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The Disengagement Epidemic: Uncovering Root Causes and Finding Solutions

Lynnette Phillips

Employee disengagement is still an ongoing challenge in today’s workforce, and it can cost organizations a lot. As a performance coach at 15Five, I run into the issue of what to do when employees are disengaged again and again. It’s good that HR leaders and managers want to fix disengagement, but they often wait until it’s a major issue before they attempt to address it. I’ve learned from experience that when HR leaders work on proactively improving employee engagement, it can have a big impact.

This is why I was so excited to moderate a panel discussion on this very topic at this year’s Thrive by 15Five conference. The panel included some amazing people leaders: Carah Gordon, People and Culture Manager at Tagboard; Aisha Blackwell, Chief People Officer at Young Community Developers; and Tarveen Forrester, VP of People at Kickstarter. Read on for some of the key insights and takeaways from this discussion.

Uncovering the root causes of disengagement and finding solutions

The first step to addressing employee disengagement is identifying the root causes of it in your organization. 

Tarveen shared some critical indicators that have signified disengagement in her experience. These include irritability, a noticeable withdrawal from social interactions, increased absenteeism, and discernible changes in the quality of work. By highlighting these tangible signals, Tarveen laid the groundwork for organizations to proactively identify and address disengagement before it becomes an even bigger problem.

Aisha went on to underscore the impact of unique life circumstances on employee engagement. She emphasized the need for organizations to recognize how personal life changes impact work. That includes acknowledging that employees are whole people outside of work. As she said, “Saying ‘I’m coming to you as a person and seeing you as a whole individual, not just a job description’, is extremely transformative.”

All of the panelists shared insights into strategies for tackling disengagement at its core. The panelists all agreed that organizations should be flexible and adapt to changes in employee situations. In addition, organizations can consider offering new roles and responsibilities to employees to give them an opportunity to find renewed purpose within the organization.

Common misconceptions about engagement

To combat employee disengagement, we must first address the common misconceptions that can get in the way of making progress. 

One prevailing misconception that the panelists tackled head-on is the idea that HR leaders must navigate disengagement alone. In debunking this myth, they emphasized the importance of a collaborative and supportive environment, and advocated for organizations to acknowledge that addressing disengagement is a shared responsibility, amongst people leadership and HR as well as the employees. 

“Addressing disengagement is everyone’s responsibility,” Carah shared. “The solutions to disengagement will take more than just HR to sustain.”

The panelists also challenged the notion that disengaged employees exiting the organization is the only solution to employee disengagement. Instead, they proposed exploring alternative solutions, such as reevaluating roles or responsibilities within the organization. Carah specifically highlighted the potential for employees to find renewed engagement by exploring different facets of their current role or transitioning into new positions that better align with their skills and interests.

The panelists also challenged the idea that there’s a one-sized-fits-all approach to improving employee engagement. “That’s simply not true,” Carah asserted. “Different drivers of engagement are present throughout the organization, so the fix to disengagement is going to vary depending on the employee and their drivers.” Just as each employee is unique, and each organization is unique, each organization’s approach to improving engagement must be unique. 

You can learn more about the various drivers of employee engagement here.

Building a business case for investing in engagement

More and more HR leaders are coming to understand the importance of having a strong business case to justify investments in employee engagement. 

It’s clear that investing in employee engagement pays off — Jacob Morgan, author of The Employee Experience Advantage, examined the financial data of hundreds of companies and found that those that invest in employee experience reported more than 4 times the profits and 2 times the revenue. With this understanding, it is in the best interest of strategic HR leaders to connect engagement to the organization’s highest priorities in order to build a strong business case for investing in employee engagement, with executive leadership championing the efforts.  

When you link engagement initiatives to business outcomes (like increased profitability), you create a compelling case for continued investment and garner support from senior leadership and stakeholders — which is key. This approach not only provides a strategic framework for your actions but also allows you to measure the success of your engagement efforts in terms of their impact on the broader goals of the organization. 

