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.


Employee Engagement

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