3 Reasons Why Your Employees Aren’t Engaged At Work

By David Mizne

I promised myself that I would not start another disengagement post with a rehashing of employee engagement statistics. If you are not familiar with the abysmal reality regarding engagement, you are probably one of the few lucky managers whose team is killing it. Good for you! You can stop reading now. 

For everyone else, disengagement is a thing. A costly one. We’ve written about it here and here. You can also use this handy worksheet to calculate just how much disengagement is costing you.

The good news is that you are not alone in your struggle to get your team more engaged at work. Beyond misery loving company, much continues to be written about disengagement, including how you can turn it around.

What follows is some of the best reasoning that I’ve heard regarding why people disengage, and sound advice for transforming your workforce for the better.

Cause & (in)Effect(ive)

Patrick Lencioni wrote a book entitled, The Truth About Employee Engagement: A Fable About Addressing the Three Root Causes of Job Misery. Lencioni, an expert in executive team development and organizational health, pinpoints why people are disengaged:

1) Anonymity. Employees feel (or know) that managers and other company leaders either don’t know or don’t care about employee performance.

2) Irrelevance. Employees don’t understand how their jobs make a difference at the company or in the world.

3) Immeasurement.  Employees need to be able to gauge their progress and level of contribution for themselves. They cannot be fulfilled in their work, if their success depends on the opinions or whims of another person.

To illustrate how this plays out in the real world, let’s look at the animation industry. Few employees probably feel as anonymous and irrelevant as animators working on feature length films. Not only might they become disengaged, they may choose retaliation as a way to feel better about their contributions. 

Look What I Did!

Remember several years ago, when inappropriate images were discovered in Disney movies and on the cover art for their VHS tapes? As one example, Disney chose to recall their original home video release of The Rescuers in 1999, because of images of topless women in the background of a scene. 

There are some obvious reasons why an artist would do this, like being disgruntled with management or…well…because shenanigans are fun. I have a different theory, however. The employees just wanted some attention, and they wanted their efforts to matter.

Film credits for animated movies can contain thousands of names. How many people stay in a theater and read through the credits to see all of the animators? And even if people get credit, they don’t get specific kudos. You’ll just see someone mentioned in a group of animators, with no specific attribution for drawing a particular character or scene.

These gifted artists toil in virtual anonymity. No wonder they embedded the word “sex” in a floating cloud of debris in The Lion King. How many managers took the time to applaud their efforts, and how many movie viewers would ever know their impact? These animators likely resorted to subversive means to satisfy the human desires to feel relevant and be seen.

How Am I Doing?

The other major factor at play here is measuring performance. Certainly managers need to assess employees and provide them with meaningful feedback about their work at regular intervals.

Think of a basketball team. During regular intervals like a time-out or halftime, coaches can give an in-depth analysis on progress. But when the ball is in play, team-members can’t make the split second decisions that mean the difference between winning or losing without the scoreboard. They can’t gauge whether they should shoot or dribble without knowing the score, or how long is left on the clock.

Putting the “M” in Employee Engagement

In this Harvard Business Review piece entitled, Three Things That Actually Motivate Employees, Rosabeth Kanter presents a study of an innovative tech startup. The employees there are less interested in a potential and far-off IPO, than today’s OPI – “the opportunity for positive impact”.

Kanter shares the keys to strong motivation – mastery, membership, and meaning. She says that, “people happy in their work are often found in mission-driven organizations where people feel they have positive impact on social needs”. Here is a little breakdown of her three M’s:

1) Mastery. Help people develop deep skills by creating stretch goals, and provide the appropriate tools and support.

2) Membership. Create community by honoring individuality. Have people get to know each other and bring outside interests to work.

3) Meaning. Repeat and reinforce a larger purpose. Show people how even small tasks can have a positive impact, based on what the company provides to the world.

These three M’s respond beautifully to the engagement conundrum outlined by Lencioni:

If people have immeasurement, they can’t progress towards mastery. Help employees to create goals that help them grow, then check-in regularly on progress and provide support when needed.

Anonymity is the absence of membership. When relationships are created across teams and between managers and employees, everyone feels seen and understood for both who they are and what they contribute.

Irrelevance is a lack meaning. Create a company mission and share customer successes with everyone on the team. People who feel aligned with the impact that the business strives for, will feel fulfilled when that impact is realized.

Engaged employees are simply motivated people who choose to dedicate themselves to the business at hand, like any other chosen use of time. The operative word here is “chosen”, from a place of genuine desire. When work feels fulfilling and the team is connected, work ceases to feel like work. That’s when employees contribute above and beyond what is required, and bring a contagious up-beat energy to your workplace.

Image Credit: Mr Thinktank 

David is not a fan of the terms “thought leadership” or “content marketing”, but he’ll keep using them…for now. Follow him on twitter @davidmizne.



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


  • Lui Cartin

    Just wanted to thank you for your continuous out poring of useful insights and excellent information!
    I’ve been battling disengagement as a coach for my company, and management is slow to understand its import and impact on productivity, but it’s coming…
    More research and sharing it means more chances of creating the necessary momentum.
    Thanks again!

    • 15Five

      Thank you Lui! Maybe it’s time for an Employee Engagement ebook…

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