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Driving Out Disengagement

08/24/2016 by Melissa Campeau

Improve engagement from the bottom up by detecting - and reversing - disengagement

State-of-the-art work spaces, flexible benefits, snacks in the kitchen and pool tables in the board rooms: on a quest to boost employee engagement, organizations are coming at the challenge from all directions, hoping to keep employees feeling passionate about their jobs, committed to the organization and putting plenty of discretionary effort into their work.

It’s easy to see why engagement is a top priority for so many organizations; there’s no shortage of research linking higher engagement scores with bottom-line boosting factors as better retention and productivity.

With such enthusiasm for engagement – The Deloitte Human Capital Trends 2016 report found nearly nine in 10 executives rated it as important or very important – you’d think engagement scores would be on a steady incline. But a 2013 Gallup survey suggested just 30 per cent of workers are engaged, 52 per cent are disengaged and 18 per cent are actively disengaged.

That means most of your workforce isn’t entirely on board with what the organization is doing. They’re less likely to be productive, and more likely to miss workdays and cost you customers. They’re impacting the bottom line, possibly in a big way: the Gallup report estimated disengaged employees cost U.S. businesses between $450 and $550 billion each year. Even more worrying: where you find one disengaged employee, you’ll likely find more.

Although it sounds counterintuitive, it might make sense to take the spotlight off engagement, and focus instead on disengagement. There’s merit, after all, in understanding what’s going wrong, where organizations are losing people, how to spot the signs and how to turn it around.

Listen to the Warning Signs

Sometimes, spotting an actively disengaged employee is a plain-as-day exercise.

“You might see outbursts from someone who doesn’t normally behave in that way,” said Carrie Hotton-MacDonald, a Halifax-based HR manager who’s worked in both the private and public sectors. “When people start to go down that route, it should be fairly obvious if it’s out of character for them.”

Sometimes, it’s a little less obvious.

“You might see negativity, notice someone not asking questions or showing a lack of interest, maybe gossiping more or just exhibiting a general bad attitude; those are indicators,” said Hotton-MacDonald.

In other cases, disengaged employees might keep their feelings under wraps.

“Disengagement is not always obvious and many times, executives and managers don’t have a real feel for engagement levels,” said Doug Brown, president of Engaged2Perform in Wellesley, Ont. “Often, people stay below the radar; they learn how to perform so their disengagement won’t be noticed.”

A manager might note that a formerly productive employee is now doing the bare minimum and just skating by.

“Or they might notice an increase in absenteeism, although the worst part of people being disengaged is that sometimes they’re physically there but mentally they’re not,” said Brown. Other signs to watch for include poor communication between colleagues and a lack of pride in performance or ownership of tasks.

Detecting methods

“Managers and organizations can look for negative attitudes, poor morale, decreased effort and complaining as obvious signs,” said Brown.“[However,] they need to look deeper to find what engages and disengages employees as engagement surveys don’t typically provide this insight.”

While they can still provide valuable insights, traditional annual engagement surveys are problematic for a few reasons.

“I correlate engagement surveys with performance reviews,” said Lisa Sterling, executive vice president, chief people officer at Ceridian. “They’re done at a specific time, they’re usually backwards-looking and there are so many variables that can impact a person when completing them. Then when we get results back, they’re already out of date and don’t represent current feelings and perspectives of our people.”

According to the 2016 Deloitte report, “Perhaps the biggest challenge for HR in leading engagement programs is shifting from a transactional, once-a-year mindset, to an ‘always on,’ continuous listening approach to monitoring engagement.”

That can be done with the help of software and applications, but there’s also no replacement for genuine human-to-human conversations and connections.

“It’s a matter of being really in tune with your people,” said Hotton-MacDonald.

Brown suggests checking in regularly with employees, and asking the following questions to spot any problems that might be simmering under the surface:


  • How are you finding your role and work responsibilities?
  • What challenges are you facing and how can we support your efforts?
  • Is the type of work in line with your career expectations and desires?
  • Are we providing sufficient feedback and communication to support your needs? How can we help you improve and grow and what new skills would you need to perform at your best?


Containment is critical

Identifying an employee slipping into a disengaged state can prevent a much larger problem, as well, if the slide can be halted or reversed.

“Disengagement, like negativity, unfortunately breeds to the rest of the team,” said Sterling.

When an entire group is disengaged, a manager or HR professional might notice a change in attitude, performance or both.

“It’s really about looking at the overall dynamics of the team,” said Sterling, as well as changes to retention. “Are you starting to see an increase in turnover? Often that’s the first indicator that there’s disengagement with the team.”

Managers and HR in Collaboration

When it comes to handling disengagement, a coordinated effort can be the most effective approach.

“Organizations need to consider who is in the strongest position to facilitate engagement with an employee, and with whom the employee is most likely to share concerns and issues, as well as goals,” said Brown. “An HR professional may not [necessarily] be the ideal person to accomplish this, although they do play a role in the process. The manager can also play an important role, since in many cases they are the face of the organization to the employee.”

The path to disengagement

New recruits to any organization are generally full of optimism and enthusiasm, but somewhere along the way, that positivity can run off the rails.

“I don’t know of any employee who started their position or new career hoping to be disengaged,” said Brown. “Generally, they’re excited, enthusiastic and motivated to do well, learn new skills and contribute. But studies show over time this high engagement can wane as a result of unmet expectations or broken promises, such as a disconnect between the impression of the organization that was communicated during the hiring process and the realities the employee discovers on the job.”

The “miss” in mismanagement

One of the biggest culprits is managers whose skills aren’t up to the task of effectively leading and motivating a team.

