You’ve seen it before: A once promising employee stops taking initiative. Spends far too much time scrolling through Facebook. Constantly calls out sick, and is nowhere near reaching the goals you agreed on. As a manager, can you turn a disengaged employee around? Should you bother? Read on for advice.
First things first: What is employee engagement?
According to CustomInsight, a leading provider of online HR assessment and development tools, employee engagement is “the extent to which employees feel passionate about their jobs, are committed to the organization, and put discretionary effort into their work.” (Don’t confuse employee engagement with employee satisfaction, which merely indicates whether your employees are happy.)
So how does an employee become engaged—or not? “Studies show work engagement is influenced by three primary psychological states: meaningfulness, safety and availability,” says Zach Mercurio, Ph.D., a faculty member and researcher in the department of psychology at Colorado State University. “Psychological meaningfulness is characterized by an employee’s knowledge and belief that what they do is positive, purposeful and significant. Psychological safety manifests when employees perceive they can speak up about new ideas or concerns without fear of retaliation or [damaging their] reputation. Psychological availability means employees have access to the resources they need to do their job. When these three things occur, engagement usually follows. But there’s a catch. If the demands of the job (i.e., time and tasks) outweigh the resources one has to maintain energy for the job, burnout and disengagement can follow.”
Since engagement is not always easy to measure, you might want to rely on more than just observation—your own and others’—to assess a particular employee’s situation. “Employees have different personalities,” says Lilia Stoyanov, CEO of Transformify. “Some may be more enthusiastic and outspoken than others but not necessarily more engaged.” Stoyanov suggests measuring engagement via 360-degree peer reviews and surveys, met deadlines, and the employee’s voluntary enrollment in internal training and other activities that are encouraged by the company.
If you’ve noticed a troubling pattern that lasts more than a few weeks, talk to the employee right away. “Too often we fall into a bad habit of talking about our employees with managers and coworkers when it would be just as easy (and a lot more useful) to talk to them,” says Jason David, CEO of Software Portal. There may be an easy way to remedy the disengagement and pull them back in.”
Chuck Mollor, an executive leadership coach, agile management expert, and founder and CEO of MCG Partners, agrees that talking to your employee is a good first step, but cautions managers not to assume the employee is disengaged. “Leaders who notice a change in an employee should start with a sit-down meeting, informally and privately with the employee, to ask how they are doing. If they respond that everything is fine, it’s your opportunity to offer specific observations describing how they may be showing up in meetings, responding to questions, their recent level of activity, team participation, energy level or performance. The purpose is to not accuse them or make them defensive; this should be a conversation of concern and empathy.”
Ellen Mullarkey, vice president of business development at Messina Staffing, stresses the need for a calm, relaxed environment for the discussion, one “where the employee feels comfortable speaking freely.” Like Kehoe, Mullarkey advises leaving performance out of the first conversation. That way, there won’t be tension, and the employee won’t feel reprimanded, she says.
If you’re unsure how to begin the conversation, Leesa Schipani, SHRM-SCP, a partner with KardasLarson, advises asking the following:
- What motivates you to stay with the organization?
- Why do you want to succeed in your role?
- Which aspects of our culture work for you? Which do not?
- If you were your own manager, how would you manage yourself?
- How can I help you have a more rewarding experience each day?
During the conversation, “you need to be prepared to hear some negative things about the organization and your leadership style,” Schipani cautions.
Robert Moses, founder of The Corporate Con/noisseur, agrees. “When we measure engagement, we do so by asking our employees for their honest feedback. But this only works if you can create an environment of openness and one without fear of retribution. By being open and honest with our staff, we get the same courtesy back,” he says.
Once you’ve identified the root cause of the problem, you can begin to remedy it. “If a personal issue is distracting the employee, he or she should be referred to an HR support function for employees who are facing personal or family issues,” says Irv Goldfinger, managing director at Actualize Consulting. “If the root cause is job related, identify whether it’s the employee’s assignment, the clients that the individual must deal with on a daily basis, an issue with other team members, or challenges with colleagues or a supervisor. Once the cause is identified, a formal program for resolution should be drafted in conjunction with the employee and his or her supervisor.”
Performance improvement plan or termination?
If you discover that your employee is disengaged from the job and not just going through a temporary rough patch, you’ll have to determine whether a performance improvement plan is the logical next step, though the solution may be even simpler. “Depending on the factors driving the lack of engagement, the employee could be assigned to a new project, moved to a different team, etc.,” says Stoyanov.
“Determine whether [the employee] understands the work and finds it useful,” says Rich Franklin, founder and president of KBC Staffing. “Then, figure out if they have a good relationship with their manager and whether they are able to communicate with him or her. Once you have these answers, tailor your solution. Telling someone to become more engaged is probably not going to help. It’s equivalent to telling someone to feel better when they have the flu. You need to be clear that there is a problem and lay out a clear set of guidelines for improvement. It’s important that your employee knows what needs to change and by what date.”
“If the employee has quality characteristics and a decent attitude, and is coachable, it’s in everyone’s best interest to put a mutually agreeable plan [in place] for specific areas of growth,” says Tracy Washington, a Certified Leadership Engagement Consultant and author of Relationship Leadership: How to Strengthen Relationships to Build More Trusting and Effective Teams.
A performance improvement plan doesn’t always make sense, though. “You don’t want to put an employee on a performance improvement plan when they clearly don’t want to work for your organization,” says Schipani. “At that point, help them transition out.”
