Tips to Address Disengaged Employees & Improve Engagement at Work

The High Cost of Disengagement

We discuss engagement a lot. The reality is, disengaged employees abound. And when employees are actively disengaged, they can be incredibly toxic for an organization. An HBR article cites that, “In the United States alone, disengagement costs the economy around $500 billion every year (that is roughly the size of the global beer economy).”


A Forbes article calculates that “a single disengaged employee at the average salary level is going to cost you almost $16,000 per year.” This is due to absenteeism, underperformance, and more.

This is a real problem for organizations, and it has no easy fixes. (We all wish employee engagement problems had simple, elegant answers.)

Here are 6 tips to manage disengaged employees and improve your organization culture:

1. Acknowledge an engagement problem exists: This is not the time to paint a pretty picture. After conducting an employee engagement survey, communicate results with your teams and acknowledge problems exist. This leads to more transparency and trust within the organization. Then it’s time to get to work.
2. Think incentives. The ideal employee is intrinsically motivated, doing the job for the love of the job. This is exception, not the rule. Creating extrinsic motivation is a great way to start turning the tide of disengagement. Likewise, real consequences for not performing are critical to keep those who are already engaged engaged. There’s nothing more maddening than a co-worker that isn’t performing and isn’t held accountable for their work or lack thereof.
3. Don’t assume all disengaged employees are poor performers. Though research consistently points to a correlation between disengagement and low performance, there are exceptions to the rule. Some of your most grumbly employees might be pretty spectacular at their jobs. Clear metrics and target-setting should be in place. Then it’s time to actively listen to your employees, your teams, and what’s going on.
4. Get employees involved. Oftentimes top-down efforts fall short of addressing engagement problems. When teams get together to be part of a process of improvement, they have teeth in the game. Get together and determine 1 – 3 committed actions from employees, the organization etc. to address specific engagement problems. Hold the organization and the team accountable for following through on these actions – in follow-up meetings, pulse surveys and more.
5. Create a culture of opportunity. The possibility to grow and learn are key pieces of employee engagement. Do you actively look for promotion opportunities within the organization before opening the pool of applicants outside the company? Do your managers provide stretch tasks, give different employees possibilities to attend conferences and workshops? Do you provide employees with education funds? Every action of the organization is a piece of communication that sends a very clear message. Develop your employees’ talent and watch them thrive.
6. Set clear expectations. Employee engagement tanks when employees don’t know what is expected of them. What outcomes do you expect? What does success look like? (Teams must have a shared vision of success). What behaviors and language do you expect of employees? And, finally, when these expectations aren’t met, what are the consequences? Follow-through. Build a culture of accountability.

Invest time and resources to improve engagement in your organization. This is not a quick-fix instead a way of doing things – creating spaces of communication, transparency, trust, opportunity, fair compensation and more.

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