What Is A Disengaged Employee?
The definition of what an engaged and disengaged employee looks like can vary by company, industry, location, and other essential variables. David MacLeod and Nita Clarke's report on "Engaging for Success: Enhancing Performance through Employee Engagement” highlights over 50 separate examples of what employee engagement looks like.
What Are The Signs Of A Disengaged Employee?
There's no set definition at either end of the engagement spectrum. But common signs of disengagement may be someone that is:
- No longer performing to their full potential
- Unwilling to take on new projects
- Lacking enthusiasm or passion for their work
- Missing performance targets
- Increasingly absent from work without good reason
- Withdrawing from team activities
- Complaining and demonstrating a negative attitude
- Frequently arguing with or actively demotivating their peers
What Does Disengagement Mean For Your Organization?
Whatever disengagement looks like in your company, it will inevitably have consequences. When employees don't feel committed to their work or don't demonstrate that they are, this will impact team members, individual employee output, and overall business success. Expect some of the following issues if disengagement has already crept into your ranks:
New York musician Zaid Leppelin introduced quiet quitting to the working world via a viral TikTok video in the summer of 2022. His post described how to stop going the extra mile at work and quit the hustle mentality once and for all.
Many believe "quiet quitting" encourages employees to set healthy boundaries at work to prevent burnout. But in a McKinsey Talks Talent podcast episode, Global Talent leader Bryan Hancock explains when unhappy employees push beyond quiet quitting to improve their work-life balance, this can lead to negative consequences:
“Quiet quitting makes it seem like you don’t care if you get fired. You’re going to sit in the seat for as long as it takes for someone to figure out you’re not adding value and for as long as it takes for HR to process you out. There’s part of the quiet quitting trend saying, “I bet because my boss doesn’t check in on me, I bet because HR takes six months to do a write-up, I bet I can stay in this gig for two years and not do much.” I think there is a small subset of people who are really trying to gain the system because of a strong labor market on the other end, and to me, is a very different phenomenon from people who need to respect the boundaries of work.”
As stated, it's crucial to think about why employees might be quiet quitting. Are expectations too high? Do employees work long hours consistently? Is there a gap in work effort causing people to feel overwhelmed? If you notice this phenomenon, chat with the employee and consider their past actions. Is this behavior consistent or temporary?
Problems With Leadership
Many companies will be able to track disengagement back to failures in leadership. A strong relationship between managers and their direct reports should encourage team members to feel safe, valued, and connected. If any of these elements are missing, disengagement will likely set in.
Talking to Bryan Hancock, McKinsey Senior Partner Bill Shaninger emphasizes the psychology behind how poor leadership impacts engagement:
“The price you pay for authority is you have real responsibilities towards other people. The minute the employee sees or perceives the boss no longer cares about them as a person or doesn’t actually care about what they’re working on, well then, “why should I care?” If you’re going to trigger apathy, trigger indifference, almost trigger “I dare you to catch me,” it’s likely because they’ve been massively underled. If they weren’t being underled, you’d have caught them much earlier.”
Stressful Work Environment
A work environment filled with employees who don't want to be there and managers who don't inspire them isn't conducive to productivity. Any stressful atmosphere can quickly escalate into conflict. A recent update to the Myers-Briggs Company's 2008 research into Conflict at Work found that leaders spend four hours each week tackling disagreements between team members.
Loss Of Innovation
A negative vibe also stunts creativity essential for innovation and business growth. Rhonda Glynn, Chief Disruption Officer at Zoma Business Solutions, explains:
"When people feel unseen, unheard, and undervalued, and those bills still need to get paid, they adopt this position—they'll do their jobs—but no more. The saddest part is companies lose brilliant ideas that push the needle forward in their business because their best and brightest have "checked out."
Missed Performance Targets
When teams lack motivation, it’s more challenging to hit or exceed performance targets. Bill Shaninger describes how this comes down to unhappy employees doing the bare minimum rather than striving for excellence.
