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Re-engaging the Disengaged

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In a perfect world, all employees would sail into work on time everyday with a huge smile on their face and would work at a steady 100% capacity; the reality is, however, that sometimes people at work will need a helping hand - we are humans after all, not machines (for now at least!). The first task at hand is to check on the welfare of people that have begun to become disengaged; there could be a serious problem relating to physical / mental health or there could be a grievance that hasn't been addressed as yet. Once you have established that there are no life or company-threatening issues at play, it is important to try to and act quickly, before they decide they want to quit or before their demeanor spreads and rubs off on people around them.

How to spot a disengaged employee?

Some characteristics include: 
  • Lateness or early finishes
  • High absences
  • Reduced performance
  • Lack of interest in group activities - including events or lunches
  • Doesn't want more responsibility
  • Increased time at the 'water cooler'
  • Negativity around ideas in the workplace

Why might they be disengaged?

There are many reasons employees can become disengaged; they could have lost respect for the organisation they work for, their company’s management or could have lost their way in regards to their own purpose and direction in their job. This, in turn, leads them to create that vacuum where negativity can breed. The disengaged employee could have a fractured relationship with their manager, an issue with organisational direction/management or is not having their basic needs met.

So how can you get them re-engaged?


As people are not an exact science, there is no easy answer to this, but there are steps that you can take, depending on how honest you are with yourself,  and how honest the disengaged employee is with you. The only way to figure out a way back from the proverbial “black hole” is to analyse why disengagement problems exist. You have to figure out if the issues are individual or company-wide and what those issues are, in relation to the reasons for disengagement (above).

Issues with management

There is a multitude of reasons an employee may have issues with management, so to deal with this problem you need to look at what those issues are.

Is it the result of a dysfunctional relationship?

The manager/employee relationship can be viewed a bit like a marriage; all smooth-sailing – both parties view the other as being amazing and without fault – they can do no wrong… until, of course, it inevitably flat-lines. The romance wears off and you’re both just going through the motions. Does this sound familiar?

Or is it a lack of direction?

Does your employee know what’s expected of them? Are you giving them measurable targets and goals in their work? Are you actually monitoring what’s expected versus their output? Do they have a professional development plan with milestones to achieve their career goals?

If your employee has issues with management, do not fear - it can be remedied via effective communication. Open the channels to genuine discussions, use surveys, 360 reviews, anonymous feedback links, and use this information to create an action plan. Ensure you incorporate SMART goals and book it in your diaries to follow up and reassess how they are progressing (monthly/quarterly/annually). Remind your employee that you are there to guide them and feedback and congratulate them on good work where necessary. Use your open forum to mend your fractured relationship and get you and your employee on the same page; alter your management style to suit what they need from you as their manager. This will allow your relationship to be nurtured and get back to a healthy place; your employee will be re-engaged and you will see them start to perform again.

Is it an issue with organisational direction?

Issues with organisational direction may include issues with senior management, confidence in the organisation’s leadership and how they feel they are treated within work (for example, fairness, autonomy, trust etc.). If an employee has an issue with the organisation it may be that they feel there is a lack of recognition or communication with staff at lower levels, or that their contributions are not needed or appreciated. Organisational changes can also lead employees to feel disengaged, especially if communication about the changes is lacking.

If this is the case, then it’s important to clearly define the company’s vision and highlight how all employees’ contributions are helping the organisation meet their goals. Communicating this well and often is helpful to re-engage employees and keep them motivated. If issues with organisational direction were prevalent, then it is useful to utilise things like ‘suggestion boxes’ so that employees can feel their ideas are heard and that they have an input into the organisation. Company-wide incentives can also help to re-engage individuals, aligning goals and fostering teamwork to achieve results. This can also help individuals to feel valued and appreciated within the wider company. Communicating ideas of best practice can also help to acknowledge areas of individual strengths and collaborative working, whilst also giving recognition to individuals to further engage them.

Is it an issue regarding their basic needs?

External circumstances of your employees may have changed causing a discord between what they are getting and what they need. This may be an issue with pay, annual leave, workplace conditions or issues around flexible working. To get to the bottom of this, you need to talk about their needs from work, and discuss if this is achievable or if any viable adjustments that can be made exist. It may be that there isn’t anything that can be done, but at the least this would allow you to better understand the situation and the possibility of their future in your organisation.

It could even be that they have become disengaged due to lack of stimulation. People want to feel purpose and that their work matters; if the work is becoming boring and flat-lining, your employees may look for purpose elsewhere. It’s important to keep them engaged and challenged and uncover their hidden talents, which may, in turn, provide an opportunity to re-engage them by setting them a task related to their talent within their job function. Encouraging learning and development via staff training and development courses can also help to ward of disengagement, as can rewarding effort when targets have been achieved, or giving thanks for help with additional tasks.

Stress can also contribute to feeling disengaged, so it’s important to check in and make sure you’re not leaving your staff feeling overloaded, as those who feel stressed in their roles are often found to be disengaged at work. Anonymised staff surveys can help to monitor perceived feelings of stress by staff, and can allow areas of support to be identified to help lessen the contributors of stress.

The best management strategies include asking employees to share their ideas and having open communication. This promotion of the exchange of ideas, encourages best practice and collaboration positively, whilst also giving purpose to staff. Hopefully the above ideas have given you more of an insight into some of the issues you’re facing with your disengaged employee and how you can re-engage and motivate them.

To recap

Signs of the Disengaged:

Makes excuses. Avoids team participation. Dropping productivity. Dropping quality of work. Increased anger/lashing out. Increased time in the breakout area/kitchen. Uses sick days often. Increasingly late to work. Won’t take on more challenges/responsibility. Unwilling to help others.

Things to do re-engage your staff:

 Listen. Set goals together. Discuss career aspirations. Thank them for good work. Create a culture of opportunity. Ask for input/use a ‘suggestion box’. Find their hidden talents. Use 360 reviews and surveys. Show them the company’s bigger picture. Reward creativity. Offer training. Criticise constructively.
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