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3 Signs Your Employees Are Disengaged (And How to Respond)

published: April 24, 2020

You've probably experienced being "on the fence" about a place of work.

Eventually, you made a final decision—you either left, or stayed at the job. After all, you can only live in limbo for so long.

That said, during the "in-between" stage, you probably acted a little differently at work. Maybe it wasn't blatantly obvious; but it was subtle enough for some people—especially those who work closest to you—to notice. 

Employee Engagement is not Binary 

Employee engagement is dynamic. It exists in shades of grey. Simply put, engagement ebbs and flows in the same employee throughout their tenure.

On the one hand, this truth makes spotting disengagement a challenge; it requires businesses to keep their finger on the pulse of employee happiness and satisfaction.

But great companies view this truth as an advantage because it means troubled employees can be identified early, before disengagement sets in.

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The Many Faces of Employee Disengagement

Universal signs crop up when an employee is feeling unhappy at work. As a case in point, if you search online for "signs of employee disengagement," you will find very long lists of behaviours.

The "signs" range from "frequently distracted" to "show complacency." While this can be true, these lists suggest nothing about the degree of unhappiness the employee is experiencing. In other words, how close are they to turnover?

With this particular framework, however, specific behaviours are identified at each stage leading to turnover. As a result, companies can better judge the severity of the issue at hand.

The 3 Stages of Employee Disengagement

Disengagement can fly under a manager's radar for quite some time. However, if managers make time to connect with their employees and check-in regularly, it will become quite clear when something is "off." Realistically, it's difficult for people to hide feelings of unhappiness.

That said, here are the three main phases of disengagement and the associated behaviours that are observed at work. 

1- They tell you

An employee communicating frustration is often the very first "sign" disengagement is coming. Unless your culture discourages open communication, most professionals will speak up when they encounter obstacles at work.

Although this may seem obvious reading it here, it's not always so apparent to a manager or supervisor at the time.

Employees rarely express frustrations in a confrontational manner—particularly agreeable workers or new staff.

Frustrations are instead articulated as constructive feedback, comments, or suggestions. In consequence, managers may downplay the importance of the comment or overlook it entirely.

Bottom line: every piece of employee feedback is important, regardless of how it's delivered. Be attentive to what your employees are telling you. The earlier management intervenes, the better.

It's not the issue itself (ex. low pay) that causes an employee to disengage fully; it's managements' lack of action that prompts workers to detach.

So, make sure to take action before the problem has spilled over and tainted their attitude. Or worse, harmed their productivity.

7 research-based strategies to improve employee engagement - Download PDF Guide

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2- Emotional absence and detachment 

An employee's attitude takes a hit in the face of repeated difficulties and lack of control. They feel unheard. Feelings of helplessness begin to set in.

At this stage, the employee feels disempowered. As a result, they begin to check out.

In short, when a negative mindset starts to taint an employee's attitude, they will detach themselves mentally from their work

It's common for employees to be passively searching for or considering other jobs at this stage. At the very least, they are daydreaming about themselves in "greener pastures."

Look for employees who arrive late and leave early, are often absent, distracted, rarely ask questions or offer input, and avoid socializing. In short, their general involvement is dwindling.

That said, more precise methods exist to measure how engaged an employee is at work, such as with anonymous Pulse Surveys. Be mindful, however, even though these surveys are anonymous, employees may not be candid when filling them out.

That's why a great manager should combine the power of data and intuition to make a proper diagnosis. When it comes to managing humans—with complex needs and nuanced emotions—your gut is often the best barometer.

In short, when something feels "off," your instincts should ring an internal alarm. Good managers should be in tune with their internal alarm and know when it's time to step in.

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3- Decreased effort & productivity

Emotions and behaviour are two sides of the same coin.

A lack of emotional attachment to one's work will eventually spill over and impact productivity. A mentally checked-out employee can only hold up a facade for so long. 

Look for an employee who is putting in less effort or doing the minimum required to keep their job. For example, not meeting deadlines, quotas, or delivering poor quality work with avoidable mistakes.

If this is an otherwise intelligent and capable employee, these signs should be taken seriously, and interventions should be conducted quickly. Turnover is likely imminent.

