The Empty Suit: Do They Slowly Kill Team Productivity… or Are They Misunderstood?
“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”
- Jim Rohn
Life is too short. The people we spend time with make a huge difference to our sense of vitality and achievement. This applies to our working team. The energy each of us brings to a team endeavour makes a difference. This energy is an intangible yet influential part of our working environment.
People with different perspectives exist in every team — and diversity should be explored and even celebrated. A diverse perspective helps us avoid groupthink. Teams should be a safe space for people to be themselves as long as they are productive and focus on group goals. A healthy team celebrates differences while reflecting on a marvellous coming together as a team.
Have you ever been part of a team where everyone is on the same wavelength and has the same purpose… except for one person or a small handful of people? This one person or small clique doesn’t make any effort to get to know others and is unaware of the team’s purpose.
Yet what happens when the one person or small clique are the only unproductive ones? They bring no energy or commitment to the team goals. As an individual, their enthusiasm is intermittent at best.
No one is perfect; each one of us has personal failings. We feel envy, strive to conform, or sometimes have rigid thinking. We may be self-absorbed from time to time, be downright lazy, or don’t stay the course. We may even be passive-aggressive on occasion. Yet, these failings are speckles on our clean white shirts for productive people.
What is the one type of person who drains team vitality and re-routes or stifles collective achievement?
Enter the “empty suit”.
An empty suit is someone who looks the part but has no substance. While an empty suit can be someone higher in the hierarchy than you, empty suits can be team members. This article looks at empty suits who happen to be team members.
The empty suit may have impressed during the interviews. Their references glow, and they appear impeccable on paper. They may claim expertise or particular prestige broadly and often in a nebulous way. Yet when you get to know them, your curiosity about their claims might get the better of you. You may end up putting a magnifying glass over their expertise or claim to particular credentials.
The empty suit starts in your team, and soon enough, small warning signs appear. Simple things befuddle them. They need to check in with managers upon every small obstacle. There are many misunderstandings. Regular disappearances. Team members are polite yet curt with them. They feel entitled to ask for overtime yet can complain about any hard work. You suspect your team is holding back their opinions about the empty suit. Spin and empty promises are the only output from any tasks you delegate to them. If you have the audacity to probe into their lack of productivity, you might meet energetic defence. You might even be labelled a micromanager. Their customer interactions are lacking, and at best, “tick a box”.
The letter of the law
They go through the motions. Tasks are done via the letter of the law — not the spirit of the law. They seem to invest more energy into either complaining about the work — or spinning a story about how they couldn’t complete something. Their ratio of doing the actual work to not is low. Their effort goes into the appearance of work. When the rest of their team is galvanised toward a collective goal, the empty suit’s blank stare reminds them that things are not right in your team. Their energy drags others down in either covert or overt ways. Many empty suits never take responsibility. They never seem wrong and attribute mistakes or obstacles to external factors. Their subtle complaining and low energy levels infect others.
You might temporarily delude yourself or wait a little longer to see if this is a pattern of behaviour. For any manager quick to embrace reality, the truth speaks. There is no substance. This person’s behaviour is unlikely to improve.
Some empty suits aim to blend into the crowd. They know the right words to say in front of higher-ups, and once these right words are uttered, they are left alone for a while. They may pull on heartstrings or suddenly struggle to understand questions when you probe into their lack of activity. This type of empty suit seeks to do just enough to avoid detection. Some job roles lend themselves to this very type of empty suit.
Like with any relationship, empty suits take but don’t give back. Many empty suits only move quickly for things that benefit them and occasionally put others down or place obstacles in the way. We have limited time and energy and need to be strategic with our time, energy and support.
Other types of empty suits suck the energy out of their team. They may put up subtle resistance to any leader's initiative or stir up small but frequent dramas within the team. They may have many reasons why an initiative won’t work. In this case, they may be useful for brainstorming ideas for “black hat thinking”. By carefully considering the risks and issues behind an initiative, you can build a stronger approach. The rest of your team might then provide valuable input on other facets of creative problem-solving.
