culture employee engagement

Leading Somewhat Disengaged Employees

This month we’re discussing the four types of employees that exist in (almost) every organization. Our data shows that managers who recognize the traits of the four types of employees and work to understand their impact on their teams ultimately reduce disengagement and further their business goals.

Last week we discussed the Actively Disengaged employee. This employee creates a toxic environment that puts a drain on the rest of the team. This week we’re highlighting one of the largest percentage groups in a company: The Somewhat Disengaged.

The Somewhat Disengaged

How many Somewhat Disengaged employees do I probably have in my organization?

When we measure employee engagement in organizations, the results look like a bell curve and we divide the bell into four categories. The poorest overall performers are what we call the actively disengaged. The next category of performance is what we call the somewhat disengaged, and this grouping of employees are important for two key reasons. 

First, they represent the largest single category for companies in their first survey year, and the sheer volume of employees in this segment justifies a strategic focus on how to move them up the performance chain. The somewhat disengaged employees typically comprise 35 to 50 percent of employees, although we’ve seen it as high as 80 percent.

Second, when we look at the data for this category we see that most of them are within 20 basis points from becoming engaged employees — the foundation of every high performance workplace culture. This band of employees, essentially on the doorstep of becoming fully engaged, could be considered engaged players, and leaders at all levels in the organization should focus on ways to nudge them over the line. We see these somewhat disengaged workers as having the intrinsic nature of engaged players, but they have been pushed back as a result of workplace conditions ranging from underdeveloped or toxic managers, dysfunctional teams, a moribund culture, or a complete dearth of validation and recognition for meritorious behavior.

What does a Somewhat Disengaged team member look like?

In their heart, they’d like to do the right thing – they would like to be an engaged player – but something pernicious has likely happened to them inside the organization. For example, they may have worked under a manager who was punitive and disrespectful or a leader who doesn’t hold people accountable on the team. Many in this category would otherwise be an engaged player, but since they’re surrounded by other somewhat disengaged and actively disengaged players, for example, they ask themselves “why should I do more than what my manager expects from everyone else?”

Somewhat disengaged players are capable of giving more discretionary effort, but they’re in an environment where they’ve essentially given up and they’re usually not terribly happy about it. They’re doing the bare minimum in order to get by because they seem to feel that’s all the organization deserves. 

We love to lean in to this somewhat disengaged category because when managers start to make shifts in their leadership style, these somewhat disengaged players tend to flock into the engaged category. It’s where we see most of our shifts in engagement. They’re easier to move because they’re not hardened. They haven’t fully checked out and most of them have a native disposition of wanting to enjoy their work and who they work with. In fact, on any given day of the week they might be behaving just like an engaged player. They could be an engagedplayer one or two days a week, but overall throughout the week they’re under performing, and they’re certainly not performing at anything close to their capability.

We refer to the somewhat disengaged players as the low hanging fruit in any organization. They’re the ones you want to reach as they will most likely be the largest source of your year over year growth, certainly in your earlier years of measuring.

What are some key ways I can nurture the Somewhat Disengaged players on my team?

Start by doing some serious self-reflection: Are you a predictable and consistent leader? Are the rules and norms enforced across the team in a consistent and predictable way? Are you connecting with them? Do you have a relationship with them? 

One of the engagement drivers in our survey is “I feel valued for more than the work I produce.”  This is an important question because it reflects whether an employee feels like they matter as a person, not just a worker. How can you get a high score on this question, and thus, higher engagement? You have to be relational. “Tell me about your weekend!” “How are you this morning?” Ask them: “What do you need from me today? What are you struggling with this week and how can I help?” The manager can play the role of a ‘servant leader’ by providing more personal attention, asking what thwarts their ability to perform at their highest capacity, and inviting suggestions. Essentially, look for ways to create quality interaction and strong relationships.

In addition to showing a personal interest, include validation in your regular communication practices. Validation should happen every single day. Then add in recognition; every week leaders at every level should be looking for something employees have accomplished that is an example of discretionary effort. It may be something small, but the more you recognize employees – especially these somewhat disengaged employees – for the small things they are excelling at, the more you are going to see pro-engagement behaviors pour out of them.

Is there ever a point when you should give up on a Somewhat Disengaged player?

You’re always going to have some somewhat disengaged players on your team. We haven’t seen any organizations that have eliminated this category altogether. Our data shows the somewhat disengaged group most likely represents the work ethic of the overall working population.

Some people may be operating at their full capacity as a somewhat disengaged employee and managers need to acknowledge that that’s okay in some instances. Let’s not set them up for failure by expecting them to be an actively engaged player. Let’s find out where the somewhat disengaged level of performance is acceptable to start and figure out how we continue to build engagement from that starting point.

Key Takeaways

  • The somewhat disengaged employee is important because this employee makes up the largest category of employees at a given company.
  • Somewhat disengaged employees are often on the brink of becoming engaged employees, if they receive quality leadership and a positive work environment.
  • Toxic work conditions, inattentive managers, and lack of safe and secure connections prevent the somewhat disengaged employee from becoming an engaged employee.
  • Focusing attention on the somewhat disengaged employees will pay dividends because in their hearts they want to be better performers.
  • Nurture the somewhat disengaged employees through high-quality interactions. Build relationships. Ask these employees about their weekend, their children, their hobbies. Show you care about them personally.
  • Be sure to validate the effort of a somewhat disengaged employee and notice even small accomplishments.
  • Managers should acknowledge that some somewhat disengaged employees are working at their capacity – and that’s might need to be okay.

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