) gmail.com. Please visit my speaking page, too.

We have power

November 1, 2012

Sarah Eaton, blog, leadershipI don’t normally share things I find on Facebook on my blog, but this one touched me in a deep way. This photo was posted today. with the caption “Recently seen in Hoboken, New Jersey.”  That area is among those devastated by “Frankenstorm”. If you can’t read the sign attached to the fence in the photo, it says, “We have power. Feel free to charge your phone.”

You can see the power bar and extension cord coming from the residence. You can also see people gathered around, with mobile phones plugged into the power bar, so they can charge their devices. Once charged, the phones can be used to communicate family and loved ones who are far away, or even those who are close by.

This is an excellent example of people in communities coming together to help one another. It is a simple, small gesture of generosity can can ripple across continents, as loved ones far away can receive a message that says, “We are safe.”

The line on the sign “We have power” means so much more than “We have electricity”.

When we help others, we always have power.


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If you are interested in booking me (Sarah Eaton) for a presentation, keynote or workshop (either live or via webinar) contact me at sarahelaineeaton (at) gmail.com. Please visit my speaking page, too.

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