Dr. Andrea Hollingsworth
Hollingsworth Consulting

What do you do when people seem chronically unmotivated? Completely uninterested in living into the potential you know is there?

In 1997, Captain D. Michael Abrashoff took over command of the USS Benfold. At that time, it was one of the worst performing ships in the US Navy.

“Everything seemed… desperately wrong,” says Abrashoff in his book, It’s Your Ship. “There was no energy anywhere… people were just showing up to collect a paycheck every two weeks. They were locking their passion and enthusiasm inside their cars in the parking lot and just bringing their bodies to work.”

Abrashoff’s solution was to get aggressive—but not in the way you’d think. No one got a proverbial kick in the butt. Instead, every single one of the 310 crew members became the recipient of what he calls “aggressive listening.”

In his first six months as captain, Abrashoff sat down with each crew member for a 30-minute, one-on-one, interview.

In the interviews, Abrashoff’s first priority was just get to know them.

“Where’re you from? You partnered? Any kids? Why’d you join the navy? What’re your hopes and plans for your future?”

He learned a lot of them had tough backgrounds. Fully half had signed up because their families couldn’t afford to send them to college, and a third had joined to get away from bad home situations—drugs, gangs, and other kinds of violence.

He writes: “Something happened in me as a result of those interviews. I came to respect my crew enormously. No longer were they nameless bodies… I realized that they were just like me: They had hopes, dreams, loved ones, and they wanted to believe that what they were doing was important. And they wanted to be treated with respect.”

After connecting on a personal level, Abrashoff then asked each crew member three questions:

(1) What do you like most about the Benfold?

(2) What do you like least?

(3) What would you change if you were in charge?

Whenever someone gave a suggestion Abrashoff though the could implement right away, he’d get on the ship’s megaphone and announce the change. Like this:

“Everyone, Luitenant Charlie says we should replace the ship’s rusty bolts and fasteners with stainless steel ones. That way, we don’t have to sand and repaint them every year. Great idea. I’m ordering the new bolts today and we’ll begin replacing them soon.”

The USS Benfold went on to become one of the navy’shighest ranked ships.

When people aren’t showing up in the way you need them to, try aggressive listening.  Sit down with them. Get to know them more. What’s good in their life and work, and what’s hard? Then ask them about their ideas for how to improve things.

Don’t get defensive, don’t go into fix-it mode, just listen. If someone has a great idea that you can implement, let everyone else know whose awesome idea it was, and then do it. Public recognition goes a long way in saying, “You’re respected here, and you belong.”

Are there people in your life who are checked out and/or underperforming? Don’t fight them, align with them. Ask good questions and listen aggressively.

Few things encourage engagement and communicate belonging more than reassuring folks that they are seen, valued, and respected.

About Andrea

Dr. Andrea Hollingsworth is Founder and CEO of Hollingsworth Consulting, author of the bestselling book The Compassion Advantage (2024), and one of today’s leading global experts on compassionate leadership. Since 2008, she has been studying, speaking, and writing about the science and spirituality of human emotions and relationships. Her articles have been published more than a dozen times in peer-reviewed journals, and she has taught at prestigious institutions like Princeton, Boston University, and Loyola University Chicago. In addition, Dr. Andrea has delivered talks to audiences at some of the top-ranked universities in the world—including Cambridge University in England and Heidelberg University in Germany.

Dr. Andrea spends most of her time inspiring leaders and teams to use The Compassion Advantage to build supercharged organizations through cultures of care— especially in times of challenge and change. Andrea lives with her family in Minnesota where she cheers hard at her son’s soccer games and relishes every opportunity to visit the north shore of Lake Superior.