How to Reengage Disengaged Employees (Even When it Seems Impossible)

By Rex Miller | December 23, 2019

Did you know that Gallup estimates that actively disengaged employees cost US employers between $485 and $605 billion annually?

While that number is shocking, that probably isn’t the most important cost to you.

Disengaged employees aren’t hard to spot, and the cost is personal.

They suck the energy out of us. They shoot down our best ideas. They poke holes in the boat while the rest of the team rows as fast as they can towards success. They spend half the day on social media complaining, and are often leaned back in meetings with their arms crossed.

And yet – they were hired for a reason. They could be a valuable asset. And starting all over with a new hire is expensive.

The question is: Can a disengaged employee reengage?


But before we jump into strategy, let’s explore the problem.

What is employee engagement?

Jamie Notter, author of The Non-Obvious Guide to Employee Engagement, writes, “Employee engagement is the level of emotional commitment and connection employees have to an organization, which is driven by how successful they are at work, both personally and organizationally.”

While many consultants link employee engagement to employee happiness, Notter disagrees. He says, “By making it about an emotional connection, you just made employee engagement something that I, as a leader or manager, can do absolutely nothing to improve.” Notter’s solution is to stop focusing on happiness and start focusing on giving employees a path to success.

That path to success is not a one-size-fits-all job description.

The authors of a Harvard Business Review article, Why People Really Quit Their Jobs, advise: “If you want to keep your people — especially your stars — … pay more attention to how you design their work. Most companies design jobs and then slot people into them. Our best managers sometimes do the opposite: When they find talented people, they’re open to creating jobs around them.”

The article cites experiences at Facebook, where research showed that people didn’t “quit managers” but rather that “they left when their job wasn’t enjoyable, their strengths weren’t being used, and they weren’t growing in their careers.”

Employee engagement (and the problem of disengaged employees) is more about how well the work fits the employee rather than how well the employee fits the work.

Disengaged employees present as CAVE Dwellers

In my practice consulting with leaders, we use a phrase that tends to draw an uncomfortable laugh. We refer to toxic employees as CAVE dwellers — an acronym for Consistently Against Virtually Everything.

You know exactly who these people are. When they call, you think twice before answering. If they’re in your path to the coffee pot, you take an alternate route. When you have to interact with them, you have already planned two or three exit strategies.

As incredible as this statistic may seem, nearly 2 out of every 10 employees are CAVE dwellers — and they are draining the life out of every workplace!

How many employees are disengaged?

Gallup began reporting on US Employee Engagement in 2000. The annual percentage of engaged U.S. workers has ranged from a low of 26% in 2000 and 2005 to as high as 34% in 2018.

In our practice, we’ve found that of the remaining 70% of employees:

  • 50% do a good job if you tell them what to do and how to do it — and then follow up and make sure they did it. We call these people “The Managed.” They make managers become babysitters, rather than coaches.
  • 20% are actively working against you. According to Gallup, you are better off paying them to stay home. (Consider placing yellow hazard tape around their cubicle; a toxic employee affects everyone within a 25-foot radius.)

Why do employees become disengaged?

Disengaged employees are not born—they are made. People often begin new jobs filled with hope and dreaming of the possibilities. But hidden barriers to success can spark the long slide into disengagement.

Disengagement doesn’t happen overnight. It follows 7 stages:

1.     The role is the wrong fit.

Sometimes people wind up misaligned with their job. This isn’t about education or experience, but whether the employee is in a position that leverages their strengths. If the role requires strengths with which the employee isn’t equipped, they are already set up to fail. Yet the types of strengths required to be good at our jobs are frequently not the things reflected in our education or by a resumé.

For example, an employee whose number one strength is “Focus” will find themselves feeling drained in a role where goals are unclear, or the target is constantly changing.  Another wired for “Responsibility” will become frustrated if their role requires them to make commitments, but then they are not equipped to follow through on them.

It doesn’t matter whether a job description is for engineering, sales, or food preparation —the context of their daily work needs to align with an employee’s core strengths.

