Employee Engagement Employee Retention

6 signs of employee disengagement you’re missing – and 5 you're getting wrong

Employees don’t just suddenly become disengaged.

People leaders spend a lot of time and effort trying to prevent disengagement. Yet, a recent survey still shows as much as 68 percent of employees are not actively engaged in their work. 

So what are we missing here? Well, in a lot of cases, the problem is that leaders and managers just don’t see disengagement happen soon enough. While some employees can become disengaged due to specific events, disengaging from work is something that happens gradually over time for most people, and is caused by a combination of various factors.

Another issue which isn’t often highlighted is that a lot of leaders don’t fully understand what disengagement actually is. This can lead to them misinterpreting their employees’ actions and behaviours, not seeing problems soon enough, or even identifying the wrong employees as ‘disengaged’. 

In a recent post, we looked at what causes employee disengagement, and how to stop it before it happens. 

This time around, we’re going to take a deeper look at the early warning signs that individual disengaged employees might exhibit. We’ll also look at some things that leaders sometimes misinterpret as disengagement that actually point to different issues altogether.

What is a disengaged employee?

You might think the answer to the above question is obvious, but if you ask 100 different people leaders, you’ll get 100 different answers.

Some will focus on what we typically call ‘active disengagement’, where an employee is visibly unhappy or outwardly undermining the work of their team. But others will probably think of less obviously disengaged employees, who are just going through the motions and doing the bare minimum with very little investment in their work.

Their examples of disengaged employee behaviours might be very different, too. Some people might focus more on outputs, like productivity and the quality of work, while others might take more notice of emotional expressions, like employees who seem quiet, complain a lot, or just seem generally upset. Others might consider absenteeism, a lack of participation in company events, or other behaviours.

In truth, all of these things can be signs of employee disengagement, while in some cases they might not be. Disengagement is a broad umbrella term that can be used to describe employees in a number of different situations. Some are productive, and some aren’t. Some seem unhappy, while others are quite cheerful. The only thing they have in common is that, for whatever reason, they feel unfulfilled or uninvested in their work. 

6 early warning signs of a disengaged employee 

Because disengagement can mean so many different things, the signs can vary a lot depending on the specific circumstances. In all cases, you and your managers should keep an open mind, and ask questions to get to the root of the problem. 

Above all, though, it’s crucial to tackle disengagement early. By the time you start seeing more obvious signs of employee disengagement like attitude problems, chronic absenteeism, or timekeeping issues, your employee may already be actively disengaged, and rescuing the situation becomes a whole lot more difficult.

It’s much better if you can spot disengagement as soon as it starts, and address the situation before it becomes a situation. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the earlier warning signs of disengagement, and what you can do as a people leader when you notice these issues.

1. A lack of initiative

Engaged employees are usually eager to excel in their roles and exceed expectations, and this will show in how they approach their work. Are they spotting and fixing problems? Are they suggesting new initiatives or approaches? Are they eager to tackle new projects?

If an employee is becoming more reactive than proactive, it could be a sign that they’re feeling unfulfilled.

What you can do about it 

The first thing to do if you or a manager feels an employee isn’t showing enough initiative is to check in with yourselves – have you actually made it clear what you expect from them? Are you giving them the freedom to take ownership of their work? If the employee is being managed too prescriptively, they’re naturally going to approach their role in a reactive way.

If you feel that you have given the employee space to show their own initiative, talk to them and make it clear that you expect more. The challenge might be just what they need.

2. No desire to grow

One of the key pillars of our culture here at Guusto is Opportunity. We’re firm believers that employees need to be able to grow within a company to truly be engaged. This doesn’t just mean promotions and raises, but the chance to develop new skills, take on new challenges, and take control of their career path. 

But what happens if they don’t seem to want that? A lack of desire to grow can be a sign of a disengaged employee. If they are happy at your company, they should want to progress professionally. 

What you can do about it 

Again, this is something that’s best addressed directly with the employee. Encourage their manager to talk to them about their growth, and try to map out a path for their development.

As they do, they might be able to get some feedback from the employee as to why they don’t seem enthusiastic about growing in the organization. 

It might turn out the employee doesn’t feel the paths to growth at the company are open to them, or just not suited to them. For example, if the only opportunities to be promoted at the company are managerial roles, some employees who prefer to remain as individual contributors might not feel like they have a long-term future there. 

Alternatively, the problems might be more practical. Maybe the employee doesn’t feel they’re getting enough time to take courses, or doesn’t have the budget to take the course they want. Or it could be an issue of self-confidence, stress, or other mental blocks that are keeping them from wanting to try and develop themselves.

Listening to them with an open mind will help you get to the heart of the issue, and could even help improve your organization’s overall approach to employee development.

Keep in mind, too, that while engaged employees should have a desire for growth, that doesn’t mean their growth has to be non-stop. A superstar employee who has been promoted three times in three years might start to feel out of their depth, and want the chance to consolidate their skills and catch their breath before challenging themselves further. 

