In the Greek mythology, Sisyphus was the King of Corinth who tried to escape the underworld by tricking Persephone. As a punishment for his trickery, he was forced to roll a large boulder uphill every day until exhaustion, only to see the rock roll back down just before it reached the peak. The once proud Sisyphus had to repeat this task endlessly and without relief. Learn from this myth: don’t let your team feel that work is a punishment, and spot the early signs of work turning into a never-ending, unrewarding task.

Sisyphus and the behavioural economist

Recent experiments looked at what motivates people at work and how they respond to different external stimulus. Behavioural economist Dan Ariely talks about this effect in his 2012 TEDx talk. He did a simple experiment getting people build Lego models, paying them a small amount for each one. In one group, he stored the models out of sight. For the other group, he destroyed the models in front of the team. People were less likely to continue the challenge under these conditions – their progress and sense of purpose was diminished.

Think about the end result and the emotions it brings – no one is able to explain why we are moving the rock. Everyone else around us seems to be facing their own battles, making us feel even more isolated. On the worst days, calling in sick feels like the only option to keep our sanity. This is what disengagement feel like. However, its cause is wider than Sisyphean tasks.

Empathy with Sisyphus

A first step is putting yourself in his sandals. Engagement is not an on/off state. As a team leader, spotting the first signs when others start to actively disengage gives you the ability to take action early and avoid those sick day calls. Hopefully, many of your employees are engaged and enthusiastic. Just like Sisyphus on his first day pushing up the boulder, they think anything is possible. They are fully into the project, and knowing that they’ve succeeded in the past (escaping from Hades is no mean feat!), and off they go. Other signs to look for beyond confidence are seeing people use the trust you have given them to empower themselves to success. Hopefully, they don’t see their work destroyed or held back, and they can continue to be engaged and active employees.

But if they don’t see success, and the tasks appear to be meaningless, things start to change. After a long series of failures, Sisyphus would have raged against the Gods, and spent time trying to avoid his task for the day. Of course, the Gods wouldn’t let him quit, and we can imagine how that might feel. Team members who are actively disengaged have low energy in meetings, and will directly undermine the efforts of others. They will be the source and the target of many complaints, and will tend to externalise blame onto other people.

In between these two states, there is the unengaged employee, and here we can take action to try help them feel that their tasks are not Sisyphean.

Describing the boulder

Sisyphus wasn’t broken in a day, and neither will your colleagues be. Just because someone is physically in the office, and looking like they are working, it doesn’t mean they are really being effective. Being productive is not just about the hours spent stuck in an office chair. Slow progress can damage the output of a team, and lead to the failure to produce great products. At best, the team will produce something that is merely good. The vacant employee can fall to presentee-ism (coming in when sick or working past the point of effectiveness). And that leads to negative effects on the rest of the team.

There’s no simple test for the unengaged, but here are some points to look out for:

  • Tasks come in just on time or a little late
  • Once enthusiastic team members start to contribute less in discussions
  • Less likely to self-start tasks
  • Rarely contributes ideas for overall process improvement
  • Takes longer breaks
  • Stops using ‘we’ and ‘I’ when describing problems to be solved
  • Tends to describe the business as ‘they’ and ‘them’ and not ‘us’.

Watch what happens when the boulder rolls away

You can not just go ahead and ask someone ‘Hey, Sisyphus, are you with us?’. Team members may not be aware of how little they care about the company goals. People varnish the truth so not to appear disloyal, or put their jobs in jeopardy. It might not be a good day for them today, and things at home are more pressing than a project that has been on the go for four weeks, has five more weeks to run and well, seems to be just fine right now. The cat’s sick and a perimeter fence has fallen over and caused some stress with the next door neighbours.

Review the actions of your team and then think about how they may be reacting to their environment. Have there been recent changes to their role? Or has there been a complete lack of change that might start to create boredom? Think about how Sisyphus felt after a couple of weeks. He might still have some hope that tomorrow would be different. That somehow it was only twenty times he needed to shoulder his burden. He has not yet given up hope, but by looking at how he approaches his tasks, you can spot a change in attitude. But at some point, just like in Dan Ariely’s experiment, there’s a feeling that they are always going back to square one. It’s time to try and break that loop, and let them make real progress.

If you’d like to know more about how to use collaborative learning experiences to empower your team, give them confidence and a shared vision or learn more about our game-based techniques here.

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