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Tips for Motivating Disengaged Employees

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Posted by Darleen DeRosa October 3, 2019

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According to Gallup data, only about a third of American employees are engaged in their workplace. These employees are not only productive, but they also demonstrate a passion for their work and their company’s goals that allows them to promote innovative solutions and drive results. They go to great lengths to ensure their teams achieve their goals and feel that their success and the organization’s success are fully connected.

Disengaged employees, on the other hand, can range anywhere from people who are adequately productive but put no passion into their work to those who are so unhappy in their roles that they actively undermine the company with their behavior. Since this group consists of roughly two-thirds of the workforce, organizations need to think long and hard about how to identify and deal with disengaged employees.

Identifying Disengaged Employees

In many cases, disengaged employees are easy to spot. They often withdraw from others, rarely offering opinions on work-related issues. Avoiding coworkers and increased absenteeism are both common indications that an employee is no longer feeling engaged. While not necessarily disruptive, their silence (or absence) can still have an impact on morale by undermining the sense of community that exists and making it difficult for teams to build and sustain trust. Other signs of disengagement can include dropoffs in productivity or the quality of work, a refusal to take accountability, and an unwillingness to share information. 

Degrees of Employee Disengagement

Disengagement should not be seen as a binary choice because many moderately disengaged employees are still highly motivated to perform despite being unhappy. These are the people who aren’t happy about their jobs but continue to perform. They may be motivated by a personal sense of pride in what they do, a desire to meet targets tied to compensation, or simply to avoid being singled out for attention. Unfortunately, they are also unwilling to go beyond the bare minimum of their job requirements. They may pay lip service to the organization’s goals, but they don’t feel personally invested in meeting them. These employees come to work, do what’s asked of them, and go home.

While this might not sound like a problem as long as they remain productive, moderately disengaged employees can very easily shift into being completely disengaged if nothing is done to address their concerns. By taking steps to provide them with support and help them feel valued again, companies can proactively avoid retention problems and keep morale high

At the other extreme, disengaged employees might be vocal about their unhappiness, complaining frequently or gossiping about coworkers. Their comments can turn negative and they may even lash out at others when pressed. These employees can quickly become a toxic influence in the workplace.

Tips for Motivating Disengaged Employees

Collect Feedback (and Listen to It)

The first step to combating disengagement is finding out the root causes behind it. In many cases, the factors driving employees to feel disengaged at work aren’t immediately obvious to leadership. By collecting feedback through one-on-one meetings and anonymous employee surveys, organizations can identify the specific factors that are making people check out. Employee disengagement is often a sign of poor communication, especially when it isn’t clear how the work people are doing every day relates back to the stated goals of the organization. Whatever the case, however, it is critically important that leaders listen closely to employee feedback. Simply collecting feedback and not doing anything to address the issues it raises will often backfire, leading to even lower levels of engagement as employees become frustrated over being ignored. 

Establish Clear and Consistent Expectations

One byproduct of poor communication is a lack of well-defined expectations. Many employees become disengaged at work because they don’t understand what is expected of them or see how they can improve their performance. This has the effect of making them believe their work isn’t valued or doesn’t contribute to the company’s success. When expectations are not clear, consistent, or measurable, it’s not only difficult for employees to know how to meet them, but also impossible for leaders to hold them accountable for poor performance. Establishing a solid road-map of what success looks like provides an ideal to aim for and reveals where additional support might be required.

Provide Recognition

Employees often become disengaged because they don’t think their contributions are appreciated. If all of the focus is on deadlines and performance issues, they may feel like the only time they hear from leadership is when something goes wrong. Over 80 percent of employees don’t believe their contributions are recognized often enough, and 40 percent say they would actually put more effort into their work if they were recognized more frequently. Without this recognition, team members can easily fall victim to thinking their work doesn’t matter, which causes them to become isolated and indifferent to how their work contributes to the organization’s goals. Simply acknowledging the good work employees are doing can halt their slide into disengagement and get them to view their efforts more positively. 

Create Opportunities to Learn and Grow

When an organization doesn’t offer meaningful training and development opportunities, there is no way for people to grow in ways that further their professional goals. These employees stagnate in their current roles and have difficulty seeing how they can build new skills or take on new challenges. Some people respond to this by tuning out or engaging in negative behavior, but others simply leave the organization. By identifying high-potential candidates and providing them with opportunities to improve their skills and take on new roles, companies can give them a reason to re-engage with their work and convince them that they have a long term future there. 

Widespread Disengagement Calls for Bigger Changes

Sometimes disengagement runs deeper than the way a few employees may be feeling about their role or work. There could be more systemic problems, such as ineffective teams that don’t collaborate, a lack of information coming down from leadership, or a misalignment between the organization’s stated objectives and the way it operates in practice. While there should still be an effort to focus on the needs of individual employees, larger changes at the organizational level might be necessary.

In such cases, rethinking things like team composition, remote work policies, onboarding practices, assessment strategies, and coaching/mentorship programs can shake up the status quo and reorient the expectations of both leadership and employees. Many organizations fall into the habit of assuming the structures they put in place years ago will be equally effective at promoting employee engagement in a very different business environment. Younger people entering the workforce do not always respond well to incentives and management strategies that were effective driving engagement in previous generations. This can be especially challenging for leaders who expect employees to adapt to their approach rather than adjusting to meet the needs of their teams.

Understanding and addressing the causes of employee disengagement is incredibly important for an organization that wants to preserve a productive work environment and minimize turnover. Disengaged employees might begin as a small percentage of the workforce, but they can very easily impact other people who may still be productive but are not fully engaged in their work. By identifying disengaged employees early and deploying the best strategies to get them back on track, companies can avoid having widespread morale problems that can significantly undermine business performance over time.

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