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A study into the Indifferent Employee:

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

To Address the Issues of Indifference in the Workforce and to Consider the Motivational Remedies.

Rationale for study

Indifference can be described as a lack of interest in doing something, the perception of a task being unimportant or work being carried out with a reduced emphasis; sometimes no emphasis on quality and effort. An indifferent individual could be described as apathetic, with the suppression of emotion. Many companies and human resource departments simply do not acknowledge indifference as the widespread problem it truly is. It is difficult to see what a person or organisation is not doing; it is hard to monitor or observe and therefore the better the knowledge and understanding we have the more effectively we can combat the issue. There is little existing research in the area of indifference amongst the workforce, yet it has been highlighted as a contemporary HR phenomena. EVIDENCE Indifference is a term that is used in many different contexts, Indifferent attitudes and behaviour amongst pockets in the workforce ultimately cost organisations time, money and resources. Indifference covers a wide range of subjects such as psychology and sociology as well as business and management. It can no longer be ignored. The research aims to give us a better understanding of efficient and cost effective solutions that ensure successful short and long term motivational harmony for the indifferent elements consisting in the workforce. I will investigate and critically analyse the techniques of motivation and how effective they are in tackling today’s generation of indifferent attitudes, this will assist me on making recommendations to quash the effect and impact of indifference.


Indifferent individuals reverse productivity and reduce efficiency, inevitably influencing other’s attitudes. I want to highlight the issue of indifference and suggest the appropriate combatant techniques required to effectively tackle and efficiently resolve the problem. Motivation as a subject has been widely debated over the years and the development of theories have allowed us to gain valuable insights and adopt best practises. Yet it is still important to debate the contemporary thoughts and beliefs on the subject as we enter a new age of indifference we need to think about contemporary motivational solutions, I will be considering the relevance of existing theories. Adopting the right motivational drivers and incorporating effective company culture is ever more helpful for successful business.

Indifference and motivation have implications for a number of key functions and areas within all organisations; human resources, culture and performance to name but a few. There simply isn’t enough contemporary theory considering the scale and implications of the widely disregarded indifferent employee. Although the subject is relatively new, there is literature in relating fields, motivational tactics may provide us the answer; motivation as a subject has had a great deal of literature over the years. However with ever increasing globalisation and interconnectivity; divisions of labour attitudes, more mixed views and a more wide variety of people we need a more coherent and current idea of contemporary issues like indifference; motivation theory needs to evolve with the 21st century.

Motivation and Engagement

Through examining the different motivational theories I can gain a better understanding of how motivation has helped engagement and improve employee commitment. Ultimately I will be seeking to how appropriate these techniques are to today’s managers with reference to tackling indifference in the workplace. Classic management theory such as Taylor (1911) based the early ideology of motivation. I will talk about the different needs based theories such as Maslow’s hierarchy, including extensions of the theory. Theories focused on extrinsic and intrinsic rewards, having a wider knowledge base of motivation will aid our understanding and provide better direction and through informed tactics to enable managers to adopt the best practise for the indifferent employee. This will help resolve the issues highlighted.

Motivation is the driving force for productivity and efficiency within the workforce. Henri Fayol, an early pioneer of management theory, suggests there are four key elements of management; planning, organising, directing and control. Motivation would be categorised under directing, very similar definitions; directing is leading workers to accomplish the organisation’s goals and making them perform effectively. Theorizing the phenomenon of indifference will help managers eliminate the problem through motivational implementation they will create more competitive human resource base Cui, 2004 emphasises this point, explaining the; “need to groom people to become a source of competitive advantage”. The existing research directly regarding motivation contrasts with that of indifference; there is a great amount of literature and a variety of views, however the theory is dated and the methods by which some research was tested is ever increasing coming under scrutiny. The study of motivation will aid managers in distinguishing the indifferent employee and enable a higher level of understanding and considerations to effective resolutions for an engaged, committed and motivated workforce.

Research Questions

To examine the implications, gain a more coherent understanding and properly acknowledge the special needs for the indifferent attitudes amongst employees.

To investigate the broader aspects in surrounding theory relating to indifference; to better our knowledge of the phenomena.

To support the discussion of indifference and new age motivation resolutions, acknowledging the contemporary problem and considering the application of contemporary motivational theory.

