Your people are the heart of your company. The more engaged they are at work, the better off your company is. Be warned, though: while highly engaged employees have the power to make great companies, disengaged employees have the power to break them. For every two engaged employees in the US, there is one actively disengaged. 

Engaged employees are inspired, productive, and motivated. They love what they do, they try hard, and care about your company and where it’s headed. According to Gallup, 34% of US employees were engaged in late 2021. Those lucky organizations with higher employee engagement rates are 21% more profitable and 17% more productive than other businesses.

Disengaged employees, on the other hand, are often disconnected, unmotivated, negative, unproductive, late, and/or absent. They may be difficult to work with (cue the eye roll at your last email) and spend more time scrolling through social media than doing their jobs. But disengaged employees are not always so stereotypically easy to spot. They may be doing just the bare minimum and not taking on extra initiatives. 

According to Gallup, 7 in 10 employees are not engaged or are actively disengaged at work in the US. Worse, Gallup estimates disengaged employees cost the US economy ~$500 billion every year in lost productivity. Yikes. 

All of the above is why you’re here. You wouldn’t be reading this post if all of your employees were skipping into work every day with giant smiles on their faces. 

Instead, you’ve probably got that sinking feeling that some of your team members are disengaged from their work. Luckily for you, we’re all about helping teams work better and we’ve got some ideas on why (and how) to re-engage them with encouragement, empathy, time, and support. 

Now’s the time to take action and improve their work experience and connection to their job.  

Why do employees disengage?

When your currently disengaged employee first joined your company, they were (hopefully) bright-eyed and full of hopes, dreams, and career goals. They had expectations for how their relationship with you, your team, company, culture, and leadership would be. They probably had an idea of how and when and how they wanted to be communicated with, and what kind of connections they wanted to make at work. They also probably had ideas about the flexibility, autonomy, and work-life balance their new position would offer them.

They (again, hopefully) were aligned with your company’s vision, mission, and where it was headed. That’s part of why they joined your team in the first place, after all. The same goes for their role, daily tasks, responsibilities, goals, and career growth. 

Somewhere along the way, one (or many) of their expectations wasn’t met. They might have talked to someone about it, or you personally may have noticed them disconnect, disengage, or seem less motivated than usual. 

Getting to the cause of your employee’s disengagement

Let’s consider some of the causes of employee disengagement and think of what you, as their manager, can do to get their heads back in the game.

Potential cause of disengagement

Potential solution to re-engagement

  • Burnout or work stress
  • Provide better task management, frequent check-ins, more workplace flexibility, and emphasis on mental health and well-being activities.
  • Unclear company mission and goals
  • Reassess and share company vision, as well as the impact their work makes on the company’s goals.
  • Employee goals unaligned with the company and team vision
  • Work with them to find where their goals and vision align with those of the company and team.
  • Not feeling heard or seen
  • Listen with empathy, have more productive and transparent 1:1s, and create a safe and open work environment.
  • Poor communication
  • Have regular conversations regarding methods, frequency, and modes of communication.
  • Unclear expectations, roles, and responsibilities
  • Reassess their role and responsibilities to find discrepancies, and ask them which tasks they find most energizing and which they find more draining.
  • Lack of career growth
  • Set out a clear growth plan with SMART goals and realistic timelines—be transparent about what is and isn’t possible, and check in often. 
  • Lack of recognition 
  • Add team member recognition and “wins” to the beginning of every meeting. Establish a specific Slack channel or Trello list that captures wins and kudos.
  • Lack of purpose or sense of challenge
  • Work with the employee and HR to map out goals that will challenge and re-inspire them.
  • Lack of autonomy
  • Work with the employee to develop trust and see where you can give them more autonomy, independence, and ownership over projects they find interesting.
  • Lack of community or team connectedness
  • Organize social events and collaborative workdays, encourage employees to set up virtual coffee dates, and allow them to choose who they’d like to work with, if possible.
  • Lack of transparency and trust
  • Work with the employee and HR to build psychological safety and an open, honest employee/manager relationship. 
  • Confusing workplace systems or unhelpful tools
  • Reanalyze the systems and tools in place and determine which should be replaced with more effective and user-friendly options. 

It’s easy to see how any one of these situations could be frustrating or challenging for an employee to navigate—especially if they feel like they’re solving it alone. No wonder they’ve disengaged! That’s why you need to remind them they’re not alone. Show them you can work together to find a solution that works for everyone. 

