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How to motivate disengaged employees: The dos and don'ts

How do you re-engage an employee?

It’s a question a lot of people leaders and managers have to ask themselves every day. Aside from the fact that no leader wants employees to be unhappy in their jobs, disengagement can mean lost productivity, suboptimal results, and potential turnover that can cost companies billions of dollars a year. 

But if an employee reaches that point, is there ever a way back?

We’ve talked a lot in recent posts about what causes disengagement, and how to spot it in your team. Now, we’re going to take a deep dive into strategies you can use to try and motivate disengaged employees to get back on track.

How to re-engage disengaged employees: dos and don'ts for people leaders

When considering how to motivate an employee who is disengaged, it’s important to be mindful of what you shouldn’t do and as much as what you should do. 

Sometimes, leaders tend to want to take action to try and solve this issue without really thinking it through, and that can lead to mistakes that only make the problem worse. At the other end of the spectrum, some leaders will be too quick to write disengaged employees off without really making an effort. 

With that in mind, here are some dos and don'ts for addressing disengagement to help you approach the situation in a positive, constructive way.

Don’t… assume you have a disengaged employee

At the outset, it’s important that you don’t automatically assume that an employee who is struggling in some way is disengaged. If their productivity is down, or they seem unhappy, or they’re absent more than usual, the root of the problem might not be what you expect. Maybe they’re going through something in their personal life, or have health issues you don’t know about. It may be the case that they’re just having a rough time of it right now, and the problem will resolve itself. Or they might need additional support from you that you aren’t giving them. 

As we addressed in a recent post, it’s also important not to misunderstand certain behaviours (such as raising problems or refusing to work additional hours) as disengagement. While these actions might point to deeper issues that can cause disengagement, the fact that the employee is proactively addressing them is often a good thing, and a sign that they are trying to make things work. 

In many cases, if an employee is simply telling you that everything is fine, it’s often a sign that they’ve given up trying to make things better, which should be a far bigger red flag for you. Assume the best of intentions, and don’t jump to conclusions. And as a first step…

Do… talk to your employee!

How often does a manager come to you with concerns about an employee and a number of theories for why they appear to be disengaged without actually talking to them first?

If this happens to you a lot, you’re not alone. Leaders can sometimes forget that they aren’t mind readers, and that their perception of an employee’s engagement levels can be clouded by their own biases.

Encourage your leaders to raise a dialogue with disengaged employees to try and understand what they think is causing the problem, and how they think it can be fixed. Taking this simple step in itself can go a long way towards re-engaging disengaged employees. By opening up a dialogue with them directly, you are giving them a say in how the issue is addressed, rather than imposing a solution on them. 

Don’t… put it all on them

This is a big one. When you’re trying to motivate disengaged employees, the last thing you want to do is make them feel you’re placing all of the responsibility on them.

Before trying to address the situation, you and their managers need to take a good look in the mirror and think about what you’ve done wrong that has led to this point, and what you can do better. 

Maybe it’s that you’ve been giving them too heavy a workload, or not showing your appreciation enough, or not putting enough effort into maintaining a positive work culture on a wider level. Whatever the situation, it’s rarely the case that it’s all on the employee.

Do… remember why you hired them in the first place

A big part of taking ownership of anything your company may have done to fuel the employee’s disengagement is to consider whether you’ve really been setting them up for success. Are you managing them in a way that will get the best out of them?

A helpful trick is to think back to when you hired them. Why did you think they were the right person for the job? What specific qualities did you hope they would bring to the role? And do you think their role is still positioned in a way that brings these qualities to the fore?

As companies' needs and circumstances shift over time, it can affect the roles of individual employees in ways that make it harder for them to do their best work. 

Maybe they’ve taken on tasks that weren’t part of their original remit, and don’t make the best use of their skills. Or their objectives have shifted, and they are struggling to meet expectations that are beyond what they signed up for. Or they’ve had changes in leadership above them, and their new manager’s style and processes just don’t mesh well with their own.

Remembering what you saw in this person in the first place can help you and their leaders to take a fresh look at their strengths and weaknesses and how they align with their job today. From there, you might be able to realign things in a way that will help rekindle their excitement and enthusiasm.

Do… challenge them

While disengagement can manifest itself in a lot of different ways, one of the most noticeable for leadership is when an employee’s performance isn’t up to scratch. 