Discover the techniques adopted to enhance performance and satisfaction of the workforce and find out which motivational factors will influence the indifferent employee best.

Literature review

The literature review concerning this investigation leads us to various writings of opinions. Some of these opinions express continuity with one another, but other opinions convey more diverse views. The subject itself is multifaceted and carries a great deal of subjectivity through the questions what exactly is an indifferent employee, how can an organisation identify indifference within the workforce, and what are the best solutions to the problem? Indifference needs to be addressed, as Cuming highlights; “what is good for the individual is good for the organisation as well” (1993, p. 6). So eliminating indifference will benefit an organisation as a whole, its in the organisations intereset that its work force is engaged if not devoted.

Indifference and its Repercussions on the Organisation

Radwan, 2009 explains “Indifference is the state of feeling where you just don’t care about taking an action, the problem with indifference is that sometimes you are aware that doing that thing or taking that action will get you much benefit but still you do nothing, indifference is not like lack of motivation because you may lack motivation if you are not aware of the importance of the activity, however if you are aware but still take no action then you are indifferent.” What causes the people to surrender and become indifferent is profound and pro-longed dissatisfaction (Geezla, 1998, 136). It is vital for employees to be engaged in their job and have a positive attitude towards their work and their contribution. I will be seeking to understand why and how indifference comes about in the workplace and from my findings conclude with an effective resolution for the problem.

Eslami (2010) states “people with (indifference) do not care about the future, because as far as they are concerned, there is no difference between present, future and past.” This highlights the problems organisations face with elements of an indifferent workforce; how can an organisation implement tactics and strategic vision with employees that are not engaged in their work and sub sequentially do not conform to organisational culture? Indifferent employees deteriorate in behaviour; this has a negative effect on other colleagues and can slow productivity. The scope of indifference in an organization describes the behaviour of someone who carries out the organization’s activities without using their talent or creativity. Indifference threatens to destroy encouragement of the employees; reducing their effort and acceptance of responsibilities (Tabaeian, 2001). Whereas Murphy, 2002 highlights indifference as having a more significant effect on organisational culture, he carried out a study that revealed “a perceived discrepancy between the official espousal of the values by the company and their actual enactment… The ambivalence of this group towards such values is reflected in the indifference of staff, for whom the values have little salience as drivers of company policy or practice.” He then goes on to state “the embedding of company values is represented as part of a larger descriptive framework of salience. It is also argued that political considerations, including powerful, unofficial cultural and sub cultural norms, will override the impact of officially espoused, but unembedded, values.” Further highlighting the need for a better understanding and contemporary acknowledgement through his statement; “Organizations that look to land a fast fix or play politics, rarely bridge isolated silos of discipline, culture, gender or beliefs.”

To fully understand the idea of an indifferent individual, I will be touching commitment and focusing on engagement. Literature relating to this field will help provide a better understanding of the motivational remedies.Commitment is a kind of devotion including feelings such as trust and reliability that organisations wish to gain from their employees. Whilst not a lot has been directly written on indifference, there is much literature on commitment. The employee should be a productive member of an organisation, rather than enter an employment relationship on the basis of submission and obligation. Submission and obligation can lead to feelings of indifference. Price states that employees should be committed to the organisations ‘mission and values’. Price explains that employees will show dedication and enthusiasm only if they want to, and not out of compliance. Price’s model is based on an ‘anti-authoritarian’ viewpoint, so his view is interesting when compared to managerial methods of motivating indifferent employees. Price attributes the importance of commitment to an individual level. P15

Indifferent employees do not expect much from their organization, except a pay check and in some cases, benefits. Highly indifferent employees see “their life” as existing separate from work. Those employees who are low in indifference are generally believed to have orientations contrary to the highly indifferent workers. Behaviour plays a key role in understanding this problem. A reason why there has been so little research on this topic is because even if organisations acknowledge indifference they cannot tell what percentage of their workforce are indifferent; people are aware of its existence but they don’t feel it occurs at a wide enough level to be taken seriously and have the perception of ‘appropriate procedures in place to counter act the effects’. (Grzybowska 2005)

“A recent study found that 68% of customers who leave do so because of a company employee’s indifference.” How To Get Your Employees To Treat Customers Better

Lisa Earle McLeod, 04.26.10, 01:21 PM EDT

Indifference not only slows the company operations and efficiency down but can also lead to consumers having a negative experience with the organisation.