2.     The wrong fit causes work to be frustrating.

A mismatch between an employee’s strengths and the way the job is framed easily builds frustration. For example, an employee whose strength is “Focus,” when forced to deal with shifting goals, begins to experience a continual frustration from feeling they don’t know what they are doing. Without metrics to hit, their frustration builds daily; it’s death by 1,000 cuts. Likewise, an employee with a “Responsibility” strength who isn’t given any authority will be frustrated by giving their word, but then having to go back on it.

3.     Frustration becomes draining.

Experiencing daily low-level frustration zaps an employee’s energy levels, causing motivation to wane in the face of a continual sense of failure. With no clear path to success, it becomes easier to do the bare minimum, rather than participating as part of a broader team. Doing more would require more energy than they have.

This is the point at which others on the team start to notice a change in engagement. Production slows and there is less interaction—external symptoms which reveal what the employee has been experiencing for a while.

4.     Draining work leads to stress.

The stress of continual low-level frustration takes a physical toll over time. This can present in many ways, including: sleep disruption, raised blood pressure, digestion issues, etc. – and the physical impact accelerates the downward spiral towards disengagement.

Employee absences increase and they may begin complaining about the physical office space. “It’s too cold…” “Too bright…” ”My desk is in the wrong place…” Etc.

“We’ve seen correlations between stress and low engagement,” reports Stephen Shields, Senior Consultant for Gallup. “Four out of 12 engagement questions treat strengths directly or indirectly.”

5.     Stress converts to disengagement.

At the point where stress results in physical disruption, disengagement becomes complete. The employee stops caring. There is too much going on for them emotionally and physically to be concerned about what happens in their job.

The disengagement is obvious to their team members, and likely to people outside of the team. There is no enthusiasm for any part of the job, and relationships are in decline. At this point, you have a fully disengaged employee, and it’s about to get worse.

6.     Disengagement turns into anger.

Resentment toward the job begins to build. What was initially frustration and stress now becomes anger. The job serves as a focal point for everything that is making the employee unhappy.

This anger may boil or simmer, but the hostility is palpable.

7.     Anger becomes toxic.

Anger becomes toxic when the employee starts actively working against the company. They will try to recruit others to their point of view and begin actively doing things to hurt the workplace.

Here’s the thing: the employee may not realize that they are an active saboteur and they are likely unaware at how they are affecting the team, but to those around them, it is undeniable.

Can a disengaged employee reengage?

One of my first strengths-based consulting engagements was with the FAA. The consulting practice used Clifton StrengthsFinder to assess 34 talents. While Clifton StrengthsFinder isn’t the only assessment system, it is the best at measuring the type of talents that go unnoticed. It has a specific vocabulary to highlight the gifts individuals bring to any group they are part of.

In the Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment, the “Deliberative” strength shows up in about 10% of the population. People with this strength are vigilant, careful, and often private. The beauty of the Deliberative strength is that it draws risks into the open and anticipates what might go wrong, even in situations where — on the surface — everything seems okay. People with the Deliberative strength tend to plan ahead, be fairly serious, and approach life with a certain reserve.

At this particular group in the FAA, the Deliberative strength showed up in 66% of employees. (You can imagine why the FAA would hire for this strength.) 45% of employees also had the “Analytical” strength. If you’ve ever worked with someone whose first response to everything was, “Prove it,” you were likely working with someone who had the Analytical strength. This strength is wired to see patterns and connections and insists that theories be sound.

Bob sat through our four-day meeting with his arms crossed and a “prove it” vibe. When we broke for lunch and I was finally able to speak with Bob directly, he showed all the signs of a toxic employee. Not only was he disengaged, he hated his job.

In addition to being Deliberative and Analytical, Bob had the “Futuristic” strength—which enabled him to see visions of what could be. But his job was supervising young employees. Bob had none of the strengths needed to deal with attitude, babysitting, or politics. Every day, he went to work and felt like he was failing. Worse, his leading strengths weren’t being used at all.

After our training, Bob had a conversation with his boss. The CliftonStrengths framework gave Bob and his supervisor a useful vocabulary for their conversation. The mismatch and reasons for Bob’s struggle were clear.

