How to detect employee disengagement before it’s too late

Marlo Oster
May 13, 2022
5
Minutes

If your employees aren’t fully engaged in the work they do, your bottom line suffers. Employee disengagement can be a hard thing to turn around once it’s spread throughout your team, so catching it early is your best shot at ensuring your employees remain engaged and committed to their work. 

Learn all about employee disengagement, including signs of disengagement at work, as well as strategies you can use to improve employee engagement. 

What is employee disengagement?

Employee disengagement is when an employee doesn’t enjoy their work or feels apathetic toward their job; they don’t identify themselves as a member of your company and don’t feel personally invested in its success. Employee disengagement is an “I just work here” mentality. 

And unfortunately, employee disengagement is quite common. According to Gallup, “For the first year in more than a decade, the percentage of engaged workers in the US declined in 2021.” 

Gallup found that 34% of employees were engaged and 16% were actively disengaged in 2021, compared to 36% of employees being engaged and 14% of employees being disengaged in 2020. “The ratio of engaged to actively disengaged workers in the US is 2.1 to 1, down from 2.6 to 1 in 2020.”

Gallup breaks employee engagement into three parts: engaged, not engaged, and actively disengaged. So, according to their numbers, a whopping 50% of employees are not engaged in their work. 

While you may hope that all of your employees are fully engaged and locked into ensuring the business’s success, the numbers don’t lie. This is why it is imperative that you look for signs of disengagement in the workplace. The sooner you can catch disengagement, the easier it will be to turn around.

Signs of employee disengagement

Poor communication or conflict

If you have an employee who is constantly butting heads with you as well as their other teammates, this is a clear sign they’re unhappy in their position or do not trust their teammates. A team that doesn’t trust each other won’t invest in each other, and if they can’t invest in their teammates, they won’t invest in the business. 

It doesn’t need to be a major conflict for you to notice there’s something wrong. If an employee only responds in monosyllables or consistently says rude or otherwise provocative things, they aren’t getting the stimulation they need from their job, so they’re looking for it elsewhere. This is a breeding ground for conflict, and if these issues aren’t caught early, they could cause your team to break down, leading to employee turnover. 

Since turnover can cost employers up to 33% of an employee’s annual salary, it’s definitely something to be avoided. Watch for poor communication or conflict in your workplace. 

Lack of participation

Signs of disengagement don’t need to be dramatic, and considering 50% of US employees are not engaged, it’s very likely that signs of disengagement won’t be as obvious as open conflict. 

When your team members are invested, they will participate in the work and team building opportunities. A telltale sign of disengagement is a lack of participation, whether in meetings, extra events, or during team building sessions. When you facilitate meetings in person or over Zoom, watch for people who are holding back. 

Do you have team members who rarely have anything to say, even when you ask them something directly? A lack of participation doesn’t always always mean a team member is shy; it could also indicate a lack of investment in the work. 

If you have one or more team members who consistently have nothing to say during meetings or who avoid team building sessions, they could be disengaged or checked out. 

Bare minimum effort

If an employee arrives late to meetings, doesn’t participate when they’re there, constantly misses deadlines, and there are often obvious errors in their work, it’s clear they’re not going above and beyond the call of duty. They are only putting in the bare minimum effort required to complete the job. 

This is a clear sign the employee is disengaged. They just want to collect their paycheck and go home because they aren’t fulfilled by their work. If you notice that a team member’s performance is slowly declining or becoming erratic, it could indicate they’re not fully engaged with the business and are just coasting by because the work is unfulfilling. 

Reluctance to offer feedback or recognition

Do team members provide constructive feedback unprompted? When they are asked to offer feedback, are they reluctant to share their opinion? If encouraged to do so, do they shrug or mumble a non-committal reply?

This isn’t necessarily just because they’re shy; it could be a sign they are not invested in the workplace or the people they work with. They don't care about improving the workplace because they’re disengaged. They see no point in offering feedback because they either don’t plan on sticking with your business for too much longer, or they don’t see how their feedback will actually make a difference. 

