The Rules of Disengagement: Signs, Symptoms and Solutions for More Satisfied Employees
Happy and engaged employees are the backbone of a thriving workplace. They foster innovation, productivity, and a positive company culture. It proves that when people feel seen, heard, and valued, the sparks of success fly.
But disengaged employees—or even just one disengaged employee—can really throw your organization off kilter. It’s a detrimental domino effect that hits every corner of your business, from individual work performance and commitment to the overall health of your organization.
There are subtle yet telling signs that can indicate employee disengagement, and best practices you can take to address these underlying issues and improve employee satisfaction.
The Telltale Heart of One Whose Heart’s Not in It
A 2023 Gallup survey shows that 85% of employees are either unengaged or actively disengaged—the lowest levels of employee engagement the U.S. has seen since 2015. Clearly, something’s off in the U.S. workforce.
As a manager, how can you tell if your employees are disengaged at work? And what can you do to get those disengaged employees excited about their jobs again?
Simply put, actions, or worse, inaction, speaks louder than words. But it’s often a shift that takes place over time—not overnight—which can make it more difficult to spot the signs. Read on for what to look for.
1. Pay attention to physical and behavioral changes
Decreased motivation, effort and energy
Imagine an employee, Charlie, who is known for their infectious smile and boundless energy. They were a champion of team morale and made even the most mundane tasks feel fun and exciting. But lately, something seems off. Their once-energetic demeanor has dwindled over time.
Now, when you observe them at work, you notice a significant drop in their energy. This shift is affecting their performance. Deadlines are slipping and their A+ work has dropped a couple letter grades.
Changes in how people show up (or not) to work
Charlie has also grown more absent at work—beyond taking the occasional day off or sick day. Even when they are working, it seems like they’re simply checking boxes and going through the motions.
Everyone develops their own work habits and routines over time, and as colleagues and managers, we get used to those routines. So, when these established patterns undergo significant changes, it’s hard to fly under the radar and not impact the team.
For instance, Charlie once held a reputation for embracing challenging projects, but now shows reluctance and indifference. They also used to actively engage in team meetings but have become noticeably quieter and more withdrawn.
We will all have times where we need to pull back at work for a variety of good reasons, and any understanding employer will leave wiggle room for the whole human. But, when it becomes a prolonged pattern, it should signal to their manager that there’s something bigger to address.
2. Tune in to emotional and mental clues
Now, imagine Cash—an employee who’s always been a ray of sunshine in the office. They’re known for their positive attitude, love for their team, and taking immense pride in their work.
As Cash’s manager, you’ve noticed them becoming increasingly irritable. Small issues that used to roll off their back now seem to bother them, and Cash often appears frustrated or short-tempered. Their once-positive attitude has shifted towards apathy—there’s a noticeable lack of enthusiasm in how they show up.
These emotional and mental shifts are impacting not only Cash’s mood, but also their job satisfaction and performance. Cash’s interactions with colleagues are less enjoyable, and their productivity has taken a nosedive.
3. Acknowledge a loss of interest in professional growth and development
In addition to being a team player, Cash has always been eager to learn and grow. They regularly seek out opportunities for skill enhancement and career advancement—until recently. Cash has lost their growth mindset and no longer expresses interest in professional development. They seem disinterested in acquiring new skills, learning from others, or being open to constructive feedback.
When employees like Cash lose interest in growth and development, it might be due to a lack of opportunities within the organization. It starts with Cash, but signals that the workplace may need to reevaluate its approach to nurturing talent and providing pathways for advancement.
4. Stay alert to strained relationships and interactions
Meet Alex, an employee who’s always been a team player known for their strong relationship-building skills. They’re the colleague you can count on for support, collaboration, and a friendly chat during coffee breaks. But lately, you’ve noticed a change in how Alex interacts with others.
There’s a subtle tension in the air. You’ve observed strained relationships between Alex and their colleagues. Alex seems to be keeping to themselves more often, with limited engagement in team activities and an unwillingness to collaborate. They’ve grown quieter during meetings and avoid eye contact with colleagues.
Outside of normal office chatter, Alex is also known for their active participation in team meetings and open communication. Alex has always been the first to share ideas, provide feedback, and engage in discussions.
Now, you’ve noticed Alex’s decreased participation in meetings, and when they do speak, it’s lacking vigor. Alex no longer initiates conversations with colleagues and appears disinterested in sharing their thoughts or hearing from others.
This obvious shift in Alex’s communication style isn’t a sudden change in personality. It’s likely a signal of disengagement and lack of job satisfaction. The office environment Alex once felt comfortable engaging in has become a place where they withdraw. Recognizing these changes in communication can open the door to addressing Alex’s concerns and fostering a more positive and engaging work environment for all.
The Undeniable Impact of Employee Disengagement on Performance and Productivity
There’s a hefty price to pay for a disengaged workforce—and, spoiler alert, it isn’t because your employees are “lazy.”