“They’re checking out; they’re quitting emotionally; they’re quitting mentally; they’re just showing up. Even in an environment where all these people are quitting, there remains an undercurrent of people who have emotionally and cognitively disengaged, but they’re still there—which you could argue is maybe worse.”
Wide-Open Skills Gaps
Manpower research reveals 75% of employers struggle to match talent to the skills required to progress their businesses. This is a significant increase from 30% of employers who faced the same problems in 2009. Closing gaps in digital, AI, sustainability, and interpersonal skills is an ongoing challenge that companies can solve with expensive external recruitment or by upskilling their existing people.
If you prefer to train your internal teams, be aware unengaged employees aren’t always open and receptive to professional development, as Louise Sharf, Senior Media Relations Manager at NHS Property Services, found:
“I once managed someone who, in their first one-to-one with me, said they didn’t want to develop, didn’t want to do anymore in terms of personal development or career progression, and that was all they wanted out of life. I had nowhere to go in terms of being able to coach, as they were fulfilling a role they’d been hired to do and were being open and honest about their personal choices. They were completely fine with staying still and getting feedback that was fairly average and static. Not quiet quitting as such, but a very clear sense of sticking to what they were in the role to do with no ambition or desire to step out of that space and do more or progress.”
Damaged Employer Reputation
Beware of unhappy employees who can cause issues if they're actively badmouthing your company. Employer branding is essential for attracting the best talent in your industry and maintaining high employee retention levels. Many job seekers will do their due diligence before applying for a job with a company—68% of millennials, 54% of Generation X, and 48% of Boomers head online to check out employee reviews. And more than two-thirds of candidates would reject a job offer if they see something they don't like, even if they were unemployed.
How Common Is Disengagement?
Disengagement is widespread, and the recent McLean & Company Employee Engagement Trends Report 2023 suggests it’s getting worse. The research breaks down disengagement across the following categories:
In 2021, 8.2% of female employees were disengaged compared to 9.1% of male employees. This increased to 8.8% of female and 9.7% of male unhappy employees in 2022.
Tenure also relates to engagement, with 9.8% of employees who have been with a company for 3 to 5 years feeling disengaged in 2021 compared to 11.2% in 2022.
Large organizations have consistently higher levels of disengagement, with 10.2% of employees feeling disengaged in 2022. Although this reduced by 8.6% in 2022, this is still higher than the 6.7% of small company employees who felt disengaged in the same year.
Where and how employees work directly impacts engagement, with 8.4% of onsite workers feeling disengaged compared to 7.9% of offsite or hybrid employees.
8 Activities To Motivate And Connect Disengaged Workers
Reengaging and motivating your team members begins with recognizing your employees as individuals and taking steps to ensure they feel connected and valued again. Here are eight activities to motivate and inspire your disengaged:
1. Measuring Employee Engagement
You can only begin to fix disengagement once you understand the root of the problem and measure how extensive it is. We spoke to Catrin Lewis, Subject Specialist for Employee Engagement at Tenzing, who told us:
“Disengagement among employees can be measured in a variety of ways. The annual survey is a great base measure to build upon throughout the year and is best supported by regular pulse surveys, leadership check-ins, and regular 1:1s, which includes discussing your people's experiences and enabling open and honest conversations about how each individual feels about their work life."
2. Actively Listening To Your Employees
Are you sure your employees are disengaged? Many of the themes of active disengagement, such as withdrawing from work, struggling with workloads, and volunteering for fewer projects, could also be caused by other factors, for example, mental health issues or difficulties addressing work-life balance. Never assume you know what is happening with your employees; instead, actively listen to them to find out. We spoke to Phoebe O'Brien, Employee Engagement & Wellbeing Partner at Virgin Media O2, who stresses:
“Each employee is unique, so it's essential to have open and honest conversations with them to understand their specific needs and motivations. This is more important than ever if you have disengaged employees. Make sure you tailor your approach accordingly to help them reengage and thrive in their roles.”
