Obligations are a funny thing. Even though people with obligations are, well, obligated to live up to them, it doesn’t necessarily mean that this duty will have any bearing on their actions. Gainful employment generally comes with a whole bunch of obligations tied up in a neat little bow, specific deliverables and standards for the employee to measure up against and aspire to surpass. But what happens when the obligations that an employee is given don’t bare any significance to them or the consequences of failing to live up to these expectations fail to scare them straight? Gone are the days when “because you have to” is a good enough reason for an employee to get back to work. Today, the majority of employees aren’t engaged at work and a good portion of this group has actually become “actively disengaged,” meaning that they’ve given up completely and are, in some cases, actively working against the company.
While the more extreme cases of disengagement are generally an obvious thorn in their manager’s side, the quieter, more typical case of disengagement is much harder to spot and can cause an employee to walk the brink of under-productivity for months or even years. According to Gallup, 70% of the employees are disengaged, meaning that, if your company is more engaged than average, about half of your workers are gluing on a happy face every morning and going through the motions without a thought to what those motions are. Besides the lost potential for productivity and innovation, disengagement can easily spread if your company culture (explicitly or not) permits this behavior. Just think: if all you heard your c0-workers talk about was how they plan on switching companies or how they hate their job, would it inspire you to work even harder to make up for their shortcomings or just accept the hugeness of the complacency problem and count down the clock till quitting time?
In a recent article by acclaimed Silicon Valley thought leader, Dr. John Sullivan, he states that “In the past, the business domination rule was simple … Large and established firms will dominate the smaller ones. However the new rule has become ‘It’s the fast-moving and rapidly adapting firms that now dominate the slower ones, whether they are large or small.’” In the article, John goes on to explain that, in today’s fast moving marketplace, emphasizing the speed of your workforce is just as important as using the most up-to-date technology at your disposal. When new practices emerge in your industry or when your competitors make improvements to their product, it forces you to either adapt or fall behind. If your company is chock full of people interested only in scraping by, then your company won’t respond to the pressures of the market as quickly as your competitors. The ability for your company to adapt to external pressures depends heavily on the ability of your employees, and if a large percentage of your employees can’t be bothered to go beyond the bare minimum, then you could be in trouble.
In order to hit disengagement where it hurts, the first thing that you need to do is get a more honest idea of how your employees are doing. Like I was saying earlier, a culture of disengagement can be incredibly toxic, a layer of grime that has been gumming up the internal processes at your company. Many disengaged employees don’t want to lose their job (even if they profess to hate it) and will do everything they can to deflect attention from their disengagement. They want to go on with “business as usual,” putting in their time (and little else) and collecting their paycheck.
To shake up a company culture plagued by disengagement, a larger emphasis must be placed on communication, both from the top down and the bottom up. If you don’t understand what’s causing your employees to disengage, then you can’t reasonably expect to come up with a solution that will address the problem. This being the case, it’s highly beneficial to emphasize a strong relationship between employees and management through informal, periodical check ins. It’s hard enough to get someone to tell their boss that they hate their job, let alone why, which is why these check-ins need to be handled with care. If you start throwing around performance reviews and “expectations” in a supposedly informal meeting, then your disengaged employees won’t feel comfortable telling you what you’re doing wrong. After conducting these check-ins for a while, you might see patterns emerge, with specific company policies and practices causing employees to lose motivation. While not every employee will have a workplace problem at the root of their disengagement, identifying these friction creating company practices can help to swing a great deal of disengaged employees back to your side. By listening to their concerns in this informal way, you not only made their working life better, but you also showed that you cared enough about them to listen to their concerns.
Maybe the best way to see how your company can tackle employee disengagement is to take a look at how best-in-class companies are doing it. According to a survey from the Aberdeen Group, 42% of best in class companies are emphasizing stronger communication of core values to employees and 31% have standardized reward and recognition programs. Too many companies fail to communicate their core values and mission to their employees, which can make employees, in turn, feel like they have no idea what their employer does, which is pretty demoralizing. To get a disengaged employee back on the bus, you need to contextualize their role within your company and make sure that they have an outlet for any concerns they might have. Sure, there are plenty of disengaged workers who have personality problems, but many of them just feel lost and hopeless. To get at the heart of the problem, make yourself available to the concerns of your employees and demonstrate to them that you’ve been taking their words seriously.