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shrug /SHrəɡ/ verb

1. raise (one’s shoulders) slightly and momentarily to express doubt, ignorance, or indifference.

What do you do when you don’t have a good answer? How do you react when you hit a dead-end? What do you do when things get really difficult?Do you shrug?

What about your team? Do you have team members who shrug when they don’t have an answer? Do you have staff who shrug-off customer complaints, difficult problems, staffing challenges, or responsibility? Think about recent days in your office or at home. Have you witnessed “the shrug?”

I’m not talking about a casual “I really don’t know what she was thinking” kind of shrug. I’m talking about surrender when things get tough. A shrug says I have no answers. A shrug is a self=delivered pass to do less, be less, or accept less than what is possible. A shrug is giving up when you likely don’t have that luxury.

Thinking of a shrug, you may be inclined to say “it wasn’t a big deal.” Perhaps it wasn’t. But consider what happens with the next bump in the road. It is likely that your next difficulty either stemmed from the previous shrug or you found it easier to shrug again. If an employee, perhaps the shrug worked so well last time that it is brought to bear again.

You see, a shrug is a gateway reaction. Beginning small and seemingly innocent, it grows into an insidious habit. Once you surrender to the difficult, it becomes far easier to replicate the pattern. Once you bury your head in the sand, punt, look the other way, defer, pass-the-buck, or shrug, you introduce into your psyche the “pass.” Your own personal ‘get out of jail free’ card. A powerful excuse to avoid responsibility, deflect blame, or simply run away from the challenging, uncomfortable, messy, intractable, or soul-sucking problems of life.

What we don’t realize is that shrugging is often a luxury we really can’t afford. Sure, we can shrug in the moment but all we are doing is deferring a payment that will eventually have to be made. You will pay the price. The penalty may be indirect; it may come in a different form or from a different direction. However, it will come back around in some way, shape, or form.

Stop shrugging. Don’t give-in to the habit of deferring or delaying accountability. Don’t have an answer? Admit it. Then go find one. Made a mistake? Own it. Then correct it. Frustrated by a seemingly intractable problem? Grit your teeth and walk straight into it. Still too tough? Then ask for help…and continue to own it. Don’t shrug, persist.

With regard to team members who shrug when faced with difficulties. Remember, we are all works in progress. A shrug presents an opportunity for you to help them grow. A shrug indicates a teaching moment. A shrug may also reflect a deeper issue within your model, structure, or team. Pay attention and understand its root cause.

However, too many shrugs indicates a different issue. Right person, wrong job. Right person, wrong support. Right person, wrong structure. Or, it may indicate that he or she is the wrong person. You need effort, discipline, and persistence. If you get persistent shrugs, you need to stop shrugging them off and face the music.

Finally, when taking your lumps, don’t shrug them away. The motion of bringing your shoulders up into a shrug is a surrender. When knocked down or set back, don’t retreat into a shrug. Face it. Accept it. Learn from it. Then, shake it off and move on.


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