Writing in an article regarding organisational brainpower, Weber (2010) explains that an organisation opting for a quick fix strategy for resolving issues regarding organisational discipline, culture and beliefs will not work, He stresses the importance of involvement from higher level management; “It takes involvement from an institute’s top leadership, a willingness to invest time, and talent within teams that come from many sectors of society.” He suggests a balanced variety of workers will help engage individuals and improve performance. Indifference needs to be tackle head on, more interaction between low level workers and their superiors is important in reducing the problem, creating a culture that acts as a disincentive to indifference is important but actually noticing and monitoring the problem of indifference and understanding the wider implications and affects is the only way to implement a successful combatant strategy to effectively eradicate the problem whilst ensuring.

Motivation Application and Engagement Effectiveness

There has been an enormous amount of literature produced regarding motivation over the last century. Motivation theory was first introduced to the world of business by early pioneers such as Taylor. Latham, 2007, explains Taylor’s research found money was the primary incentive for motivating the workforce. The classical management theory suggests managers should adopt a militant style, authoritarian technique. I do not believe this attitude should be embraced by today’s mangers for tackling indifference, although money may be a primary incentive for an indifferent employee, management need to intrinsically motivate, getting the individuals more engaged; this strategy was proven inefficient and not as productive as alternative methods. The importance of motivational factors and the needs of the employee lead to better management resolution, managers cannot go back to this perspective it will not work on a long term basis

Prior to Maslow, researchers generally focused on separate motivational factors separately. Maslow (1954) developed the hierarchy of needs, this introduced a fundamental change to the way employee productivity and motivation was perceived and built the foundations for further motivational theory. The hierarchy of needs is a triangular dimension with five elements; Physiological needs, safety/security needs, need for belongingness, self esteem and finally self actualization. Maslow claims all employees will move along the hierarchy. In order to progress you need to fulfil the requirements a particular element to move up the hierarchy. The indifferent employee in many cases is a former ‘team member’ and was at some stage a substantial contributor, this theory is not applicable with the indifferent employee due to them being at different levels of the hierarchy when the attitude sets in. Existence-relatedness-growth theory similar to Maslow’s hierarchy suggests motivation is a result of people attempting to satisfy basic needs, unlike Maslow’s 5 needs Alderfer (1969) suggests there are three needs; existence, relatedness and growth. This theory is more appropriate for tackling indifference. Existence needs would cover the lower aspects of the hierarchy; physiological and safety needs. Related needs would come under esteem and belongingness and growth needs would tend to be towards the top of the hierarchy at the self actualization level. One conflicting view in this theory is that the needs are not progressive in the way that there is no hierarchy; managers having a more productive role in engagement and employee progression will reduce the potential for indifferent attitudes to establish themselves within employees; resolving the issues before they become a problem. Alderfer suggests people may work on satisfying all needs at once rather than satisfying one need to move on to the next.

Process theories of motivation focus on relations between performance and satisfaction; Equity theory was introduced through Adams, J, S. (1965). According to Jones R, G. & George, J, M. (2003) “the equity theory is defined as a theory of motivation that focuses on people’s perceptions of the fairness of their work outcomes relative to their work outputs”. The theory is based on a ratio of input and output. The theory argues that inputs such as training and skills will result in outcomes such as pay and fringe benefits. Similar to performance related pay, equity theory suggests the ratio will create absolute fairness. Having the opportunity to earn on a level playing field will satisfy employees and motivate them to better their performance. Equity theory supports the view performance will increase as a result of increased job satisfaction. With successful application of Alderfer; the equity theory will be more effective or justified. Financial reward is not the best incentive for fully engagement of the indifferent employee; intrinsic motivation is more desired and more beneficial for the organisation as a whole.

