At a glance
An early sign of disengagement, and one of the first things you may notice as a manager, is the silence. An employee who previously talked a lot in meetings doesn’t say much. Even the ones who didn’t say much before, now don’t say anything at all.
Mark LeBusque, who specialises in humanising leadership, knows how to spot people who are in danger of throwing in the towel. “They start looking for their manager to come up with ideas or expect to be told what to do next. They may also have withdrawn socially, skipping the Friday night drinks or office socials,” he says.
Absenteeism is another warning signal, with an employee increasing the number of days they take off.
“It’s a bit like a virus,” says LeBusque, “particularly if it appears among influential people in the team. It’s challenging for managers, because if they don’t jump on it quickly, disengagement can go from mildly problematic to dysfunctional very quickly.”
The unhappiness chart
Since 2000, Gallup has measured global levels of workplace engagement – from engaged, to not engaged, to actively disengaged staff. The global average employee engagement hovers at about 20 per cent.
People who Gallup rates as actively disengaged are “those who have miserable work experiences and spread their unhappiness to their colleagues”. This toxicity is particularly contagious in office settings.
Why are so many people unhappy and unfocused at work? Employee disengagement doesn’t occur in a vacuum, says Danny Lessem, CEO and co-founder of software company ELMO.
Unsatisfactory pay, lack of career development opportunities, ineffective managers, workplace stress, company culture and workplace policies that fail to keep up with the times can all be contributing factors.
“Money-related stress contributes to disengagement. If an individual feels they are earning much less than their peers in similar industries or cities, they may feel discouraged,” says Lessem.
Another big disincentive is when people’s desire to learn new skills and grow in their role isn’t being met. They lose interest in their jobs – sometimes to the extent that they are willing to resign.
However, by far the leading cause of employee disengagement is ineffective management. “There are many forms of poor leadership, but research shows that ‘absentee leaders’ erode staff satisfaction the most.
These are managers who are psychologically absent and therefore fail to build meaningful connections with their teams. This leads to high levels of stress and low employee morale – and, eventually, active disengagement,” says Lessem.
With hybrid working becoming more common following the pandemic, keeping tabs on how people are travelling in relation to their motivation, mental health and connectedness to their work could seem even more daunting from a manager’s perspective.
Alison and Darren Hill, founders of behaviour and motivation strategy company Pragmatic Thinking, say that employee disengagement can be related to what is going on outside the office.
“Look for signs of a lowered level of energy when even the types of work that would normally light them up seem mundane. This might be related to home challenges, poor sleep, or biological or hormonal factors.”
They suggest managers take a caring and compassionate approach, encouraging an employee to prioritise taking breaks, getting outside, eating well and taking time to exercise and sleep. They also caution about overreaction and that drop-offs in cultural contributions, discretionary effort and sociability with the wider team might only be temporary.
“These shouldn’t be ‘deal-breakers’, and managers need to respect and realise that all people have rhythms and good days or weeks, and bad days or weeks.”
Back on track
What can be done to re-enthuse and re-motivate employees?
Often, it’s as simple as acknowledging the work that people are doing and saying “Thank you” – and being specific about what you are thanking them for, says LeBusque. “Positive reinforcement is really important to show someone their relevance and contribution to the organisation.”
Communicating regularly one-to-one, particularly during remote working, is helpful, says LeBusque. “Talk about their work style preference – about how they do their very best work, so you get the right balance between overseeing their work and allowing autonomy of effort,” he says.
“Check in each week about what they are proud of and what they have achieved. There is such a focus on what we are not doing well instead of focusing and reinforcing the positive,” says LeBusque.
Getting insight into where an employee wants to develop and what you, as their manager, are doing to help them will also make someone feel valued, and they are likely to make more discretionary effort, he says.
Performance and leadership coach Dan Haesler also adds that, while feeling good about your work contribution is motivating, in order to be part of a high-performing and engaged team there needs to be a shared sense of belonging.
“To what extent does your team feel part of the tribe? Do they know you have their back? Do they feel able to be themselves, and can they bring up tough issues without fear of being kicked out of the tribe?”, Haesler asks.
“Team members who don’t feel a sense of belonging or camaraderie will likely gravitate to the fringes, both literally and metaphorically.”