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What to Do About Employee Disengagement? 5 Steps to Take Right Away

Employee engagement has many definitions, can take many forms and has many measures. The Conference Board, a nonprofit specializing in management and marketplace research, defines it as “employees’ emotional and intellectual attachments to their jobs.” The Gallup Management Journal says that “engaged employees work with passion and feel a profound connection to their company.”

disengagementFor instance, “engaged employees” include workers who:

  • Are highly motivated and committed,
  • Get a great deal of energy from their jobs, and
  • Feel positively toward their managers and employers.

On the other end of the scale, workers who show up late and leave early, verbally disparage the organization and its management, and spend most of their time counting the hours until the weekend may be classified as “actively disengaged employees.”

Learn more about curbing disengagement when you attend BLR’s THRIVE event, held May 11-12 in Las Vegas, learn more below.

Somewhere in between are the employees who are neither engaged nor disengaged. These “unengaged” employees show up and do the minimum work and don’t bring any passion or overt enthusiasm to what they do. The most current Gallup studies for 2015 show 51% of workers fall into this category. The percentages of employees who considered themselves engaged and disengaged were 32% and 17%, respectively. What’s worse is these numbers have barely budged since Gallup started tracking them in 2000!

Clearly there is a tremendous opportunity in converting the 51% “unengaged” to be “engaged,” but why isn’t that happening?

The Drivers of Engagement and Disengagement Are Different

A recent study by CustomInsight found that the drivers of employee disengagement are not all the same drivers of employee engagement. Businesses have been using a one-size-fits-all approach to improve engagement and while there are some common drivers of engagement across the entire spectrum of employees—there are some important differences.

Can you spot the key differences between the most disengaged employees and everyone else?

Top 10 Drivers of Disengaged Employees Top 10 Drivers of Engagement for ALL Employees
Respect for Employees-This organization respects its employees. Respect for Employees-This organization respects its employees.
Respect for Management-The senior leaders in this organization are highly ethical. Fairness-Everybody is treated fairly in this organization.
Respect for Employees-My manager values my talents and contribution I make. Trust-There is an atmosphere of trust in this organization.
Personal Expression-My ideas and opinions count at work. Respect for Management-The leaders of this organization really know what they are doing.
Purpose and Direction-My manager clearly defines goals and expectations. Values-The actions of our senior leaders support this organization’s mission and values.
Values-The actions of our senior leaders support this organization’s mission and values. Teamwork and Cooperation-It really feels like everybody is on the same team in this organization.
Teamwork and Cooperation-My manager emphasizes cooperation and teamwork among members of my workgroup. Respect for Management-Our senior leaders demonstrate strong leadership skills.
Personal Expression-People with different ideas are valued in this organization. Respect for Management-The senior leaders in this organization are highly ethical.
Empowerment/Autonomy-My manager gives me the freedom I need to do my job effectively. Personal Expression-People with different ideas are valued in this organization.
Feedback-I receive useful and constructive feedback from my manager. Personal Expression-Our senior leaders are genuinely interested in the opinions of all employees.

Five of the top 10 drivers of disengagement relate to “my manager” compared with zero of the top ten drivers of engagement for all employees. Now that we’ve cracked the code on disengagement, it shouldn’t be much of a mystery or too difficult to improve things. Thinking about employee disengagement requires a shift in mindset … it isn’t about doing things that will make people happy, but rather, stop doing the things that make them unhappy. The road to engagement for those who are disengaged may still be somewhat long but these few steps will put them on the right path and pointed in a more positive and productive direction.

While the “my manager” driver of disengagement is the leading cause of disengagement there are other causes as well. In fact, the same study by CustomInsight revealed three primary causes:

  1. “My Manager” – problems with direct supervisors account for 49% of the most disengaged employees.
  2. Senior Leadership and Organization Performance/Direction – lack of respect for or confidence in senior leadership, lack of organization direction (strategic alignment), poor performance and quality standards, and related topics account for 33% of disengaged employees.
  3. Basic Needs – compensation, workplace conditions, and related topics account for the remaining 18% of disengaged employees.

While this may be interesting, it’s far more important to implement specific actions to reduce or eliminate the disengagement. We suggest these five actions to reengage the workforce.

Diagnose Where You Have ‘My Manager’ Issues

We’ve never met or worked with a manager that wants to be a poor manager but it happens … for several reasons. When it comes to disengagement, the first step is to understand whether and where a disengagement problem exists. The goal is to identify any company-wide issues related to manager-related disengagement, where those might be in the organization, and what the specific issues are that need to be addressed.

“My Manager” specific issues typically fall into a few key areas:

  • Poor relationship: lack care about them as a person, toxic/dysfunctional
  • Poor accountability: lack expectations, direction, communication, feedback
  • Poor involvement: lack recognition, teamwork, expression of opinions
  • Poor autonomy: lack of respect, fairness and trust

Rx for Success: Measure engagement regularly and make sure there are group comparisons to identify areas that have more issues than others. This is not a “witch hunt” for bad managers. By identifying areas/groups with issues, you can intervene more quickly and effectively.