In contrast to this Vroom developed expectancy theory. His views based on that of Lewin (1935) and Rotter (1955) suggest people expect a certain level of effort or performance to achieve desired objectives and goals. Increasing job satisfaction will come as a result of increasing job performance. Vroom (1964) defines two key elements to the theory: expectancy; ‘a momentary belief concerning the likelihood that a particular act will be followed by a particular outcome.’ Valence; ‘affective orientations toward particular outcomes’ valence either comes negative or positive, for example a person who prefers attaining an outcome rather than not-attaining the outcome has positive valence. Expectancy theory suggests motivation depends on how strong the expectancy is and how valiant the person finds the task. This is aligned to that of the indifferent employee; one that has lost their way. This indicates job design is crucial for effective performance. Forde & Whiddett, (2002) explain the concept of Instrumentality, also developed through expectancy theory, unlike expectancy; instrumentality suggests one outcome will lead to another important outcome. Porter and Lawyer (1968) researched expectancy theory and their findings supported that of Vroom. One criticism they did have was the theory did not take into account ability and job clarity, expectancy theory focused on extrinsic motivation rather than intrinsic. The indifferent employee needs a shift in philosophy to a more intrinsically motivated state of mind in order to resolve the issue indefinitely.

McClelland & Atkinson (1965) introduced achievement motivational needs theory, the theory is based on behaviour in achievement orientated activities, there are three specific motivational conditions; willingness to participate, ability or perception to achieve the goal; expectancy and there must be an incentive to carry out the task. Achievement theory categorises everyone into different personalities and needs. McClelland found three different types of need; the need for achievement, need for power and the need for affiliation. All have specific traits and tendencies which are explained in detail. This could be a solution, a balance between fairness and progression will help engage indifferent attitudes. Task motivation theory, or better known as goal setting theory was developed through Locke (1968) his study found three important points, Precise goals which can be measured are a much better tool of motivation rather than just giving general goals. More difficult goals lead to a greater level of performance compared with easy goals, Peoples decisions are influenced by their behavioural intention. Indifferent attitudes will be hard to stimulate progressive goals setting may have a negative impact for indifferent individuals yet is an appropriate motivator for the common worker aligned to the organisations culture and has a reasonable level of commitment.

Latter theories of motivation include Herzberg (1987) who describes motivation as “a function of growth from getting intrinsic rewards out of interesting and challenging work.” Herzberg’s two factor theory is separated between causes of job dissatisfaction named hygiene factors and positive elements of the job leading to satisfaction, named motivators. In his research he points out the opposite of job dissatisfaction will not lead to job satisfaction rather no job satisfaction. The same is true with the other side of the theory regarding motivators. He highlights extrinsic motivation as hygiene factors which will inevitably lead to no job satisfaction or job dissatisfaction. He also suggests the motivational factors i.e. motivators will lead to motivated or unmotivated workforce. Forde, & Whiddett. (2002) explain “If job satisfaction leads to greater productivity, it makes sense that any improvements in motivators should lead to an improvement in performance.” Satisfaction for the job is crucial, early motivational remedies can help solve the problem. A paternalistic managerial stance will improve communication and the manager can re-bridge the commitment and increase the performance enabling an all round more vigorously engaged individual.

More recent theories and expansions on motivation include the development of emotional intelligence, Goleman (1995) deriving from early ideas on social intelligence from Thorndike (1937). Butler and Waldroop acknowledge the importance of four dimensions of relational work: intelligence, interpersonal facilitation, relational creativity and team leadership. This more common theory should be adopted in order to abolish the indifference before it arises. It can provide the employee with more responsibility and a new calling so to speak although risky in the hand sof the indifferent it may have an outstanding affect on engagement and motivation, management intuition and general people skills and assessment should provide an inkling into what needs the indifferent employee is requiring and what can possibly help drive them and reinstate a good level of commitment.

Conclusions and Recommendations for further research

Classical Management theory and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs are not best appropriate if wanting to motivate the indifferent employee. Alderfer’s three needs of existence, relatedness and growth are more applicable, indifference could occur from a lack of these needs, building and growing predominately worse over time as a result of managers failing to acknowledge potential capacity for improvement and an individual’s workplace progress or even evolution. For effective engagement and sufficient commitment addressing these needs will help the employees stay focused and committed to the job at hand and ensure successful and proud representation. Equity Theory can in some cases help stimulate the employee and reengages them back into good work ethic. Performance related pay structures for example will motivate employees in the short term, with a less impact on that of the indifferent however financial reward is not top priority for routing out the cause and permanently eradicating indifferent attitudes within employees. Intrinsic motivation theory provides the best answer; Herzberg 1987 for example, the motivators on this two factor theory can be adopted and utilised in attempting to reverse the effect of indifference.

