Disengagement: when the flame dies

Jul 23 2012 by Peter Vajda Print This Article

One issue that seems to be gaining more and more attention in today's workplace is employee disengagement - the growing numbers of employees who seem to be underperforming - and the impact this has on the bottom line.

Underperforming or disengaged employees impact those around them in many ways - all of them negative. Underperformers are usually nay-sayers, bad-mouthing the company whenever they can. They are often the core of the gossiping group, the bullying group or the critical group - affecting morale just as insidious cancer cells destroy the (workplace) body.

In addition, disengaged employees adversely affect productivity and profits because they waste and abuse time Ė and time is money.

Finally, disengaged employees adversely affect the organization in the manner in which they relate to its clients and customers. They are the first to bad-mouth their own organization to others, something that can lead to decreased client satisfaction and, ultimately, decreasing returning-client numbers.

There's plenty of evidence to suggest that new employees go through a six-month honeymoon period during which the vast majority of are actively involved and engaged with their team and their organization. But after six months, the thrill begins to evaporate.

Why? For one thing, reality sets in. The picture that was painted during the hiring process turns out to be just one corner of a larger painting - a rosy corner of an otherwise blurry painting.

Why the Blur? Where's the clarity?

But what is this blurring all about? What causes the once-clear painting to become so opaque? Here are some factors:

1. Managers and supervisors often are too busy to take an active and involved role in learning about and supporting their direct reports on a personal, as well as a professional basis, viewing employees more as functions than people. The emotional distance that ensues fosters disengagement and underperformance.

2. Promised opportunities for growth, development and involvement in the creative process are rare or non-existent. When employees are regarded as drones whose tasks and responsibilities are laid out neatly in their job descriptions and who are denied opportunities to branch out, learns new skills or contribute in new ways, they tend to back off and become less engaged.

3. Information sharing is kept to a minimum. Employees with a desire and need to know are kept in the dark or refused access to the information that would support them to be more productive and engaged. These employees begin to feel they are less-than-trustworthy and irrelevant, leading to resentment and disengagement.

4. Managers and supervisors are reluctant to coach or mentor their direct reports about career advancement and professional development. What this communicates is that the organization sees no value in supporting their employees' growth and development Ė more fertile ground for disengagement.

5. A "playing favorites" culture in which it is unclear whether it is friendship or productivity that gets rewarded. If it is perceived that individuals can advance on the basis of "who they know," others will tend to withdraw and contribute less.

6. Lack of accountability leads those who are engaged, focused and productive to become less so when they see others being absolved from being held accountable. These once-enthused employees become reactive, resentful, less enthusiastic and disengaged. A culture of resentment and mediocrity ensues. Morale suffers.

7. The inability or unwillingness of managers and supervisors to provide timely and effective feedback. Employees feel abandoned when they don't know where they stand. Employees who aren't clear on what's working and what's not working vis-ŗ-vis their performance tend to disengage and go on "cruise control" to get by.

When employees lack clear goal statements or are not stretched by challenging goals, they become discouraged and disengage.

8. Disconnects between employee expectations and organizational expectations cause employees to become confused. When an employee performs and produces and the organization fails to do so, employees become disillusioned and tend to "settle" for a "less-is-more" mindset when it comes to work and working. Disengagement results.

What's the Solution?

The panacea for disengagement is engagement. Here are some ways leaders, mangers and supervisors can contribute to a more engaged workforce.

Showing mutual respect helps to drive the "thrill" process. When managers respect others as human beings and not simply as functions, the organization becomes wrapped in a layer of passion and positivity. Positive and passionate folks are engaged folks.

Holding one another accountable lets no one off the hook and fosters mutual respect and trust. Mutual -accountability leads to pride in one's self and the team, increased enthusiasm and a willingness to contribute and go the extra mile, especially when the going gets tough.

Mining the employee ranks for hidden talents. When managers explore ways in which their direct reports can "strut their stuff", when they nurture their employees' hidden talents, everyone wins. Morale soars and a "can-do" mindset permeates the workplace culture.

Likewise, when managers invest time, interest and energy in their direct reports, their direct reports will invest in, and become engaged in, their work.

When managers walk the values talk, they send a clear message that values are more than nice words on a plaque on a wall. Lived, demonstrated values communicate sincerity and self-responsibility. Shared values encourage people to move in a common direction, communicate commitment and foster engagement.

  • Is the thrill still alive for you? If not, why not?
  • Are you proactive in providing feedback, coaching, and mentoring on a consistent basis, not just when HR says "it's time" or just when it's convenient for you?
  • How do you feel about taking a "heart-felt" approach to people?
  • Does everyone hold everyone else accountable? If not, why not? Fear? Politics? Confusion?
  • Do you actually live your organization's values? What would others say about you?
  • Do you ask employees to contribute on a consistent basis? Is your management style to empower others?
  • Do you publicly recognize and reward employees on a regular basis?
  • Are you publicly recognized and rewarded on a regular basis?
  • Do you feel you are respected by your bosses, peers, and direct reports?
  • Do you tend to hoard information? If so, why? What would others say?
  • Do you have a tendency to "play favorites?"
  • If the thrill is gone for you, what one baby step can you take this week to get it back? You do want it back, don't you?

Ask employees to contribute and participate. Empower your direct reports. Ask everyone to be involved in decision-making as it involves their immediate work and their team. Ask employees to share with others what they do best. Empowering results in commitment, which results in engagement.

Recognize and reward effort early and often. Provide timely and constructive feedback. Mentor and coach proactively and consistently. Help employees help themselves by giving them the tools, skills and support they need to do their best work. Provide opportunities for personal and professional growth and development. Personal and professional growth lead to engagement.

Finally, managers need to relate to their direct reports from their heart as well as their head. Focus on a people-orientation as well as a task-orientation when dealing with employees and you'll go a long way towards building engagement.

Keeping the honeymoon alive

So, want to keep the honeymoon aura alive? Want to keep employees engaged? If you take a conscious and consistent interest in your employees, they'll take an interest in you. Translation: they'll become engaged. Show people they are valued and have a sense of worth over and above the functions and tasks they perform. And listen!

If organizations want to keep employees engaged long after the honeymoon period, they need to create a culture and climate where individuals consciously want to come to work and do their best, where doing good work and being fully engaged just makes good sense to everyone. Then the thrill will seldom diminish.

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About The Author

Peter Vajda
Peter Vajda

Peter G. Vajda, Ph.D, C.P.C. is a seminar leader, workshop facilitator and speaker. He is the founding partner of True North Partnering, an Atlanta-based company that supports conscious living through coaching, counselling and facilitating.