The craziest thing is that some empty suits are supported by management. They may have worked with them years before and may even be friends with them. The empty suit is almost “untouchable” due to this protection. My mind boggles when I see this, but then I remember that we are all irrational creatures. We take a shine to types of people, and sometimes we don’t know why — but justify our reasons nonetheless.
Seeing that we are social animals, we are susceptible to the moods and ways of thinking of those we spend our time with. Everyone else in the team starts thinking about the empty suit’s latest failure, drama or no-show. They get frustrated and feel stifled as the group energy lowers and becomes more diffuse. As a leader, we need to look at the effects of the empty suit on your team’s morale and productivity. It is, in most cases, not worth trying to influence the thought patterns or ways of working of an empty suit.
An empty suit is a virus in your team. Like a virus entering a body, it takes time before its defence systems recognise the virus. Sometimes this recognition takes place far too late. The empty suit enters organisations and takes a different path to job security. Instead of working on their actual job, they build relationships with people to ensure their security. They may exploit work/life balance policies to help them hide when others are doing the heavy lifting. They may be clever enough to claim mental health issues or bullying if any manager decides to probe into their lack of productivity.
Some empty suits are even bold enough to attempt to “train” others into submission, making them complicit in the empty suit’s game. They may strategically raise their voice or talk over any manager seeking to understand yet another no-show, failure or empty promise. Suddenly, they move from understanding instructions to a form of either malicious obedience or being deliberately obtuse.
“There is nothing to be gained by associating with those who infect you with their misery… ignore this… at your peril.”
- Robert Greene
So what can be done?
Look at yourself first. While this article appears judgemental of the so-called empty suit, could the problem exist with you? Could the person you see as an empty suit actually be productive? Is it your management style or an attachment to particular behaviours that make you dislike this person? Unnecessarily high expectations of someone mean they either fall short, or they are a little intimidated by you? Is there a personal crisis or responsibility they are attending to? Would this person flourish under a different management style?
Examine their strengths. We are all a constellation of values and strengths. Certain jobs take only partial advantage of the so-called empty suit’s values and strengths. They may feel depleted as only some strengths are being used. Can your entire team (including the person involved) craft job roles slightly? Shaping job roles caters for individual strengths. Could this smart move lead to a longer-term change in the team dynamic?
Address the problem. Understanding our role in the problem is the first step. Having a frank conversation, and taking constructive action, is the next. Sometimes people are unaware of how they come across, and specific behaviours and mindsets need to be respectfully called out.
Embrace reality. But let’s not kid ourselves. Not everyone improves. Life is fair from constant rainbows, sunshine and unicorns.
I wish I could tell you that Andy fought the good fight, and the Sisters let him be. I wish I could tell you that — but prison is no fairy-tale world. He never said who did it, but we all knew. Things went on like that for awhile — prison life consists of routine, and then more routine. Every so often, Andy would show up with fresh bruises. The Sisters kept at him — sometimes he was able to fight ’em off, sometimes not. And that’s how it went for Andy — that was his routine. I do believe those first two years were the worst for him, and I also believe that if things had gone on that way, this place would have got the best of him.
This is where you need to be clear on what your team stands for. Ask yourself: is the empty suit’s behaviours and attitude making a mockery of your team’s ethos?
Supply and demand drive the world. When looking at the “market” for unproductive work, empty suits form the supply side. Bullshit jobs form the demand side. Empty suits would thrive in jobs with no accountability or true expectations — apart from picking up a regular payment. A problem starts when empty suits attach themselves to jobs requiring accountability. Clear, ongoing and tangible contributions to team productivity are harsh sunlight they wish to avoid.
Once the price is paid, the quality remains.
Not everyone is cut out to influence team dynamics. Yet, those who do may see their job as maintaining a nice garden, free of weeds. Or maintaining and improving a machine that yields outcomes for an organisation.
For those who can make quick and tough decisions, the team see the commitment to the team ethos. They respect those who make the calls that others shy away from. They may fear the decision-makers a little or temporarily resent them. In the long-term, the right people with the right ethos drive the team’s success and help make working life more enjoyable.