Similarly, Kathryn Gordon, Sales and Marketing Professional at Kate McIver Skin Ltd, said:
"It takes intuitive management, knowing every team member, and creating an empowering environment whereby everyone knows their ideas and opinions are heard and considered. The minute you don't listen and value your employee's voices expect people to turn off. It's not rocket science; it's basic values; get it right, and you create a great working environment."
3. Responding To Employee Feedback
Listening to your employees is only the foundation stage of motivating your employees. Don't sit on the gems of intel they've given you—make sure you act on their feedback. Change processes, introduce team-building activities, resolve conflicts, and create a more harmonious and safe environment for them to thrive in. Bryan Hancock explains:
“The role of the manager is key in aligning with purpose, inspiring, and following up with ways to tactically help. If the managers aren’t there to inspire, lead, or follow up, it is a logical extension that someone can be like, “Would anyone notice if I don’t do this for two weeks or three weeks?”
4. Setting Expectations And Goals
Reminding employees what you expect of them can be enough to boost and realign them with team or company goals. Discuss employee performance objectives upfront, clarify the desired outcomes of their role, and define how you plan to evaluate them. Catrin Lewis told us:
“Re-educating on the purpose, mission, and values of the company and the team will help employees identify and discuss with you whether they still feel aligned with this. As a manager, help them understand how your strategy directly correlates to the success of the mission and how crucial they are to the success of the business. This will help them feel empowered and motivated by clearly demonstrating how meaningful their work and skill set is."
5. Understanding Personality Types
Digging into your employees' personality types allows you to explore the best ways to inspire your workforce. Jo Taylor, Managing Director of Let's Talk Talent, shares some interesting resources:
“Disengagement comes from both personal or professional avenues and impacts mood, motivation, energy, and performance. So always start with the human first. I would look at using tools like High5 Strengths or delving deeper into 16 Personalities.”
The High5 Strengths is a 20-minute psychometric assessment designed to identify your top five strengths that energize and give you a sense of meaning. Extend the exercise by inviting a peer to leave a review of what they think your strengths are.
16Personalities is another free test that helps establish archetypes like analysts, diplomats, sentinels, and explorers. Each personality has four sub-categories that help establish how people react to all facets of life.
Use the results of your chosen test to tailor your approach to leading individual employees. Understand what stimulates them and plan their role and workloads accordingly.
6. Brainstorming Engagement
Conducting an engagement brainstorm is another way to explore how personalities affect employee motivation. In her book "Employee Engagement: A Practical Introduction," Emma Bridger recommends carrying out this simple activity in a team meeting or engagement workshop using the following steps:
- Individually write down as many words relating to engagement as possible within a minute
- Ask everyone to circle the one word that most resonates with them
- List all the circled words on a flip chart
- Generate a group discussion about what engagement means to the group
- Collectively understanding engagement means different things to different people
This practice can be useful in discovering new ways to motivate employees who may be disengaged. It's also a meaningful way to recognize that others may already be engaged but display it differently than expected.
7. Fostering A Culture Of Psychological Safety
Fostering a positive work culture filled with psychological safety creates trust, reduces anxiety, builds confidence, and encourages employees to speak up. In 1990, organizational psychologist William Kahn published a research paper on "Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work," which focused on two separate workplace studies at a summer camp and within an architecture company. He discovered that employees require three critical components to find their work engaging:
- Meaningfulness: Employees must see the value both to the company and to society to immerse themselves completely in the work.
- Safety: Employees must feel psychologically safe bringing their whole selves to work.
- Availability: Employees must be able to commit (mentally and physically) to their work fully.
Kahn's research is still relevant 30+ years later. If psychological safety is missing in today's workplace, this will likely result in actively disengaged employees.
Nectar Tip: Get started by checking out our comprehensive guide to psychological safety, including ten practical strategies you can use in your workplace.
8. Giving Praise And Recognition
Nectar’s recent engagement study of 800 full-time employees in the US found undeniable links between giving recognition and soaring employee engagement levels.