This could also point to poor management. While it’s easy to blame employee disengagement on the employees themselves, disengagement usually points to a larger problem. While observing your team members and direct reports for disengagement, consider your own actions as well. Do you provide a safe space for employees to express their opinions, or is your leadership style part of the problem? 

Improving employee engagement

Run regular one on ones

One on one meetings are essential to establishing and maintaining trust, building rapport, and upholding accountability. This is your main opportunity to get to know your team members and provide feedback and coaching. Holding one on one meetings on a regular, consistent basis is key to ensuring your direct reports remain engaged, enthusiastic, and communicative. 

One on one meetings are a safe space where you each can exchange constructive feedback about each other’s performance. What is your direct report doing well? What is an area they can improve upon? What can you do to help them reach their short and long term goals? What are you doing well in your role? What can you improve upon? How can your direct report help you reach your goals? 

Setting a consistent cadence for your one on one meetings means you’re never in the dark about what’s going on with each individual team member. Any issues can be addressed before they fester, and you can ensure that each employee’s voice is always heard and their needs are met. 

📆 Learn how to choose the right meeting cadence for your 1:1 meetings.

Empower team members to lead

Do you trust your team to complete their work to the best of their ability without your supervision and constant corrections? Do you provide clear instructions at the outset and grant your team the autonomy to complete their work in the way that works best for them, or do you hover and request frequent updates? Do you feel frustrated if an employee’s style of working is different from yours? Do you feel like your team wouldn’t get any work done without you? 

If you answered yes to the above questions, you’re micromanaging your team. Here are 9 signs of micromanagement behavior

Your team members are adults who were hired for a reason. If you are always taking tasks away from your team members because you feel like you can do it better, how can your team take any pride in their work? How can they develop their skills? How can they feel invested in the business and engaged in the work if their contribution is always overshadowed by your own?

No one likes to feel like someone’s breathing down their necks. The most effective leaders inspire their team to do their best work by setting the right example—they don’t swoop in at the last minute and take all the credit. A leader who trusts their team understands it’s better to influence an outcome than it is to control it. 

Be there to provide guidance for your team, but only when it’s requested. Treat your team members like adults, not children. This way, they can feel ownership over their accomplishments and be more invested in the success of the business. 

📚 Read our guide to unlearning micromanagement: how to become a better leader with macromanagement.

Prioritize employee recognition

Regularly expressing gratitude for the work your team does makes the workplace a welcoming and supportive space where team members can feel appreciated for who they are and the good work they do. 

It feels good to hear you’re doing a good job. Providing employee recognition on a regular basis shows your team you notice their hard work and appreciate it. Letting team members know they’re doing a good job builds their confidence, which, in turn, makes them more engaged and invested in the work they do. 

People don’t tire of hearing they’re great. Being recognized for good work will make you want to be recognized again, and this creates a team that’s continually striving to be the absolute best they can be.  

🎉 Learn more about the WorkPatterns Kudos feature, which offers an organic, lightweight way to show your appreciation on a regular basis.

Build a culture of feedback

How often do you give your team feedback? Do you recognize your team members’ accomplishments, or do you only highlight their flaws? 

If you only tell your team what they do wrong and rarely give them any feedback whatsoever, team members won’t know how to gauge their performance. Say you’re a new employee. You put significant effort into the projects you receive but hear nothing back. You decide to put a bit less effort into your next project and a little less effort into the next because you don’t hear anything about your performance either way. Work becomes monotonous and unfulfilling. 

Don’t let this happen to your team! If you don’t provide consistent feedback and recognition, your team will become disengaged. 

Build a culture of continuous feedback in the workplace by ensuring feedback is a two-way street. Provide constructive feedback on a regular basis and ask for it in return. No matter how effective a manager or team leader you are, there is always room for improvement. Getting feedback from your direct reports will help them feel like their voice is heard, which will make them feel more directly involved in the success of the business—all while helping you become a more effective leader.

📚 Learn more in our guide to giving constructive feedback. 

Maintain employee engagement with WorkPatterns

WorkPatterns provides One on Ones, Team Collaboration, Feedback, Recognition & Goals — all in one place. Our platform keeps managers informed and employees engaged with transparent scheduling, collaboration, intentional goal-setting, and purposeful recognition. 

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