If this is the case, it’s important to be direct with the employee and let them know things need to improve. This can be a tough conversation for many leaders, but avoiding it doesn’t help anyone.

In many instances, you might find that it actually helps to bring the underlying issues that may be affecting the employee’s performance to the surface, such as particular roadblocks they are struggling with, inefficiencies in processes, or even just simple misunderstandings of the expectations of their role.

Don’t… put them under too much pressure

A caveat to the last point is that, while it’s important to address underperformance, it’s also important not to go overboard. Making your employee feel like they’re under constant scrutiny won’t help them perform better, and the increased pressure will likely make them feel more disengaged.

It’s also crucial that you examine your company’s expectations, and that you can honestly say that they are reasonable. Too often, the goals and workloads companies give their employees are more reflective of what they need to achieve success than what can be realistically expected of their teams. And if an employee already has too much work, that’s likely one of the chief causes of their disengagement in the first place.

Do… give them purpose

You can’t motivate disengaged employees if they have nothing to motivate them in the first place. 

Employees tend to give their best at work when they feel like they’re striving for something more than just a salary, and that they’re playing a meaningful part in helping your company achieve its goals.

At Guusto, for instance, we have a dual purpose of creating great work cultures for our customers, and making a broader social impact through our partnership with the One Drop Foundation. Both of these missions really connect with a lot of our employees, and we find it motivates them to give a little extra at work.

The problem is that a lot of employees can become disconnected from the company’s larger goals, and not really understand how their role is important in the bigger picture. When this happens, they start to feel like their work doesn’t matter, and won’t be driven to go above and beyond.

Do… recognize them

We say it time and time again, but one of the chief causes of disengagement is a lack of appreciation. If employees don’t feel valued by their employers, if they feel like they’re good work isn’t being acknowledged and celebrated, they will become disillusioned over time. 

So if you’re wondering how to re-engage disengaged employees, this is one of the best places to start. Once you and your leaders make an effort to celebrate their performance, reward them for going above and beyond, and make them feel like they belong at your company, you’ll probably find they are happier, more motivated, and more willing to try and find a way forward. While it isn’t a cure-all for every problem you might have, it gives you a solid foundation to build on. 

Do… follow up

So, let’s say you have a disengaged employee, and you and their manager attempt to address the issue in whatever way you see fit – what happens next?

One of the biggest mistakes people leaders make when trying to re-engage disengaged employees is that they tend to assume they’ve fixed the problem, and don’t follow up. In reality, the employee still doesn’t feel things have gotten better, and is just becoming more frustrated. 

That’s why whatever the issue is, it’s crucial to check in regularly with the employee and their manager to make sure it is resolved in the weeks and months after it has been brought to your attention. Engagement is something you maintain, not something you ‘set and forget’.

Don’t… give up on them

This last point is a crucial one. When faced with an employee who is unhappy, unproductive, or struggling, management will simply write them off rather than trying to solve the problem.

Whether it’s because they’re trying to push them out the door or because they consider them a retention risk, companies will often strip disengaged team members of responsibilities and influence. 

This only serves to compound the problem. After all, how is somebody going to become more invested in their work if you make it feel meaningless? How can you expect their morale to improve if you rob them of any agency to influence positive change? And how can you expect an employee’s performance to improve if you take away their responsibilities?

It’s counter-productive, unfair on the employee, and a waste of resources. As long as an employee is still on your books, you owe it to them (and to your company’s bottom line) to try and find ways to help them contribute positively and become a productive, happy member of your team. If you don’t even try, things can only get worse.

Motivate disengaged employees with recognition

If you’re looking for ways to re-engage disengaged employees, check out our free guide, Culture is the Ultimate Advantage.

In it, we detail how we’ve used employee recognition with clients, and within our own company, to transform company culture and make employees more productive, motivated, and satisfied. Fill out the form below to get your copy:

Culture is the Ultimate Advantage

Set yourself apart using the power of company culture. Stand out to new applicants and motivate your team to do their best work.

Noah Warder

Written by Noah Warder

Noah is the Head of People at Guusto and loves sharing his insights, experience and knowledge when it comes to HR and People practices. He is always up for a conversation on how best to support employees to make safe and inclusive work cultures.

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