Transactional Work and Adopted Passivity

The notion that work relationships can be either transactional or transformational has been around for a long time. Transactional work relationships are relationships where the focus is on the trade of time, effort, or results for money. Work is a contract and the terms are primarily about the tasks and the rewards. Transformational work relationships, by comparison, suggest a deeper involvement of people as collaborators and partners who actively invest in one another’s performance and success as part of larger, shared view of a common enterprise.

Many leaders espouse the importance of something like the transformational view but when push comes to shove naturally revert to more transactional models. That the underlying contract becomes the thing may well reflect a lingering, inherited individualistic culture. Many Human Resource functions reinforce this inheritance, especially when there are performance issues between a leader and a report. The focus often quickly migrates to the need for specific behavioral changes to be made according to a defined timeframe. “You must do X by Y date or you may be terminated.” Etc.


Could there be meaningful alternative? That, I think, is a very good question, and is a point where it is all too easy to drift off into generalities and ideals that can cover up the depth of disconnections among people that happen at work. The truth is I’m hesitant to call much of anything “transformational” these days. It’s just too big a promise.

Here’s a sample problem. Let’s say Martin, a likable, long-term supervisor, reports to Jennifer, a manager. Although Martin once played an important role and was responsible for a few key department accomplishments in the past, his skills — and his approach to the job — are clearly now out of date. Instead of being proactive in acknowledging these issues and initiating his own changes, he waits for Jennifer to provide feedback about specific service and human relations problems as they arise. She always comes prepared for these talks, offering him detailed instructions about how he can and must be different in his work.

However, as Jennifer attempts to share the larger picture of Martin’s job with him and where he’s now falling short, he typically expresses surprise that somehow he’s not met her expectations. He frequently says, “I didn’t know that was a problem.” Usually she then becomes even more specific and behavioral about what he should do differently. At the end of the conversation Martin seems to understand and Jennifer feels she’s done her job. But it quickly becomes clear when Martin attempts to make minor changes that he doesn’t truly understand them in the way Jennifer’s intended. Thus, he fails at making any critical shift in results.

This frustrating circumstance happens cyclically over months and months, with Jennifer backing off and going forward, alternately resigned to accepting what Martin can and can’t do, feeling intense frustration and then numbing out. If Martin’s job were a machine part, one day it would be a millimeter or three out of specification and — after she once again intervenes — a millimeter or two within specification, but she can’t quite keep things calibrated. It’s taking too much of her time. Despite his many years in the role and how much he’s a fixture of the department, Martin just seems to have lost (or never fully acquired) a fundamental and expected mastery. It’s not terrible performance, at least not all the time, but it isn’t really good either, with the outcome that trusting Martin’s judgment becomes difficult. He seems to be saying through his performance, “Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it,” while Jennifer feels doomed to observing, checking, verifying and correcting his work. She feels as if Martin has become become redundant to the job she’s performing as leader.

This is all very transactional.

One traditional fix would be to ensure Martin actually understands his job, so a new job description is written, clarifying the contract. Another fix is to put Martin on a performance improvement plan (PIP). This makes the contract even more short-term, specific and explicit. Do this, do that, you get to stay. Don’t do it, don’t do that, you must leave. Another fix might be to see if there’s some other job Martin could perform, maybe encouraging him to transfer to another department. Here the contract becomes somebody else’s problem. However, all of this — which in some situations may truly help — also may simply delay the moment of inevitable realization: it’s over and has been for some time, whereupon everyone likely feels a little guilt for how long it’s taken to get to the endgame. This is bad bureaucracy pure and simple. Despite all the good intentions to “save” Martin, the process hurts and scares people and sometimes causes hard to measure intangible losses to leadership credibility and trust.

Routines of this kind aren’t just evident with entry level positions. There are plenty of managers at all levels and executives, too, in the same transactional rut. Some leaders find themselves there because they can be too easily tempted into micromanaging others — as if that’s the best way for them to add value. And some reports find themselves in the cycle because they have lost a sense of authentic personal agency. “Nothing I can do works or helps.” Passivity is adopted, perhaps, as a matter of intentional or inadvertent self-protection — which is not quite the same as “learned helplessness,” a term common in depression research. Adopted passivity helps people slide away from problems by “not understanding what to do.” This implicitly makes the problem a transactional one for which the leader is to blame for not living up to the underlying contract because they haven’t sufficiently defined the task or provided for its accomplishment by others.

For example, I recall a principal of a big accounting firm, a firm dedicated to helping manage the finances of the very richest people in one of America’s richest cities, a principal who constantly complained that his peers weren’t helping him get business. I watched a whole group of principals sit cowed at a retreat, offering up their continuing desire to be of help while the one principal in question berated them for not selling their clients on his services. He’d been asked by the managing partner to create a plan to develop his own client base and offerings, and this was all he had, a scolding for peers but no actual ideas for business development at all. Two months after the retreat, where he’d received explicit encouragement and offers of assistance, he still had no plan and he became angry when asked about it by the managing partner.

So what’s the solution? Can — should — marriages of this kind be saved?

Good question. The truth is what we already know: once the disconnect between people becomes embedded in repeating cycles, the chances of changing the dynamics are slim. And are probably twice as slim when adopted passivity is involved.

The only way out of the trap is to stop making the relationship a transactional one. As a leader that means not taking the bait of a passive response, but instead firmly (and I would argue, compassionately) placing the responsibility for change in the other person’s hands.

It’s no surprise that Jennifer feels Martin’s job is redundant to hers. As long as she guides and coaches by delineating successive waves of specific tasks, up to and including a PIP but never addressing Martin’s failed agency, she’s caught in the wringer. In the case of the accounting firm, by being cowed and offering up help without a plan of any kind, the group of principals codependently feeds the anger and passive aggression of their non-performing peer.

With higher level positions, in particular, it would seem to me the furthest anyone ought to go is creating a kind of template that asks a lot of important questions.

Here might be some questions for Martin:

  • How will you help the team adapt to new workloads and working methods?
  • What work systems will you change? Why? By when? How?
  • Given our growth and all the changes, how will you ensure your own competence and the competence of staff?
  • How will you spark high levels of team engagement and reduce turnover?
  • What changes do you want to make to your leadership presence?

Here might be some for the accounting principal:

  • What particular clients are you going after in what timeframes? What’s your approach? Why do you think it will work?
  • What specific standards will you set for your own personal service to clients?
  • How will you ensure that you perform to that level?
  • How will you measure your success now and over the next few years?
  • How will you access your peers’ assistance and collaboration?

Using these questions as a template, ones that explicitly require a higher level of agency, a leader is better able to see whether or not a report is applying that agency. The leader can gauge whether the person has the ideas and capabilities to pull off the level of performance actually needed by the work and mission of the job, not just the “assigned tasks.” In this way, it becomes easier to determine whether or not a person is a good match for the job. For some roles, it would even seem reasonable that the report generate at least some of these questions.

If the person is unable to answer the questions or resists a plan to answer them; if the answers repeatedly seem marginal or shallow even with some help and guidance, then I would argue that the match just isn’t there and the leader isn’t helping anybody by dragging out the inevitable.

This does not mean that the process of separation has to be cruel. No longer being a match for a particular role or a particular organization is not a crime. And how that separation occurs is one place, for sure, that you can measure whether the relationship is still crudely transactional or joins a more humanistic, understanding and ” transformational” plane.


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