Disengaged Employees: What Are They Really Thinking?

By David Hassell

You can’t crack your employees’ heads open and look inside (well you can, but legal will probably advise against it). So how do you uncover what drives individual employees to work hard, stay focused and be more creative? Are they seeking more money, stock options, a pat on the back?

Keeping employees engaged means that they will stay longer, be more productive, and increase your base of satisfied customers. To get there, start from the ground up by understanding how employees think and how to meet their most fundamental needs when it comes to their work motivation.

The employer/employee relationship

The etymology of the word “engaged” comes from the French, gage – to pledge one’s self or enter a contract. Dr. Nicole Lipkin suggests that employee engagement is created through a psychological contract, an employee’s belief about the mutual obligations that exist between her and the employer.

This understanding can be an express agreement like fulfilling certain duties for agreed upon compensation. Or it can be implied, like when employees and management tacitly agree to both embrace the company values and organizational culture.

One reason employees become disengaged is when management and leadership breaks the psychological contract. This reaction is usually not about something tangible. It is a result of dishonesty, lack of integrity, or a difficult work environment, and it generally comes down to unclear and un-communicated assumptions and expectations.  Even an isolated breach can have a dramatic impact, since trust develops over time yet can shatter in a moment.

These breaches of trust in the employer/employee relationship must be corrected immediately. Your co-workers talk, gossip can grow, and discontent can become contagious. Dr. Lipkin refers to this holistic impact as Emotional Contagion — the way that positive or negative energy influences others. If the entire work environment does not live up to express or implied expectations, you may lose your best talent permanently.

Check in regularly with your team and provide an opportunity for them to discuss how they feel. This allows you to address problems in workplace engagement as they arise, but it is also a proactive gesture. It tells the employee that she is valued and actually fortifies the terms of the psychological contract.

How do managers at over 1,1oo businesses keep their employees engaged? By checking in every week. Learn more… 

Putting the WE in TEAM

Workplace engagement isn’t completely based on employer/employee relationships. It is a community issue, and leaders must build a work culture where all employee’s needs are met. Company culture is basically a set of beliefs and shared values that the community holds and honors.

You can’t crack your employees’ heads open and look inside (well you can, but legal will probably advise against it).
Implement ways for your team to improve communication at work by being more open with each other. This will establish more transparency which then leads to greater trust. Trust forms the foundation of a strong community because when someone holds our trust, we can’t possibly let them down. Employee engagement depends on this since, most people show up more for others than they do for themselves.

Learn how to keep your top talent and call forth your team’s best week after week. Guide to High Performing Teams.

Struttin’ around like you own the place

Last year behavioral economist Dan Ariely gave a TED talk entitled, What makes us feel good about work. Ariely explains that work motivation is not just based on satisfaction or financial gain. People are driven by challenge and are focused on the results. We like to feel connected to a greater purpose, and have ownership and pride when we accomplish our goals for work.

The link between a person’s ownership over a task and their engagement, is a fundamental human need that goes beyond workplace dynamics. For example, when cake mixes first came out in the 1940s, they didn’t sell. Why?

It was too easy. People did not feel right baking a cake from a “just add water” mix, and presenting it as their own. It turns out that if you have to beat an egg, measure some milk and melt some butter, you feel enough ownership in the finished product to buy the Betty Crocker cake mix from the supermarket.

The link between a person’s ownership over a task and their engagement, is a fundamental human need that goes beyond workplace dynamics.

The lesson for management and leadership  is that employee engagement is fueled by both challenge and ownership. We imprint ourselves on a project when we spend time absorbing it, considering our options, and finally implementing a solution. When a task is too easy, we don’t feel like it is ours and our work attitude reflects that because we don’t fully engage with it.

Lend a hand

While challenging employees sustains engagement, be careful of challenges that the employee finds too overwhelming. Staying engaged in a project that frustrates us is not healthy. Stress begins building and we soon disengage as a coping mechanism. This process is actually a healthy response. It is like a fever, rendering you incapacitated but cleansing the system of any undesirable elements.

Discover the sweet spot where your team can rise to the occasion without causing anxiety or harming their workplace engagement. The level of challenge varies between team members, so managers must be aware of where employees get stuck and offer them support. Too much overwhelm easily leads to disengaged employees and a negative work attitude.