It might also just not be a good time for them personally. A new parent, for instance, might not be in a rush to move up to management right after their baby is born. While it’s important to offer employees as many opportunities as you can, not taking all of them doesn’t necessarily mean they are disengaged.

3. Not taking responsibility

One thing that many disengaged employees will often do is frequently try to pass work onto others in their team. 

For example, they might direct customer queries to a colleague even if they are well capable of taking care of them, or refuse to take point on a project even if it should be their responsibility.

This lack of ownership can be a very harmful form of disengagement, as it impacts the employees around them negatively in addition to their own output. 

What you can do about it 

While feeling like an employee isn’t taking responsibility for their work can be very frustrating for their managers and colleagues, it’s important to keep a cool head when addressing it with them. 

Give them every chance to explain themselves, and listen without rushing to judgement. It’s possible they’ve simply misunderstood what their responsibilities are, or what you expect from them. Or they could be passing on responsibilities because they’re feeling overwhelmed by their workload. Or they might have a personal issue that’s impacting their work.

Be clear that you want to see higher standards from them, but be ready to offer support if they need it, too. 

4. Problems with co-workers

When an employee starts to become unhappy with their work, it will often show in their interactions with others. They might become more negative when discussing new ideas or projects in meetings, or be less receptive to input when collaborating with team mates, or get frustrated with their colleagues more easily.

What you can do about it 

This can be a tricky one for leaders to navigate, because it’s not always clear who the problem is. 

An employee might be more negative in meetings because they’re not being given enough input into decisions. They might have trouble collaborating with a colleague because that person is difficult to work with, rather than the other way around. Or they might have good reason to be frustrated with their colleagues if they are not getting the support they need. 

It’s important to approach the situation with an unbiased view, and not be afraid to have difficult conversations with everyone involved. Once you fully understand the issues, you’ll be better equipped to try and resolve them.

5. Quality of work

When an employee is becoming disengaged, it might start to show in their work. They might rush tasks, or make more mistakes, or just start doing the bare minimum.

Keep in mind, though, that poor performance in a role doesn’t always equal disengagement. An employee’s work might start to suffer because they’ve taken on too much, or they could be struggling with confidence, or another issue that you don’t know about.

It’s also important to remember that not all disengaged employees produce poor quality work. Some, particularly those who are highly capable or experienced, will be able to go on ‘autopilot’ and maintain standards even if they’re unhappy or checked out. In many cases, the fact that someone is no longer challenged by their work might be a sign of employee disengagement itself. 

What you can do about it  

Regardless of how engaged they are, you should always be working to create a culture where your employees are given regular, candid feedback about their work, and are fully aware of what standards are expected of them. 

If a manager mentions issues with an employee’s performance to you, talk to them about their feedback processes. Is the employee aware that their work is not meeting expectations? 

Sometimes, with the best of intentions, managers can shy away from negative feedback, and fail to address performance issues soon enough. How often the employee is being given feedback is important, too. If what’s expected of them isn’t being reinforced on a regular basis, work can start to slip.

Ultimately, as with a lot of these issues, the key to resolving it is usually to talk to the employee and address the problem head on, without placing the blame squarely on them without hearing their side of the story. Once you start an open dialogue with them about their performance, you’ll learn soon enough what they need to get back on track.

6. Silence

While all of these signs of employee disengagement are possible to miss, the one that leaders miss most is silence. 

Some employees are naturally quieter than others, and that’s fine. But if an employee isn’t finding a way to share feedback, contribute ideas, and highlight problems, then something might be wrong. If a team member doesn’t really have a voice at your company, it’s not possible for them to be fully engaged.

It’s especially important to watch out for this if an employee had previously raised problems with management. If a few months go by and those problems haven’t been resolved, it’s a major red flag if that employee is suddenly telling you that everything is fine. 

Some leaders make the mistake of thinking that this means the employee realized they were wrong to raise concerns. In reality, they’ve likely just resigned themselves to the fact that they’re not being listened to, and are just going through the motions while they look for something better. Or worse still, they might feel trapped in their current role with no way to improve things.

What you can do about it 

You might have noticed that the solution for most of these problems involves talking to employees. But if an employee is not willing to be open with you or their managers, you have a much bigger problem. It means that the trust between you has been broken, and building it back up can be difficult. 

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. If the employee has previously raised issues with you or their managers, try and follow up more directly about them. If you haven’t been able to solve the problems, reiterate why that is the case, and try to make sure the employee fully understands your organization’s point of view. Encourage them to speak openly about their feelings, and try to suggest alternative solutions that might work for both sides. 

If the employee hasn’t raised anything in the past, it might simply be a matter of encouraging them to voice their input more often. They might just need a bit of coaxing to come out of their shell.

5 supposed ‘disengaged employee behaviours’ leaders get wrong

In addition to talking about behaviours that could point to disengagement, it’s worth talking about what not to look for.

