Dealing with disengagement

There’s little more frustrating to a leader who’s deeply invested in their business than looking into the glazed eyes of employees who just don’t care. Unfortunately, it’s not something you’re going to be able to avoid.

According to Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace 2022 report, the proportion of workers who are engaged – who thrive at work – is only 21%. Six in ten are emotionally detached (i.e. not engaged), while the remaining 19% are miserable, or actively disengaged.

Active disengagement is particularly worrying, because it can mean that the worker is so negative about their job and employer that the only discretionary effort they make is to sabotage them.

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Clearly it is disastrous to have a fifth column among your workforce, but even if they’re just miserable or emotionally detached, it’s hardly a good place to be.

Employees who don’t care or who’ve mentally checked out will not only be less productive on average, they’ll also lower the productivity of those around them. Who knows how many great ideas have crashed uselessly against this rock of indifference?

The old-school approach to this situation was a good sacking. But this relies on a dangerous assumption, that the problem is with the employee.

The reality is more complex. Personality does play a part, but presumably they weren’t disengaged when you hired them. The key factor is usually the environment – an environment you as leader are largely responsible for having created.

This matters because if there’s something about your business that is producing disengagement, then simply removing ‘problem people’ won’t remove the underlying cause. You’ll simply replace yesterday’s disengaged employees with tomorrow’s.

A lasting solution to the problem means, at the risk of sounding like mid-90s Tony Blair, being tough on disengagement and the causes of disengagement.

The causes of disengagement

The leading solvable cause of disengagement is poor line management. Bad managers create all sorts of dysfunction, from bullying and stress through to conflict and chaos. Good ones learn what motivates their team members and aligns their personal values to what the business is trying to achieve. Engagement generally follows.

Inhuman bureaucracies and toxic cultures play their part too, both owing much to poor leadership. Why would people engage if the culture is uncaring, full of blame and mistrust? Or if the organisation’s systems and processes, from quality control to HR policies, treat human beings like cogs in a machine?

Then there’s the misalignment between organisational structure and personal development. London Business School professor Dan Cable suggests that we’re wired to burn out if we keep doing the same things over and over again – which is exactly what employers expect of most workers.

These are not easy problems to fix. You can select managers for people skills, and support them with training. You can attempt the vital, monumental tasks of addressing bad culture, leadership and practices, which we’ve written about many times before.

And you can try to create more opportunities for employees’ personal development and growth through ‘job crafting’, where roles are flexed to meet individual needs – though this isn’t always practical, especially in smaller businesses.

At least with those wider challenges, it’s clear what you’re aiming for. But what if the problem really is with the employee?

Some people do just tend towards negativity – lots, in fact. It’s therefore important to have realistic expectations. Don’t fall for what UCL and Columbia business psychology professor Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic calls the ‘cult of engagement’, where you expect everyone to be super-enthusiastic and committed, or that it’s automatically a problem if they are not.

So should we fire them or not?

The short answer is no, other than as a last resort. Saboteurs need removing, clearly. But for the masses of regular disengaged, there are more effective things you can try first.

Chamorro-Premuzic suggests taking an unemotional, carrot-and-stick management approach. He points out that the disengaged can actually still be productive in areas where they have skill and experience, and that cultures of hyper-engagement can be dangerously unquestioning of cognitive biases. In other words, it might actually be helpful to have some disengagement.

If that sounds like the counsel of despair, we’ll end with some more old fashioned advice: to treat people as individuals. Take the time to figure out why someone is disengaged, and whether it’s actually affecting their performance. It may be a temporary personal issue, or something at work that you can help with.

Be compassionate, flexible and patient. Work with them, and if it’s not something you can fix together, then yes it may be time to part ways, ideally with no hard feelings. This may not work for everyone, but at least you’ll know you’ve tried to make your business somewhere people want to be.