According to Zippia, disengaged employees:
- Cost companies 34% of their annual salary every year.
- Have an 18% lower productivity rate and a 15% lower profitability rate than their engaged peers.
- Increase turnover rates by almost 50%.
Employee disengagement isn’t about laziness. It’s about a disconnect between an organization and its most valuable asset: its people.
A disengaged workforce is a symptom of an environment lacking in alignment and passion behind your “why,” where people show up to earn a paycheck rather than to make a meaningful contribution.
When employees are disengaged, the ripple effects are substantial. Collaboration and teamwork become a struggle. Communication falters, which impacts internal dynamics and relationships with clients and partners. The very sense of purpose and mission that drives an organization begins to erode.
Employee disengagement also often leads to higher absenteeism rates and a revolving door of talent. Valuable employees may seek greener pastures, leaving you with a constant cycle of recruitment and training, which comes at a significant cost.
A disengaged workforce can undermine your organization’s ability to innovate, compete, and thrive. Recognizing and addressing employee disengagement—and getting to the root cause(s) of it—is key to being a good steward to your organization and your employees’ wellbeing.
How to Address Disengagement Head-On and Improve Employee Satisfaction
Employee disengagement and dissatisfaction can have major impacts organization-wide, beyond the individual employee or their team. Fortunately, addressing disengagement and boosting employee satisfaction isn’t an insurmountable challenge. In fact, it begins with simple yet powerful actions that any organization can take now.
- Prioritize regular check-ins: Establishing consistent one-on-one meetings between managers and their team members can be transformative. These meetings provide a platform for open and honest communication, where managers and employees can connect to build trust and rapport, voice concerns, share ideas, and receive guidance. This time to connect reinforces the importance of each employee’s role and wellbeing and fosters a sense of belonging, value, and mutual respect.
- Recognize and celebrate achievements: Most HR professionals (89%) claim that providing ongoing feedback and clear expectations are optimal for increasing employee engagement. Acknowledging and celebrating accomplishments, both big and small, creates a positive feedback loop. It reinforces the idea that contributions are noticed, appreciated, and motivates employees to invest more in their work, which pays off in spades.
- Provide opportunities for upskilling: A Korn Ferry survey found that boredom is the top reason why people disengage with and ultimately leave their jobs, and prioritizing professional development is the solve. This can involve exploring new roles or projects within the organization, or encouraging employees to pursue outside interests that can benefit both them and the company, like mentoring, public speaking, or taking on a new course. Initiatives like these communicate a commitment to employees’ long-term success and reignite their motivation and drive.
- Cultivate psychological safety: It takes a lot of courage for employees to open up about being disengaged and/or unsatisfied, largely due to a lack of focus on cultivating psychological safety in the workplace. Team psychological safety is a shared belief held by members of a team that it’s okay to take risks, to express their ideas and concerns, to speak up with questions, and to admit mistakes—all without fear of negative.
Imagine what’s possible when your employees feel safe to speak their truth: Trust is solidified as employees are celebrated for their honesty and assured that their opinions are valuable. Challenges are addressed promptly and pave the way for effective, long-term solutions. And your employees, who feel safe expressing their views, become catalysts for enhancing overall job satisfaction company wide. Now that’s progress.
- Lead by example: Complacent leadership is also a top reason employees report feeling disengaged at work, with 58% of American workers saying their company’s leadership is either not proactive or takes no action regarding Clearly, leadership sets the tone for the entire organization, and managers who exemplify passion, dedication, and a strong work ethic can inspire their teams.
- Address personal challenges with empathy: Employee disengagement doesn’t always stem from professional dissatisfaction. Sometimes, it’s from personal challenges. Family illness, financial stress, or a recent loss can significantly impact how someone shows up at work.
A complete separation between our work and personal lives is impossible. We will always be tempted to think about what’s happening outside of the office when handling work issues, especially for folks who work from home. This boundary between our two lives is permeable.
In times where an employee’s personal life is seeping more into their professional life, managers should lead with support and empathy. Offering additional time off, flexible scheduling, or access to employee assistance programs can make a world of difference during difficult times. Taking care of your employees when they need you likely means they’ll come back stronger and more engaged thanks to you treating them like a whole human with a full and often challenging life at home.
Ensure Employee Fulfillment and Happiness With Zing
Dealing with disengaged employees might tempt you to search for quick solutions, considering their significant impact on both profitability and company culture. While this is a logical approach, applying band-aid fixes won’t address the core issue of employee disengagement.
Traditional approaches may yield short-term results, but they can’t instill genuine passion in employees. Building employee satisfaction and engagement demands the creation of an environment that fosters transparency, honesty, and active listening. It’s about validation and learning, not gaslighting or merely seeking immediate fixes.
Struggling with employee engagement? Leveraging recruiting services from Zing can help transform your organization into an appealing hub for top talent to flourish and make valuable contributions. Get in touch today.