In order to resolve the issue it is necessary to reverse the growing entrenchment of negative work ethic as soon as possible. A number of motivational drivers should be adopted finding the one that works for the employee swiftly is advocated. Managers need to be effective in reforming the philosophy, ethics and morality of its indifferent employees; it is of the upmost importance; Murphy, 2002 states. “leaders need charisma to generate the awareness and sentiment”. Indifference in employees based in customer faced roles will have a profound negative impact on the customer’s perception of the organisation. Helpful and useful customer interaction is ever more desired if not required in today’s business world. It improves the organisation’s competitiveness, retains custom and advocates the reputation of the business. Ensuring customers are more than satisfied with their experience is a top priority; the point of interaction with representatives of the organisation plays an important part in credibility. Evidence Without managerial acknowledgement and a suitable, proactive, response; departments will not be as fully efficient and will suffer from poor representation. This low morale should be addressed through changing managerial tactics and applying different motivational engagement tools. There needs to be a change; one of which implements more desire and passion for indifferent members.

Motivation drives the workforce; influencing capacity and capability, it is also crucial for implementing the company’s mission and image throughout all levels of organisational structure. Motivation enables employees to better embrace the organisation’s culture. The indifference issue is very real; individuals will persist and their attitudes will free fall. Failing to resolve the matters effectively will result in a wider and more severe impact over time. Changing the mindset of the individual employee in order to fully engage them will reverse any entrenched attitudes. Through the correct motivational and managerial manner they can become exceptional employees once again. Returning the sound work ethic and standard will result in a noticeable and improved individual contribution; a benefit all human resource managers like to see.

Managers should have the opportunity for a more decentralised, motivational policy in order to tackle indifferent attitudes. More managerial discretion for methods that will bridge the needs of the indifferent with that of the goals of the organisation should be promoted. There needs to be a change in perspective away from the mainstream motivation, that of one predominate policy applying to all employees is not the path for the solving the indifference problem. When tackling indifference we need to change the motivational approach for different cases; the manager should be able to pick up on key indicators and measures; productivity for example. (Bratton and Gold’s, 1999) quest model also highlights main functions of HR and provides other aspects and indicators such as absenteeism. Indifferent employees need to perceive management as sufficiently addressing their needs and wants whilst balancing the organisational or departmental goals, desires and expectations, in a fair way. This is not best done through an appraisal structure but more similar to that of an informal meeting. Individuals are unique and indifference is best tackled when treating cases individually; assertiveness for individual needs will result in a better management practise and are more likely to settle the issue amongst the individual indefinitely.

Further research

Relatively long term case studies into finding, observing and documenting individual cases will provide a clearer understanding. Implementing different techniques spoken about can truly test the theories; accumulating a wealth of indifferent strategies for individual types perhaps. I recommend these further research ideas;

Comparing Indifference in a number of public and private sector organisations will enable a better insight; revealing the issue to see if it is more prone to certain structures, management styles or sectors.

A case study observing different effects of a range of motivational tactics using set trial periods for each. Doing this on indifferent employees would be enlightening; By researching further and obtaining these findings this could enable us to categorise different levels or types and potentially identify key catalysts for indifference amongst the workforce.

Ethical considerations may have to be taken into account; if observation is carried out without employee knowledge and consent, it will cause concern. Some will argue this is necessary so the outcome is not manipulated; in order to sustain more accurate findings. There are also many variables to take into account, company culture for example, but identifying indifferent employees needs to be acknowledged. if managers are well equipped with the knowhow and can differentiate between a lack of progress or temporary spells of poor performance with an actual indifferent employee then they can see what works best and gain a wider knowledge base for the themselves and the field of interest. Through using productivity measures and observing progress the issue can be studied effectively. Implementing other comparative and assessable variables will enable a more solid base on which findings can be assessed more reputably; ultimately attaining more conclusive and accredited research will drive the issue into the mainstream.

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