Bob was transferred to Research and Development — and his whole life changed. Not only did he reengage, but when I met Bob again 90 days later, he was lit from the inside. His motivation was contagious. He was no longer a disengaged employee, but fully there with all of his talents.

How do you reengage disengaged employees?

Bob Chapman (author of Everybody Matters) writes, “Rare are the leaders of organizations who will tell you that their people don’t matter. However, there is a big difference between understanding the value of the people inside an organization and actually making decisions that consider their needs.”

There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to reversing a disengaged employee’s level of engagement. People are individual, so it requires a lot of investment from leaders and management to find the mismatch between an employee’s strengths and their job description.

Here are four questions to ask when dealing with a disengaged employee:

1. Does this employee have an opportunity to do what they do best every day by tapping into their talents?

It isn’t enough to understand the needs of the role the employee is in. Leaders also need an understanding of an employee’s individual strengths. While my team leverages Clifton StrengthsFinder, there are many others. EnneagramMyers-Briggs, and DISC assessments give feedback on an employee’s core wiring and reveal what resumes don’t show.

In my practice, when we adapt the job description to an employee’s strengths (or give them tools to understand how they can leverage their strengths in their job), I’ve seen a 90% success rate. Preparing someone to be in their role with their talents involves coaching them on how they can approach the tasks in a way that is authentic to them, rather than asking them to conform to a specific job description.

2. Is the disengaged employee clear on the expectations for the job?

Sometimes the barriers to employee success have nothing to do with strengths and alignment and everything to do with clarity.

“Clarity is the pathway to solid results,” shares Victor Lipman in an article for Forbes. Patrick Lencioni, in his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, says it slightly differently: “The enemy of accountability is ambiguity.”

Without clarity, there is no way to measure success. And while goals and objectives may be clear to leaders and management, it is difficult to overcommunicate those expectations to the rest of the team. You will tire of the message long before it has completely permeated to the people with whom you are sharing it.

3. Does the disengaged employee’s superior seem to care about them as a person?

The human factor in the workplace is critical to engagement. Too often we see the workplace as a zone in which people must leave parts of themselves aside. Everyone must wear an employee “mask” —pretending to agree, to understand, to be on top of it, and to be having a good day—for eight hours or more. (No wonder the workplace can feel stressful and create disengagement.)

Rachel Druckenmiller, as quoted in The Healthy Workplace Nudge, says, “Most of us have a deep fear that who we are and what we have to offer is not enough, that we won’t measure up. That fear can drive and propel us to work hard and to strive, but the pressure to be ‘on’ and productive can be relentless and exhausting. Proving ourselves at work often means sacrificing some other area of our lives, especially our relationships, and our health and well-being.”

When leaders and managers bring their authentic selves to work and care about their employees, they create a space where it is safe to engage. Conversely, when employees have to arrive at work each day wearing emotional body armor, engagement isn’t even a consideration on the playing field. Humanizing the workplace — creating an atmosphere that is real, approachable, interested, and grateful — is key to supporting healthy engagement.

4. Do their opinions seem to count? Do they have a voice in their work?

Shawn Achor (in his book, The Happiness Advantage) writes, “The fastest way to disengage an employee is to tell him his work is meaningful only because of the paycheck.”

Money is only one factor in employee engagement, and it isn’t the most important one (as reported by Daniel Pink in his bestselling book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About what Motivates Us.)  A certain amount of autonomy is required for employees to remain engaged in their work.

“Most people are generally reasonable and can rally around an idea that wasn’t their own as long as they know they’ve had a chance to weigh in,” Patrick Lencioni writes in The Advantage. “If people don’t weigh in, they can’t buy in.”

It takes committed action to reengage disengaged employees, but it isn’t impossible.

If you are tired of wasting time hoping that things will change, and want advice tailored to your specific context, our team specializes in the work of reengagement. We’d love to help.

You can schedule a free call to talk about how to eliminate the stress of working with CAVE dwellers and increase engagement.

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