In my last blog post, I talked about employee engagement and how some of the most successful organizations have been able to boost employee engagement, even during uncertain times of change. Your organization may be experiencing a healthy level of employee engagement, but you also may have a few bright stars who have begun to become disengaged. If that is the case, how do you recognize the signs, and what can be done?
Even when we do notice an employee beginning to disengage, we’re often tempted to bury our heads in the sand, hoping it’s just a bumpy phase that will smooth itself out.
We can’t. It won’t.
So it’s up to us. We need to build better habits of observation. We need to start paying closer attention. We need to stay close enough to our employees to recognize when something isn’t running as smoothly as it should. We need to have to have the curiosity, compassion, and courage to step in, ask what’s going on, and address it.
Here are 5 Early Warning Signs of Employee Disengagement to start watching for:
1. Increasing or Unusual Absences
Anyone can have the occasional run of bad luck with colds, the flu or other minor ailments that require staying home or being offline/unavailable more often than usual. (This is especially true for parents of school-age children.) If all other signs point to an employee who is fully onboard and performing well, you may not have an engagement issue. But an employee who seems to be racking up a growing number of absences, or seems increasingly unavailable online when the rest of the team is active, may be simply, slowly checking out.
2. Reluctance to Voice Opinions
What’s the level of participation in meetings? How do people respond when you attempt to generate brainstorming or meaningful discussions? Is there lively, productive debate – or a deafening silence across a table of meaningful glances? When ordinarily vocal, participative people stop speaking up, it’s rarely because they lack opinions. It’s because they lack enthusiasm or lack confidence that voicing their opinions will be safe, respected or acknowledged.
3. Declining Performance and Declining Accountability
They’re right there, at work, “doing” the work. But the work is getting sloppy, slow, and increasingly poor quality. Missing commitments, making flimsy excuses or worse: blaming others for their failures, are signs of serious trouble. They’re also guaranteed to drive down the morale and performance of everyone else. If someone tells you they’re “too busy” or “overloaded” with work, they might be. You won’t know until you dig in and find out. But if their workload is appropriate, then something else is making them want to dodge their responsibilities. Again, lean in, ask good questions and find out what’s going on.
4. Less Willingness to Participate in Group Efforts
Sure, you’ll have a mix of extroverts and introverts. You’ll have people who enjoy team projects as well as those who contribute best by working quietly or individually. But when an ordinarily extroverted team player starts pulling away, stops volunteering to lead tasks and hangs back, on the fringes of group activities, you are watching them disengage. Maybe it’s because they’re going through something in their personal life. Maybe they’re bored with their current responsibilities. Or maybe they hate working with their coworkers because discussions have stopped being productive, devolving instead into endless, pointless quibbles that never end well.
5. Sniping, Gossip and Rumors Replace Productive Communication
Have you noticed an uptick in “quiet conversation” that abruptly ends when others enter the room? Has it become nearly impossible to get through an entire discussion with certain employees without hearing snide, sniping commentary about coworkers? Are rumors circulating about employees. Worse, do these gossiping employees try to sugar coat their behavior with a smile and shrug? These are ugly, dangerous trends that are best ended with a strict zero-tolerance policy, directly from you.
Disengagement In A Work-From-Home Culture
In 2020, during the spread of Coronavirus, many companies shifted quickly to include working from home as a scheduling option (or even mandated it). I would be remiss not to address employee disengagement for work cultures that maintain a work-from-home option as a part of their ongoing operations.
Remember: your employees have passions outside of your organization. Especially if your organization has begun a shift to incorporate working from home into the typical work week, respect that your employees are in new environments, and presumably doing their best to contribute to the success of your passion (your business). There may be times during the day where they are able to get "in the zone" and produce their best work for your organization. There may be times when they allow themselves that mental break to work out, take the dog for a walk, look up from the screen and enjoy their living space. You as a manager have always had the opportunity to engage with your teammates, and support their passions as they have supported yours; perhaps even as a part of your 1:1 meetings. I once worked with a director of digital marketing who opened all of the 1:1 meetings with his teammates with "Tell me about this weeks work best and personal best."
Disengagement so often begins when employees become disconnected from the vision and goals of the organization, and/or don't feel like they can share parts of themselves with their colleagues. How does this happen? When employees pour their hearts into their work, go above and beyond, and go unrecognized by senior management, it happens. When employees are excluded from critical communications or made to feel unworthy, unwelcome among coworkers, or unnecessary in decision-making that will affect their work, it happens. When an employee is suffering a loss or tragedy in their personal life and the organization they have loved and supported shows little love and support in return, it happens. These things can happen all to easily with the rise of work-from-home work culture, as we all move fast and potentially forget to schedule that "face-to-face" time over your video conferencing platform.
Who can fix this? You can. Start looking, start listening, start noticing. Then respond with sincerity and meaningful action. The more engaged you become in the well-being of your employees, the more engaged they will be in the success of your team.