These are things that employees might do that leaders will often misinterpret as signs of employee disengagement, whether because they have outdated mindsets, are expecting too much, or are simply misunderstanding the situation. 

While in some cases they might be, it’s often the case that employees who take these actions are perfectly engaged, and may even be acting in what they feel is the best interest of the organization.

Here are a few examples.

1. Raising issues with management

This is probably the most common thing that leaders can misinterpret. When an employee comes to management and voices their dissatisfaction about something, a lot of leaders will jump the gun and be quick to label them as someone who is disengaged, or even a high retention risk. 

Often though, this isn’t the case. Provided they are doing so in a respectful, constructive way, an employee who takes the initiative to raise problems and address them with management is usually highly engaged in their work. If they care enough to try and solve the problem, they’re obviously invested. Disengaged employees usually will not take this step.

In fact, employees who aren’t afraid to do this are actually huge assets to a company, and it’s incredibly important that leaders see them as such and are receptive to their feedback. Too often, a lot of managers will simply write employees who try to raise issues off. It can even give rise to a ‘quiet firing’ situation, where they start to reduce the employee’s responsibilities and influence because they assume they intend to leave the company.

2. Unwillingness to work extra hours

As millennials and Gen Z come to the fore in the workforce, attitudes towards work-life balance are starting to change. While these employees are still willing to go above and beyond in their jobs, they’re not necessarily willing to work until midnight every night, and value their personal time and right to disconnect far more than previous generations. 

Setting clear boundaries is not a sign of employee disengagement, but many leaders will still misinterpret it as such, especially if the employee was previously more willing to work extra hours. 

While it is possible that being made to work too much is causing an employee to become disengaged, trying to scale back isn’t a sign of them ‘checking out’. It’s usually a constructive attempt to address the problem, and create a more manageable schedule so they can continue to do their job well.  

3. Saying no to additional work

As with extra hours, some leaders believe that refusing to take on additional work can be a sign of a disengaged employee. The logic is that an engaged employee will be enthusiastic about tackling any challenge that comes their way. 

But again, while this might point to an issue which is causing disengagement, it’s not fair to conclude that the person must be disengaged. An employee who is saying no to additional work may simply be trying to proactively address a workload that has become unmanageable. 

What’s more, if they’re being spread too thin, they may feel like the quality or timeliness of their work is suffering, which isn’t good for anyone. By saying no to additional tasks, they’re actually doing what’s best for the company, not just themselves.

4. Taking time off

As ridiculous as it might sound, there are some leaders who actually think that people using vacation or personal days is a sign of employee disengagement. This can be especially common when employees take a number of days off over the course of a short period, as some managers will suspect they are interviewing for other jobs.

But while absenteeism can point to disengagement, this is a dangerous line of thinking. What if an employee has a child and has been picking up bugs from school or daycare? Or has a medical issue that’s been causing them trouble? Or just happened to have a number of personal commitments they wanted to take time for? 

If the time off they’re taking is within what’s allowed as per your company’s policy, then there’s no need to assume it points to a problem. And whatever the truth of the situation, making your employee feel like they’re being unfairly judged for taking time off is a surefire way to disengage them.

Of course, if the employee’s use of PTO is excessive, you should address it with them. But it’s important as an HR leader to encourage your managers to assume the best of intentions in these cases. Talk to the employee and try to understand what’s causing their absenteeism. You might find that it’s a personal issue that has nothing to do with disengagement, in which case bringing the problem out into the open can help you offer them the support they need.

5. Disposition 

Finally, leaders will often put a lot of stock in their perception of an employee’s attitude and demeanor when it comes to engagement. 

While this is understandable, it’s often worth remembering that this is an extremely subjective way to judge engagement, and reminding your leadership that they aren’t body language experts or mind readers.

If leaders place too much emphasis on this, it usually leads to unfair biases towards employees who might just be more talkative than others, or have better social skills, or just have generally sunnier dispositions. 

Even if a previously outgoing and enthusiastic person seems quieter, or more jaded, or less agreeable, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are less engaged. If they've been working with you for a while, it might be a sign that they simply feel they can be more open about how they are really feeling, rather than trying to put on a brave face all the time. This is something that should be encouraged, rather than judged.

The dangers of leaders perceiving these things as signs of employee disengagement is that doing so can actually cause employees to become disengaged. If employees raise issues, or say no to extra work, or just don’t smile enough, and they can see that people are judging them negatively for it, they will start to lose faith in your company and its culture. 

If leaders bring any of these things to your attention and suspect that a team member is becoming disengaged, the first thing you should do is encourage them to check their own biases and preconceptions about what being engaged really means. 

If they still want to address the employee’s behaviour, remind them of the need to be open-minded, not rush to judgement, and assume the best intentions when dealing with their employees. 

Create a culture of highly engaged employees

If you want a culture where employees are highly engaged, check out Culture is the Ultimate Advantage, our free guide to turning your people into your company’s greatest strength, and driving performance, innovation, and results.

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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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