Active Passivity & the Will to Act

Passivity is a debilitating condition affecting most large organisations.

It is the tendency toward inaction rather than action; Waiting to be instructed rather than seeking opportunities. Avoiding problems rather than seeking solutions. The great irony is that in most cases this passivity is in fact, ACTIVE.

‘Active Passivity’ may be the mother of all oxymorons, but we believe it describes perfectly the status quo within many companies today.

In a nutshell, it is the tendency to assume and act as if "It's not my job."

It is that devil on your shoulder saying “You don't get paid to do that. Someone else will take care of it.” Or maybe even, “That sounds too risky. You would be better off just ignoring it until your boss specifically asks you to do it.”

Another way to think about this phenomenon is as an internal struggle to do something. It is the impulse to go above and beyond but then, because it is much easier, to take the decision to actually stay well below and within.

It is that mental tug-of-war at the time an opportunity presents itself. It is the feeling of ownership and agency doing battle with risk-aversion and complacency, or just plain laziness!

Sadly, passivity often wins. And this is an active choice, a conscious decision to surrender to the easy path.

    Are you Active or Passive?

      Wasting time at work reaches epidemic proportions

      Slacking off is a habit even among the smartest and most capable individuals.

      Data from recent studies as reported in Forbes are shocking, particularly if you are a hands-off manager expecting consistent engagement from your staff.

      89% of respondents admitted to wasting time on personal matters every day while at work, up from 69% in a similar poll one year ago. 24% admitted they spend at least an hour each day on personal email, texts and phone calls.

      Sociologist Roland Paulson calls it “empty labour” or “organisational misbehaviour,” and suggests it is a result of jobs or tasks feeling meaningless, a fault sitting squarely with the employer or supervisor.

      Others suggest embracing the distractions and focusing instead on performance rather than monitoring and tracking detailed productivity.

      Ultimately all of these examples illustrate an active form of remaining passive at work.

      So how to change the equation?

        It’s NOT called the Global Cruisers Programme

        For twelve years our flagship experiential executive education programme has been called the Global Leaders Programme (GLP).

        There are thousands of leadership programmes around the world and we believe our experiential learning methodology is best-in-class. Don't just take our word for it, read what participants take away and how that benefits our clients.

        On our programmes there is no such thing as "just getting by".

        And there is NO PLACE TO HIDE.

        We call it leadership development not because we believe we can actually teach others about leadership. Rather, it is a participant-led process with opportunities to exercise leadership implicit at every moment. Most of these opportunities do not involve explicit instructions. Thus participants are required to observe, think and be proactive in making the decision to step up to do something.

        Unfortunately, Active Passivity is a recurring phenomenon among our high potential cohorts. (All of our blog posts including this one are written from first-hand experience). It is a rich topic for feedback and learning during our experiential fieldwork modules.

        We believe Active Passivity is perhaps the single biggest obstacle that managers in large organisations need to overcome. Therefore, and based on the guidance of our senior mentors, we have reframed the concept of leadership as:

        “Any action executed with the intention to move the team in a positive direction toward its desired outcome.”

        Leadership is not about recognition, titles or numbers of subordinates.

        Leadership in the moment can be something as humble as asking for the quiet colleague’s input, thereby promoting inclusivity. It could be getting the team fresh cups of coffee when it is needed most.

        Clearly when there is work to be done, an active style of leadership means being able and willing to challenge the ideas of others in order to arrive at the best outcome. Speaking up and supporting constructive ideas to move a group toward consensus is also critical.

        Actively avoiding the passive role can take many forms. Leading, or more simply put, taking action when required, is an active choice.

          Self-Reflection is an Essential Ingredient

          One of the critical elements of our learning methodology is self-reflection and candid sharing.

          When we reflect honestly on our own behaviour it becomes clear that there is a specific mindset for seeking out and acting on what needs to be done in the moment. This is the antidote to remaining passive and simply justifying the “act” of doing nothing. Without honest self-reflection and occasional feedback from others, it is difficult if not impossible to see certain tendencies in our own behaviours.

          Too often even the best and brightest consciously choose NOT to do something. They make a choice to remain passive, which may be rooted in fear, risk-aversion, laziness or uncertainty about how to approach a particular problem.

          One participant told us recently there are just too many reasons not to take risks:

        1. "It's not my job...
        2. "I don't get paid to do that...
        3. "It might upset some other important people...
        4. "It would never work. Why rock the boat?"

        5. Do you recognise any of these in yourself or your team?

          99% of the time our passivity is not subconscious, it is an active choice.

          It is a dangerous and debilitating habit which prevents individuals from exercising leadership.

            Look familiar?

              “Checking-out” is always a Visible Phenomenon

              Body language never lies. On our programmes we can tell immediately who is engaged and who is disengaged. Who is mentally absent, disinterested, daydreaming or preoccupied with other matters.

              Here are a few tell-tale signs of being checked-out:

            1. Failing to respond when mentioned by name in a group discussion
            2. Constantly checking devices
            3. No meaningful contributions
            4. Slouched posture, lack of eye contact, lack of smiles
            5. There are many ways that body language and facial expression betray Active Passivity.
            6. Being checked-out is different than merely remaining silent. Those who are quiet can still be very actively engaged, thinking hard, making connections and full of bright ideas.

              Our colleagues in the workplace can read the signals of Active Passivity. Though they might not say it, they know who is actively involved and who is not.

              Distraction is a close relative of Active Passivity. In today's modern workplaces we are assaulted by constant distractions, much of which are enabled by technology. We are powerless against the open laptop or the vibration of our devices.

              On our programmes we have found that an important technique to secure the attention of an audience, reduce distraction and overcome passivity, to ask that all laptop covers be closed and devices be removed and placed in bags before starting a session. We encourage you to try it next time you are running a meeting.

              We had a participant recently who started her session as Chairperson with the bold instruction, "I want all of your laptops placed in flat mode!"

                Seek Within Yourself to Overcome!

                How does one overcome Active Passivity? Here are some tips:

              1. Observe - this is the basis for being able to recognise how to intervene and how to help. The power to observe others, the dynamics amongst teams, and perhaps most importantly yourself, is critical to leadership.
              2. Prepare to act - be ready when the moment presents itself. As one of our participants recently said “I wanted to put my hand up and answer the question but I had only about two seconds and then the moment passed. I couldn't make the decision quickly enough.”
              3. Focus on helping others - move away from overly self-conscious anxiety or fear of failure and negative consequences and instead focus on what you can do to help the team.
              4. Lead yourself - the toughest person to lead is yourself. Don't let yourself become complacent.
              5. Commit to action - make the strong personal determination to act, otherwise the habits of passivity will remain stronger than your desire to do something.
              6. Don’t Surrender - Those who fail to act often think it is too difficult to do something. They are wrong. They have surrendered to inaction. They have convinced themselves otherwise as an excuse to justify their passivity. Mentally check-in and try to gauge your “Surrender Status.”
              7. The next time you or someone you work with is demonstrating the behaviours of Active Passivity, take action. Challenge them to act. Everyone will be better for it.

                If you or others on your team want an intensive period of practicing action in order to break the habits of Active Passivity, join us on an upcoming GIFT programme:


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