When productivity is so low, it's raising a red flag; the employee is likely searching for work elsewhere. It's even possible they accepted an offer and are waiting to announce it to their current manager.

One final (counter-intuitive) remark: you may see an uptick in productivity in the final stage of employee disengagement. For example, if an employee is seeking new jobs or receiving offers, a sense of freedom and control may be reestablished. This restored optimism can have a positive effect on their current productivity.

A guide to building an employee engagement strategy - Download PDF Guide

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Preventing Employee Turnover by Responding to Disengagement 

When identifying disengaged employees at any point on the spectrum of disengagement, managers must ask themselves some questions before jumping to solutions. Here are some key questions managers should ask themselves when they spot disengagement and suggestions on what to do next.

1- Is there an external issue

The most important thing to consider is if the employee’s attitude and behaviour are impacted by something outside of the organization’s control.

For example, are they going through a divorce, do they have a young child or a family member to care for and is draining their energy, have they been ill recently, and so on. Make sure to speak to your employees about these aspects of their personal life.

Offer support while they are going through a difficult time.

Suggestions for next steps: If you’ve identified factors outside of your control are affecting the employee’s morale, it’s time to have an open conversation with the employee about what they can deliver during this time. Your expectations need to be aligned so neither party ends up frustrated or disappointed.

2- Evaluate the workload

Disengagement often stems from the sheer volume and complexity of workload you are giving your employees. Consider some of the following questions:

  • Are the goals/quotas realistic?
  • Are the goals/quotas too low?
  • Is the work too complex and difficult, do they need more resources or support?
  • On the other hand, is the work not challenging enough?

Although it may seem counter-intuitive, disengagement often grows out of employees feeling bored and not sufficiently challenged! Many people go to work wishing to learn and grow.

Suggestions for the next steps: If one employee is having trouble with the workload—whether it’s too much or too little—chances are many of your team members are feeling it too. Take this time to focus on auditing the workload. Understanding if your employees are feeling overworked or not. Sometimes a given quota can be feasible for 6-months but can be detrimental and draining in the long-term.

3- Does the employee match the job

During this exercise you must be as honest as possible with yourself and your employees. Ask yourself, is this employee genuinely a good fit for this role? Are they overqualified and bored? Are they under-qualified and struggling?

Moreover, ask yourself if they are a good fit for the culture of the department and company.

Employee disengagement is often a product of an employee who simply isn’t a good fit for the role. 

Suggestions for the next steps: After evaluating the questions above, it’s important to also have a frank and honest conversation with the employee. The result is coming up with a strategy so the employee feels more comfortable and happy with whatever tasks or roles they are assigned next.

4- Does this employee feel in control, safe, and heard

These three aspects are a basic requirement of feeling happy at work. As mentioned before, employee disengagement is often the result of an employee feeling helpless about a work issue, not the issue itself.

Anxiety and stress build when employees feel a lack of control over their circumstances.

Finally, stress is further intensified when a manager doesn’t take action. A common example of feeling out of control, unsafe, and unheard is when managers use an autocratic or ‘micromanagement” style of leadership. This style of management strips employees of their autonomy and voice. As a result, employees are made to feel helpless.

Suggestions for the next steps: The best thing a manager can do here is taking time to connect with employees and hear them out. Listen closely to any frustration they may have. And most importantly, take action where they can. If a resolution requires more time and resources, at the very least, demonstrate to employees you’re working on rectifying the issue and addressing their complaint. Keep communication open and transparent.

5- Is the employee being recognized and thanked for their work

A crucial component of happiness at work is feeling appreciated and recognized. Praise is a potent motivator, taking little time investment and reaping high rewards. When you identify a disengaged employee, it's crucial to ask yourself "how often am I praising or recognizing them."

Deep motivation is sparked by a desire for internal rewards—for example, a passion for learning, mastery, and personal growth.

Recognition and praise are powerful instruments that boost this component of motivation and morale.

Suggestions for the next step: Take time to praise employees who showcase an excellent work ethic, demonstrate skill, and unique capabilities. Whether you set-up a formal recognition program and software, or you do it in a group meeting, email, or chat. Taking the time to shine the light on your top performers will always pay off in the long term.