If asking for help is met with disdain, employees will just keep working through the frustration, and their performance and satisfaction will suffer. Be available to lend a hand so that employees can obtain results that respond to organizational need and feel personally fulfilling.

Workforce engagement is about communication of expectations between employer and employee, and the shared maintenance of an organizational culture of trust by your entire team. Being offered a challenge and knowing that you can ask for help (and get it), alleviates the stress that eventually takes its toll and sends valuable employees looking elsewhere for a better work environment.

Image Credit: Julian Fong

Gallup reports that only 13% of US employees are actively engaged. Where does your organization land on that spectrum? Leave us a question or comment below.

Know the pulse of your team each week and improve employee engagement with 15Five.

5 Comment(s)

  1. Lauren
    February 14, 2014 at 2:07 AM

    so as an employee of a large company that generally disengages all those that build the foundation of the company, how do I get my employer to see that ENGAGEMENT actually matters?! I only wish my leadership understood and got what this article so clearly articulates….

  2. Michael
    February 14, 2014 at 5:29 PM

    Firm believer in your mission and a true believer that engagement is key to success. But there seems to be an overwhelmingly pervasive problem in the enterprises today globally. This survey from Gallup has me thinking extremely hard about how to take the “actively disengaged” and “not engaged” employees to “engaged” employees. I think you are on to something here with the product, but overcoming an ingrained culture is extremely difficult. You have a list of companies but these are all companies with the “right culture” for engagement. How are you with long-term companies that have mutliple decades of poor culture and engagement? Let’s chat because I’m intrigued!!

    1. David Hassell
      March 5, 2014 at 1:55 PM

      I agree that it is difficult for companies to shift their culture…difficult but not impossible. It all begins with values and asking the right questions is the perfect place to start. For example, employees may feel invisible and unmotivated due to an ‘us vs them’ mentality that probably predated their arrival to the organization. By asking them questions like “How do you feel? How is team morale?” or “What are your wins this week?”, you’re showing up for them in a way that says, “I value your insight, your unique perspective and I’m listening.” When leadership opens the door of feedback and communication, the culture at large can begin to shift as truth and transparency begin to trump in a toxic culture.

      On the flipside, some companies are just not that interested in employee happiness and self-motivation, but I guarantee that they are interested in the bottom line. Increasing employee engagement means less money spent on recruiting, hiring, and training. Increased engagement means that your team is willing to go the extra mile, to think more creatively, and to have a genuine desire to make better products and offer better services. Dialogue is the first step to making a change. That is why I and so many other business leaders and journalists are discussing this topic. All of the above can be exponentially boosted when our people are experiencing holistic growth in their lives, something that can be encouraged and supported by an organization and it’s leadership.

      I thank you for your comments and I hope that we can all keep the conversation going. No matter how deeply entrenched certain companies are in an archaic way of doing business, it may ultimately be the market that determines their transformation.

  3. Hanan Harb
    November 4, 2014 at 12:07 AM

    Totally agree. Happy people do better work. It’s all about healthy communication, which isn’t always easy but it’s the only way to maintain positive relationships.

  4. Somewhere Out There
    March 19, 2015 at 4:52 PM

    I know this is an old post, but I’ve been reading a lot of articles about employee disengagement of late. I’m convinced most employees just want to show up, do their job, and feel good about themselves and their place in the universe. However, the majority of organizations seem to view employees as insignificant, replaceable worker bees.

    Communication and honesty is usually offered up as a solution to disengagement, but I think employees are usually leery of anyone management (especially C level) asking how they feel, what’s on their mind, or their honest opinions about anything. This usually feels more like digging instead of communicating, and employees are not willing to offer up any info that can be used against them at a later date. You just don’t tell management that they suck, the way they do things sucks, or your job sucks (if you plan on keeping it until you find a better one).

    Employees are disengaged because they don’t feel valued as human beings/individuals. They know they are a replaceable means to an end — the organization’s bottom line. They also know that as soon as an organization’s priorities shift (which is pretty often these days), they could be the next person walking to the parking lot with a cardboard box stuffed with 10 years of memories.

    Most organizations need to undergo a major culture shift to gain the trust, enthusiasm, dedication and loyalty of their employees. Until then, no amount of communication, programs or incentives will make a difference.

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