“It’s widely understood that most disengaged [employees] aren’t just leaving an organization, whether they’re physically leaving or just mentally leaving,” said Hotton-MacDonald. “Instead, they’re leaving their supervisor or manager.”

A 2013 Gallup report on employee engagement found that managers accounted for 70 per cent of variance in employee engagement scores across business units. In the report, Gallup CEO Jim Clifton wrote, “Here’s something they’ll probably never teach you in business school: the single biggest decision you make in your job – bigger than all of the rest – is who you name manager. When you name the wrong person manager, nothing fixes that bad decision. Not compensation, not benefits – nothing.”

A manager might, for example, fail to establish a connection and a sense of caring about the individuals on the team.

“Great leaders are team builders; they create an environment that fosters trust and collaboration,” said Brown. “Surveys indicate that being cared about by colleagues is a strong predictor of employee engagement.”

Managers who connect with employees are more likely to spot potential troubles before they grow into serious problems.

“That early intervention is so critical,” said Hotton-MacDonald. “If you get a sense that someone is getting disengaged, or that an entire work unit is disengaged, if you have that rapport, chances are you’ll be able to intervene a bit earlier and perhaps turn things around.”

Recognition, reward, growth

Being tuned in to employees also helps managers know when someone’s gone the extra mile for the organization – and then reward that action. Missing the chance to recognize employees is a bigger threat to engagement than many might realize.

“Some leaders do recognize and reward performance – and others don’t,” said Sterling. Research shows recognition is a key driver of both performance and engagement, and can have a ripple effect across entire teams. But the inverse is true, as well.

“There’s also the issue of visible disparity across teams,” said Sterling. “When an individual or team sees their peers and colleagues getting recognized – and they’re working just as hard or possibly harder and not receiving any recognition – that can cause disengagement really quickly.”

A 2001 Gallup survey of U.S. employees found that the number-one reason people leave their jobs is they don’t feel appreciated. In fact, 65 per cent of those surveyed said they received no recognition for good work in the previous year.

While organizations must understand this, even intrinsically, most are not effectively empowering managers to reward anyone. A 2013 Aberdeen Group survey found only 14 per cent of organizations provide managers with the necessary tools for rewards and recognition.

Environmental impact

As with managers not effectively empowered to reward employees, the root cause of the disengagement might be a larger, organization-wide problem.

Too-heavy workloads, for example, can have dire consequences for engagement. Thanks to a fiercely competitive marketplace, many organizations have become quite lean, and workers can find themselves overwhelmed. Plenty of organizations, too, have an unofficial always-on expectation when it comes to emails and phone calls outside of traditional office hours. These pressures can take a toll on employees and lead to burnout, a state defined as the opposite of engagement in multiple research studies.

“An organization could have a problem with overall work/life balance and trouble with resource allocations,” said Sterling. “There might be a situation where there are not enough resources to do the job and people are experiencing burnout. This tends to go hand-in-hand with a lack of recognition and reward, too, which then compounds the problem.”

As organizations shuffle or downsize, constantly shifting ground can wear away engagement levels, too.

“There are a lot of changes in our workplaces, and a great deal of change management that probably should be happening [does not happen],” said Hotton-MacDonald. “People are introducing new processes, new technologies or changing policies, but they’re not spending enough time thinking about the impact this will have on people. For some, it’s just one change after another and they still haven’t adapted to the first change.”

Turning it around

Once problems are diagnosed, managers and HR professionals can attempt to resolve them.

Sometimes, a major problem can be resolved with relatively simple actions.

“Making small but important changes in an employee’s job so their needs can be better met can make all the difference,” said Brown.

If troubles can be traced back to a manager with a lack of leadership skills, for example, HR can provide avenues of support.

“We in HR need to focus more on supporting our leaders and helping them become better managers,” said Hotton-MacDonald. “We’ve tried Band-Aid solutions. We’ve tried training programs like ‘How to be a great supervisor!’ [But] what if people need more than a training program? What if they need ongoing coaching? Our role in HR is to make sure the organization is successful in terms of managing people, but also to work with supervisors and managers to help them be the best people managers they can be.”

If a challenge is complex or likely to spark some heated conversations, HR can play a valuable role.

“That’s where HR can really help, by getting people talking in a safe space,” said Hotton-MacDonald. “It’s about having an honest conversation and saying, ‘Here’s what we observe. This is what we’re feeling. What do you think?’”

Keep bridges from burning

When, despite reasonable efforts, a disengaged employee can’t be brought back into the fold, it may be time for a very candid conversation, as a starting point for next steps.

“That’s when you need to have the employee’s leader sit down with them and say, ‘Hey, we know you don’t want to be here anymore,’” said Sterling. “Often, the employee will feel relief that they can open up about the situation, and then the manager and HR can look for a graceful exit strategy.”

Of course, it’s always wise to consult with legal experts when considering terminating employees, but any route can be made more positive with the right approach.

“We want people’s experiences leaving our organization to be as delightful as when they came in, whenever that’s possible,” said Sterling. “At Ceridian, we always make sure employees have an opportunity to exit under their own volition, and in some instances we work out a gracious severance package. We want to make sure it’s a good experience for everyone, since that person is now an alumnus of the company.”

Equal weight to disengagement

Organizations, though, can reduce the need for such exits by being proactive about driving engagement and resolving disengagement early.

“I think as HR professionals, we need to be consultative in helping leaders understand what’s really driving engagement and disengagement and help them know what action to take to turn the ship and make it right for their people,” said Sterling.

Like engagement, disengagement has the potential to significantly impact corporate health.

“We focus so heavily on the engagement side and we don’t spend enough time really looking at the disengagement piece – and it really is just as important,” said Sterling.