By tying engagement directly to the bottom line, investments in engagement initiatives are not merely discretionary expenses but strategic decisions that have a direct and positive influence on the company’s overall financial health. “Investment in engagement is about the future of the company and long-term strategy, not just where you are today,” Tarveen shared.

Aisha Blackwell highlighted her ROI on talent development initiatives she led, highlighting that several participants engaging with her as their trainer and coach were advancing into new opportunities by applying the skills learned through the Manager Accelerator. 

Harnessing Disengagement for Innovation

When handled strategically, employee disengagement, which is often seen as a problem, can actually spur innovation. The best leaders see disengagement as a chance to reassess strategies, encourage new ideas, and foster innovation.

Carah pointed out that addressing employee disengagement is a chance to encourage curiosity. “Disengagement only leads to regrettable turnover when we miss the opportunity to be curious,” she shared. “When you notice any level of disengagement, view it as a time to lean in: ask the questions, seek resolution and understanding. Is there a life change going on? Are there any blockers that are hindering the employee? Is the employee unsatisfied with their role? Is their workload hindering them from being an active part of programming outside of their scope of work? Those kinds of questions really help to get to the root of the disengagement. Innovation can happen with those kinds of questions. Ask the questions and be ready to listen first, then act.”

Tarveen agreed with Carah, sharing that when employees are not engaged, it’s a chance to work together to define what engaging work means. We saw this happen on a large scale with the shift to remote work during the pandemic, and an overall redefining of what work looks like. Although, of course, the pandemic carried many challenges with it, it did give organizations and employees an opportunity to have more of a discussion around the different ways work can be done, and what a healthy relationship with work looks like. 

Tarveen highlighted the need for empathetic leadership during these challenging times, fostering an environment where individuals feel supported and valued. By maintaining a focus on employee well-being, organizations can turn a potentially disengaging event into an opportunity for rebuilding trust and resilience. “Create an approach and philosophy that supports employee engagement and healthy relationship with work,” she said.

Furthermore, Tarveen stressed the significance of storytelling during change management. To make organizational changes clear, we need to communicate openly. We should explain the reasons, the vision for the future, and how individuals fit in. Storytelling helps employees understand the bigger picture and inspires them to contribute to the organization’s growth.

The role of technology in improving employee engagement

After sharing many great insights on employee engagement, the panelists got a bit more specific, sharing how they utilize 15Five in their organizations to drive improvements in employee engagement.

According to Aisha, utilizing a tool like 15Five helps her and her team activate the depths of what engagement truly looks like in her organization. Because 15Five’s engagement tools are built for analysis and action, they allow HR leaders to first get a deep understanding of what’s contributing to disengagement and give people leaders an accurate understanding of their organization’s strengths and weaknesses at any given time. Leadership can then use this data to identify areas for improvement and make changes that will help shape company culture in positive ways. As Aisha expressed, putting energy into improving engagement, and then actually having results to show for it, is huge.

Carah spoke about how much her team has been loving using the HR Outcomes Dashboard ever since it launched earlier this year. Using the dashboard really helps her team have a deeper understanding of organizational engagement, performance, and turnover, and what to do about it. She shared that her team has also been leaning into focusing on manager effectiveness and enablement and creating communications and programming around it, which has been made extra effective by 15Five’s Manager Effectiveness Indicator. According to Carah, placing this extra focus on manager effectiveness with the help of 15Five has helped them raise the average Manager Effectiveness Indicator score from 49/100 to 71/100! 

Aisha echoed these sentiments about a focus on manager effectiveness, sharing that bringing in Transform to identify and support emerging leaders with untapped potential, and creating a hyper-interest in their professional development, has had a big motivating domino effect within the organization at large.

Get 15Five’s Employee Engagement Playbook

If you’ve been overlooking the power of employee engagement, it’s time to brace yourself for a paradigm shift. This isn’t just about creating a happy workplace; it’s about achieving tangible, bottom-line results that will make your fellow executives sit up and take notice. 

In Engage to Excel: 15Five’s Employee Engagement Playbook, we not only explore the undeniable benefits of employee engagement but also dive deep into how to measure it and provide you with actionable strategies to transform engagement insights into measurable outcomes.

Get the playbook now >