“There are times when termination is appropriate, in cases of sabotage, lack of team collaboration, or [an employee who] is toxic to the culture,” adds Washington.
“If you feel the employee has the potential to turn it around, have an open, honest and courageous dialogue,” says Mollor. “They need to understand the gap between where they are and where they need to be. If an employee does not demonstrate they can do their job effectively or improve performance after feedback, coaching and development, or they do not consistently demonstrate the appropriate values and behaviors of your organization and culture, then terminate them. The longer you procrastinate, the longer your morale and overall team performance may suffer.”
What about your A-players?
Speaking of morale, you need to consider how the actions of a disengaged employee and your reaction (or lack thereof) are affecting your top performers, who may be annoyed that they’re required to compensate for their teammate’s lack of effort. “Sometimes all it takes to smooth over ruffled feathers is to let them know that you aren’t oblivious,” says David.
You can keep your A-players motivated by giving them complicated assignments and sponsoring their continuing education, says Stoyanov. “By default, A-players are bright people eager to learn and develop.” Financial incentives are also key. “Performance bonuses are a great way to encourage good performance and differentiate the A-players from those who aren’t pulling their weight,” she says.
You can also stress to your top performers that not everyone is cut from the same cloth. “Remind your A-players that the world is not created equal and not everyone is on the same level as they are,” says Mollor.
“If [top performers] come to you with complaints, assure them that you’re addressing the problem,” says Mullarkey. “Talk to them, and use their input to steer your course of action. You shouldn’t share any information with them about their coworker’s improvement plan, as it’s not their business, but you should let them know that you take their input to heart and that you’re working on rectifying the issue.”
Zawikowski puts it a little more bluntly: “A-players who are fully engaged recognize those lower on the engagement ladder and need to see their leader doing something about it or they won’t stay around.”
Adds Washington, “A leader must demonstrate the ability to confront the under-performing employee in a timely manner or risk losing their credibility and the respect of the team.”
Create a culture of engagement
Perhaps the best way to combat disengagement is to try to prevent it in the first place. You can accomplish this by making sure your employees know what the company is working toward and how they contribute—and why it all matters. “The root cause of disengagement is misalignment between the individual’s values and the corporation’s core values,” says Sergei Brovkin, an executive coach and facilitator with Collectiver. “If the employee’s core values are misaligned with the company values, whether declared or implicit, make the person available to the job market. Letting go is not a bad thing if a person is a good specialist: he or she will find a more engaging job elsewhere. Keeping a toxic person (and that’s what disengaged people really are) in the company because of some special talents is usually a bad idea, especially if the company is small.”
Communication is critical, too. “Poor communication impacts employee engagement by making team members feel removed from decisions and devoid of any sense of ownership,” says Carlos Castelán, managing director of The Navio Group. “In many ways, poor communication, or a lack of communication, is worse than conflict because it signals to someone that they’re not valued enough to be included. Poor communication can lead to role ambiguity as well as heightened stress because of a lack of feedback, which ultimately leads to talent drain or other symptoms of low engagement.”
Create a culture of truth-telling, says Jim Haudan, co-founder and chairman of Root Inc., and Rich Berens, Root’s CEO. The co-authors of What Are Your Blind Spots? also caution managers not to assume people will share their real opinions. “Often, people don’t think it’s safe to share their thoughts with leaders, and so they whisper in the halls and commiserate during happy hours. This is an engagement killer. Welcome honesty, ask for real feedback and work together to make adjustments so everyone feels a part of the decision-making and is on board with the plan. That’s how you create true engagement.”
“It has become increasingly important for employers to find ways to engage and show appreciation for their team members, particularly against the backdrop of one of the hottest job markets in recent memory,” says Castelán. He says businesses can show appreciation through an empathetic approach in their culture and recognizing employees for a job well done. “Critical to being empathetic is updating work policies that reflect the changing nature of work such as flexible work schedules and, for example, allowing work from home. Building a work culture that reflects an understanding of the realities of the modern age is important to attracting the best talent.”
“On the recognition side, providing regular feedback to employees—particularly stars—and then showing gratitude via recognition is important,” Castelán says. “Recognition should be done in a way that’s memorable or unique versus a blanket approach like a generic plaque. Employees want to feel unique and valued, so thinking through recognition that is personalized is important.”
How do you create a culture of engagement at your company? Join the conversation on @CT_Innovate.
A Five-Step Plan for Turning Around an Employee Who’s Disengaged
- Address the underlying issue. At the heart of disengagement is an underlying issue that is allowing the employee to feel this way. We look to have open, transparent conversations with all employees to address their satisfaction and engagement with what we do.
- Formulate a plan. The next step is to work directly with the employee to set up a plan of action. Find topics and projects that truly interest the employee. We push to have the disengaged employee become an active member in projects they are passionate about.
- Remove barriers to unhappiness. All disengaged employees are unhappy about something, so we look to see what external stressors are influencing the employee’s mood. Whether it’s their commute, their feelings of being overworked or a personal issue, we try to work with them to ease those external influences.
- Encourage happiness. It sounds cheesy, but we push our employees to engage in happy, relaxing activities. Whether it’s a 30-minute walk outside or a weekly lunch provided by the company, we try to give all our employees something to look forward to.
- Show direct impact. The last, but most important, step is to show impact. Disengaged employees may not [recognize] the impact of their work, so we show them how their work and actions influence the larger picture and provide value to our users.
—Robert Moses, founder of The Corporate Con/noisseur