- 81.9% of employees agreed recognition for their contributions increased their engagement
- 77.9% of employees would be more productive if they were recognized more frequently
- 83.6% of employees believe recognition motivates them to succeed at work
Catrin Lewis drilled down into why praise is so integral to the employee experience and how to get it right:
“Ensure your employees feel seen and celebrated at work. As a manager, demonstrate your engagement and commitment with open communications around team activities and your focus for each week. Weekly check-ins ensure they are working towards clearly defined goals, and regular celebrations visible to the business of their contributions, learnings, and successes will build a sense of community and belonging.”
Nectar Tip: Our Recognition tool integrates seamlessly with these tips, enabling managers and peers to praise each other frequently and build a continuous culture of gratitude in the workplace.
When Is It Time To Part Ways With A Disengaged Team Member?
If you've explored several avenues and a team member is still disengaged, it may be time to consider moving on. Parting ways with an employee is never easy, but sometimes it's necessary to protect your organization and the disengaged individual from further frustration, unhappiness, and inefficiencies. As Jo Taylor puts it:
“Sometimes we have to have a hard conversation and ask, “Is this the right environment for you?” You want energized and motivated people, but if you can’t solve that, sometimes tough love is needed.”
Here are four scenarios where it may be time to move on:
1. If Alignment With Company Mission Is Missing
Active team contributors who are in sync with the company mission are loyal, dedicated, and motivated by their role within the organization. When this connection is absent, Bryan Hancock outlines how it may result in employees no longer being an ideal fit.
“They don't feel a connection to their job, to what they're doing, to the broader mission. There’s a sense of loss because, at every point in their career, they take a job because they aspire for something bigger, they dream of something more inspiring, more captivating, and when they get to the point where that dream is gone, they check out. Part of it is "How do you reignite that spark, that sense of mission and alignment?" For many individuals, that may not be in the organization they're in now.”
Use one-on-one meetings to understand if your employee is still heading on the same trajectory as your company and has career goals that fit your organization well. Get the conversation started with some of these openers, as suggested by Bryan Hancock:
“Literally start with “How are you doing? What excites you? How does what we’re doing link into your own sense of purpose of what we’re trying to do together?”
2. If Disengagement Becomes A Performance Issue
Use your feedback cycles to clarify expectations and outline areas where your employee falls short. If your employee is consistently missing their targets, the first steps must always be to:
- Offer support, including suggestions for corrective action they could take
- Explore further training and development opportunities
- Evaluate whether the targets are realistic and achievable (consider settings SMART goals)
- Book regular check-ins to stay on track
If these steps don't work, and disengagement affects overall productivity and customer satisfaction, it may be time to consider employee termination discussions.
3. If The Employee Deliberately Sabotages Team Relationships
Creating an atmosphere of disrespect and doubt toward colleagues will create a toxic environment for everyone involved. This disruption of your workplace culture could damage the entire team dynamic and your strategy going forward.
Don't hesitate to have honest conversations with employees if you feel their behavior demoralizes others. If it goes as far as workplace bullying, this is undoubtedly grounds for termination.
4. If The Employee Badmouths The Company On Social Media
Negative comments on social media platforms can damage the company's reputation. Whether it's a slight dig or a calculated strategy to voice concerns on a large platform, their words could repel existing employees, potential candidates, and your customer base.
It's important to realize that voicing a concern isn't automatically a reason to terminate. Before terminating an employee, ask the following questions and always seek legal counsel as required:
- Do you provide adequate space for employees to voice their grievances internally and feel they're being heard?
- Does your staff handbook provide explicit guidance about how to talk about the company on social media?
- Has the employee shared any confidential information (purposefully or inadvertently) that could have legal implications for your company?
Create A Highly Engaged Company Culture With Nectar
Keeping your workforce engaged and improving the experience for actively disengaged employees is an ongoing process that should be at the heart of your company culture.
Nectar’s Recognition tool is integral to motivating your team members with regular praise and shoutouts throughout the day. Combine it with our Rewards feature to redeem points on gift cards, Amazon, company swag, charitable donations, or custom rewards, and you’ll have a workforce striving for excellence.
Ready to see employee engagement in action? Book a free Nectar demo today.