Provide Managers with 360-Degree and Other Feedback

Engagement skyrockets when employees are asked for their input about the workplace, customers, and their own work. People thrive on challenging, meaningful work that gives them the freedom to use their know-how and experience.

That’s why it’s important for companies to minimize “command and control” management styles in favor of work environments where employees have the autonomy to decide the best way to reach desired results. It’s also important that employees see how their actions, however far removed, help your organization achieve its goals.

Rx for Success: For managers who have some basic skills and the motivation to do a good job, simply sharing the results of the engagement survey and discussing specific actions—strengths to continue doing and problem areas that need attention—may be all that’s needed. An engagement survey is a diagnostic tool, not a development tool; it will help identify which managers are having problems and what kind of problems but it doesn’t provide the depth, detail, or multiple perspectives that a 360-degree survey provides.

For managers with larger problems, some ongoing management training and leadership development is needed. Start with a 360-degree feedback survey to zero-in on the development needs for each manager as well as the development areas that are common across the management team and most critical to develop – then structure your training and development program to match the critical skills.

Most training programs aren’t targeted and lack the opportunity to apply skills. Effective programs are designed to be customized to develop specific skills with targeted coaching with real-world application.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

As shown above, 33% of disengagement is due to Organizational Performance/Direction and Senior Leadership. Employees need and want to know where the company is going and how it is doing. They need to know how their work connects to the direction and performance. A study by the company now known as Willis Towers Watson, found that 95% of employees don’t know or understand their company’s strategic initiatives and those employees who know their company initiatives are 38% more engaged!

Rx for Success: Help managers communicate candidly and consistently about both short-and long-term objectives. Make sure Senior Leaders are communicating regularly about the company direction and performance. Provide mid-level Managers with the tools, resources, and support they need to communicate company initiatives, provide direction and alignment, and listen to concerns and gather input from employees about where the company is going and how to solve problems.

Get leaders out in front to talk with employees about the business environment and how the organization is responding to it. Continuously share the long-term vision of the organization and remind people what the organization stands for. Leaders and direct managers who keep employees focused on delivering customer value are typically rewarded with high productivity and loyalty. Remember—simply knowing the company’s strategy will increase engagement more than 30%!

Recognition and Respect

Employees sense their value to an organization not only by the wages they earn but also by the recognition and respect they receive for their accomplishments and expertise (from their Manager). According to author and employee engagement expert Michael Lee Stallard, emotional factors impact employee engagement four times as much as rational factors.

A challenge: find out which emotional factors drive your employees. Don’t guess; survey them. Employees have different motivators and needs—knowing what lights their fire will return far more for your investment.

Rx for Success: Money is tight—and frankly it has never been the best motivator, let alone a driver of engagement.  It all comes back to “My Manager”! Make sure they show they value their employee’s contribution by catching people doing things right and recognizing them. Share the ‘success stories’ and shout from the roof-tops about the people behind those successes.

Create an atmosphere of teamwork and cooperation. Provide a variety of recognition to those who are making important efforts on behalf of the business and reward your A+ players before they decide to join another team.

Measure Progress and Reassess

The last step: Repeat the engagement survey and/or the 360-degree surveys to see where you’re improving, backsliding or staying the same.

Rx for Success: We recommend measuring engagement and 360-feedback every 12 months. This allows enough time for action-plans to be implemented and behavior changes to take place—and for others to notice the changes. Regular meetings (ideally monthly) with managers will help them stay on track and make sure they are regularly practicing new skills. With a focus on accountability and committing to action, LEAP employs the use of Commitment Cards where, leaders commit to implementing one action (large or small) every month. Committing in writing helps commit the action to memory and increases accountability.

Does It Really Matter?

The current state of employee engagement in the workplace might alarm and surprise many employers but clearly it matters now more than ever. There is a growing shortage of labor (in all types of work/industry) so every business needs to retain and engage the people they have. A disengaged and disgruntled workforce will impact the bottom line through increased turnover costs, lost reputation, and lost productivity. Reduce disengagement by targeting the ‘my manager’ issues in your organization and it will have a significant impact on your organizational effectiveness, productivity, and profitability.

High levels of employee engagement translate into increased customer satisfaction and bring other competitive advantages. Join Silsbee, as she presents the THRIVE intensive workshop—Deciphering Employee Disengagement, at BLR’s THRIVE conference on May 11-12, at Bally’s in Las Vegas. This session has been approved for HRCI Business credit. Click here to register today!

Lynda Silsbee
Lynda Silsbee is the Founder of Alliance for Leadership Acceleration and creator of the LEAP® Leadership Acceleration Program . She is a veteran of working inside Fortune 500 companies and developed the “Future Nordstrom Leaders” program which put her on the path to create LEAP specifically to develop the missing link in leader-manager development: mid-level, mid-career managers are the secret weapon to organizational success and yet this segment of the workforce is sorely overlooked. LEAP is a comprehensive program that combines individual assessments, one-on-one coaching, customized learning topics, and small cohort groups that meet monthly and are guided by a Certified Coach and Facilitator. For more information: www.Leadership-Acceleration.com