Fighting Apathy in Student Organizations

~By Humaira Taz

On Wednesday, Mar 22nd 2017, the UTK Campus Events Board held a seminar with T. J. Sullivan as the guest speaker. Sullivan is the author of the bestselling book titled “Motivating the Middle: Fighting Apathy in College Student Organizations”, and he travels all over the country delivering speeches that identify and tackle the problems faced by student organizations in colleges and universities. Cole Pawlaczyk, the Recruitment Officer of FOSEP, made sure to attend the event and came back enlightened. Here is what we learned from him.9781604946901-susanedits.indd

Every organization has three categories of people: the top one-third; the middle one-third; and the bottom one-third. The top one-third people are very active in terms of engagement and involvement. They like to have strong identities, validation of their efforts, and they seek success wherever they participate. They do not like apathy, or incomplete tasks, or looking bad in front of other people. The easiest way to spot them is that they are always busy and seek opportunity.

The middle one-third are the members who do not take any initiative, but answer when they are called upon, adding value to the organization. They might not be taking initiative due to difference in priorities and simply being very passive in their opinions. They also often juggle multiple activities simultaneously. They like balance and healthy relationships, while staying away from negativity and disorganization. They are usually in the background – like the backdrop of a play: important, adding value, but never catching the spotlight.

Finally, the bottom one-third are the people who love having fun, complaining, but also wants some respect. However, they dislike rules, obligations, and unfortunately quite often, the top one-third. Thus these people tend to be the ones causing drama and are often missing in action.

Therefore, it would seem like to keep the members of the organization from being apathetic, it’s important to motivate the middle one-third. However, the task is not that simple. The single biggest mistake made by the leaders in any organization is to assume that everyone will be motivated by the same things that motivate the leaders. That’s not necessarily true since in most occasions. To put bluntly, there might be members in the middle one-third group who are sincere, but are motivated by the goal of boosting their resumes.

The second big mistake is insufficient communication between the members of the organization. If the top one-third assumes that they are the ones having to do everything, and thus develop a negative attitude in the process, they are losing the interest of the middle one-third who were willing to help all along. The key would be to communicate to the middle one-third and extract from them the value that they bring to the organization instead of shooing them away with negativity.

So how do we keep all of these groups motivated and working as a cohesive team? Well, we lead, motivate and inspire them from where they are. We need to make sure the top one-third is always busy to take advantage of their affinity for success. For the middle one-third, we should definitely avoid making passive-aggressive statements as starters. We also need to understand that having mutual respect with them is important, and that they are passive so we probably should not be making decisions at the same meeting that topics are raised. Rather it would be wiser to give them some time. As for the bottom one-third, they really do cause more harm than good, so it’s best to leave them alone. But this shouldn’t make us belittle those bottom one-third: we are all bottom one-third somewhere.

In the end, we need to accept that the idea of having everyone in the group motivated and inspired at the same level is in fact a fantasy. Isn’t this some important life lesson? To learn better about improving your organization dynamics, I highly recommend reading Sullivan’s book!

**Special thanks to Cole for the notes from attending the event!