Don’t give up on them! It is possible to turn disengaged employees into engaged ones. It just takes time, trust, great listening skills on your part, patience, and some detective work to uncover the cause and some potential creative solutions.

What’s the difference between underperforming and being disengaged?

According to HBR, “engagement can be interpreted as a broad indicator of how motivated an employee is at work.” Therefore, being disengaged at work is the same as being unmotivated to work, which can trigger underperformance. However, an employee can be engaged in their work and still underperform. 

To underperform is to fail to meet the responsibilities and expectations of one’s role. Underperformance can be caused by many things, including, but not only, disengagement. For instance, an employee may not clearly understand what is expected of them. Or, they may be overloaded or lack proper training. Or, perhaps there is a personal reason for their underperformance that is unrelated to work.

Why your disengaged employees need encouragement and support

Unless you’re a mind-reader, you can’t know the inner workings of your employees’ thoughts and desires. That’s why you need to create a safe, open, respectful, and transparent environment where you can connect with them. 

Notice that we didn’t say talk to them. That’s because it’s your job to listen. To do this, you must ensure that they feel like they can talk to you—or whoever at your company, if not you.

The root cause of disengaged employees is emotional 

The reason(s) behind why they disengaged—and continue to be—is probably emotional for them. It may be sensitive territory, which is why they need your trust, encouragement, and support before you can expect them to open up to you.  

After all, employee engagement is the strength of their emotional connection and commitment to a company. This is what drives engaged employees to want to go the extra mile and help an organization succeed. Highly engaged employees are emotionally and mentally invested in your company and their careers with you. But this isn’t to say that disengaged employees didn’t once want that too—and cannot get it back. 

As Kevin Kruse, a New York bestselling author, writes in his blog, “life is too short to be unhappy at work, so run out that door and find a new job, whatever your passion is. You don’t want to be actively disengaged, but if you’re in the middle, I would say see if you can reconnect and recommit to the mission and vision of the company. See if you can reconnect with your boss, with your leader, to get that passion that maybe you once had.”

How to help re-engage your disengaged employees 

Your first step as a team manager is to talk to and listen to your employees. Make them feel heard and understood. Remember, what you’re asking for is for them to re-engage, reconnect, and re-commit to you, your team, and the company. Show them that you’re meeting them halfway on this initiative—and that you haven’t given up on them. 

Helpful re-engagement tips for managers

  • Create a safe, neutral space to connect 
  • Listen
  • Be honest, open, and transparent
  • Don’t take it personally—it’s about them
  • Make time for them
  • Have patience and keep at it—re-engaging employees is an ongoing long-term process
  • Help them clearly understand your company goals and vision
  • Work with them to understand their goals and career plans
  • Find a way to align their goals with your company’s
  • Ask how their work experience can be improved
  • See if they require more flexibility and wellness opportunities to destress
  • Set goals and check-in points together 
  • Make a commitment to them 
  • Give them some time and space to work on projects that inspire them
  • Stay on track together
  • Reconnect them with the team through activities they’re interested in

This could also be a great opportunity to connect one-on-one with all of your employees, whether they’re disengaged or not. Check in to see how things are going and what can be improved on. Create a safe, transparent, and open space for employees to share their feedback and concerns.  

4 essentials to motivating disengaged employees

How do you deepen your employees’ connections with your organization? Motivating employees that have disengaged from your company requires you to consider four essentials:

  • Vision: Clarify and share your company’s vision from the top-down
  • Values: Embed your company values into the culture and see where they align with your employees
  • Motivation: What motivates your employees to engage? Intrinsic, extrinsic, peers, or personal motivators? 
  • Strategy: What’s the best way for you to put your re-engagement plan into action?

Ask your employees what they want and need from you, your team, and your company.

Re-engagement starts with trust and openness in your workplace relationships

Look, at the end of the day, no one wants to be disengaged at their job. Sometimes, they just need help to get to the heart of what they truly want and need in order to re-engage. That’s where you come in. Communicate openly and often with your employees to see how they’re doing. If they’re feeling disengaged, that’s okay. It can happen to the best of us sometimes. 

Give them the time and space to explore their role, responsibilities, and career goals. Work together to find common ground where what they want and what their role demands intersect. That’s the sweet spot where re-engagement can happen.

You’ve got disengaged employees—here’s why they need encouragement and support