Rocks & Trees: Why Workplace Disengagement Drives Leaders Crazy


"It isn't the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out. It's the pebble in your shoe." ~ Muhammad Ali

The Pebbles

Disengagement is breaking the bank. Studies show we are losing up to $605 billion... every year! That's a lot of money. But working with organizations around the country, I’ve found that this is not what’s keeping leaders up at night. Muhammad Ali was right. It’s not the mountains, it’s the pebble in your shoe.

Pebble #1: Conflict — When people won’t get along.

Some people show up to work and they're not willing to get along with others. As leaders, we spend too much time putting out fires and trying to help people get along.

Pebble #2: Carelessness — When people don’t do their work well.

Some people leave at the end of their shift without completing their work. Often they will push their work to the next crew that's coming in. In the medical world, when charts are incomplete, it impacts the whole team when the patients return. It impacts other organizations in similar ways. When people don’t do their work and do it well, the whole team suffers.

Pebble #3: Cracks — When people say, "That’s not my job!"

One of the most vulnerable places in any organization are the cracks between teams. We all know how that works. One team says, "Well, that's not my job. That's their job." But the other team's saying, "No. That's not my job. That's their job." It only takes one team that's willing to say, "We don't care who gets the credit. We want the other guys to look good. We will own this problem."

Pebble #4: Change — When people won’t adapt.

Change is inevitable. Often, change is difficult. Some people dig their heels in and say, "Nope. Not going to do it. I am not gonna change." In fact, some people get upset if you change their parking spot. But, if you go back a week later and say, "You know, I'm sorry I stressed you out. We'll give you your old parking spot back," they'll dig their heels in and say, "No. I like my new parking spot! I am not going to change!" People like this can be like a ball and chain for a leader who’s trying to lead a company through troubled times.

Pebble #5: Come and go — When good people leave.

The people who leave are most often not the ones you want to go. To make matters worse, it is a compounding problem. Just like with a competitive tug-of-war game, as more people fall off the rope, it becomes increasingly difficult for those who are still trying. If you can’t replace them fast enough, the entire team is at risk.

The Tree

If leaders want to impact the disengagement problem, we must stop focusing only on the fruit and consider the whole tree.

The fruit: The results we produce

Sometimes fruit is tasty, nourishing, and awesome. It benefits everybody. Sometimes it's not. Fruit can be bitter, shriveled, or just plain rotten. But, the fruit is only the end result.

The branches: The actions we take

The actions we take are like the branches that support the fruit. Bad actions produce bad fruit. Coaching and mentoring frequently focus on the actions we take. The easiest (but not most effective) way to impact how people work is to focus the actions. They are above ground and easy to see.

But there's there is more going on that meets the eye. To understand more, we must look below the ground.

The trunk: The emotions we experience.

Part of the trunk is above the ground and part is below. Some emotions are visible and some run deep. When I was a young man, I took years to understand that emotions drive the actions I take, which impact the fruit I produce. Trying to change the actions without addressing the underlying emotions will not lead to long-term change.

The roots: The words we ponder.

The concept of the words we ponder reminds me of my son’s stinky dog. His dog smells like wet goat, but my son rarely smells it. He has grown accustomed to the dog's smell. Because it’s always there, most of us don't even realize we're having an internal dialogue. But these words we repeat over and over drive the emotions we experience, which impacts the actions we take and the fruit we produce.

The soil: The mindset we choose.

Feeding this whole system and ultimately determining the quality of the fruit is the mindset we choose. The mindset we choose that produces the words we ponder, the emotions we experience, the actions we take, and ultimately the fruit we produce. The concept of mindset is more that I can cover in this article but it is determined by how we answer two questions:

  • Am I powerless or powerful?
  • Am I a taker or a giver?

Call to Action: Consider the Words You Ponder

Consider the internal dialogue you're having. What are the words you're pondering? Are the words helpful? Are they leading to you to have a positive emotional experience and then making good actions and producing good fruit, or are they negative and leading to bitter fruit?

One way you can shift this internal dialogue is by practicing gratitude. Sometimes people may say, "That gratitude stuff is just a bunch of fluff." As a disaster doc who has worked at the heart of some of the greatest disasters of our times, I assure you, it's not a bunch of fluff. Even doing something as simple as writing three things that your thankful for every day can have a profound impact. When you write them down consider them, ponder them for a while, chew on them, and allow yourself to feel why you’re grateful for those things. If you do that for a one week, there's one study that showed you'll be happier than people that don't use gratitude for the next six months. It’s an easy thing you can try. Write three things down every day that you're thankful for. I use the Five Minute Journal app in my smartphone. It has a place to write three things I'm thankful for every day, a place to put a picture that shows something I'm celebrating, and a place to write an affirmation. I'll throw out this challenge for you too: no repeats. Don’t write the same thing every day. Without repeats, you will look around during the day to find even more things you're thankful for. This is game changing because, as I’ve written previously: we go where we look.

Share this with your team, with the people you're working with. Have these kinds of discussions. I think you'll find that as we make these shifts, we might get rid of some of those pesky pebbles in our shoes.