How to deal with employee disengagement

Employees who are are passionate, eager to learn, and full of energy every day are not just a joy to work with, and but they are real assets. I see them in every growing business.

how to improve employee engagement

Unfortunately, that kind of engaged employee is more and more rare. There are loads of studies showing us that we have an employee disengagement epidemic going on. If you asked me, I’d say there is a wide range of issues contributing to this problem:

  • The recession has left some employees feeling like they can’t change jobs.
  • Some companies have experienced so much change (in order to survive) that roles and accountabilities aren’t clear.
  • Doing “more with less” has left many managers with a lot of their own work to do, with less time left for coaching and training their team.

Software Advice recently spoke to with Ruth Ross, who suggests conducting “Stay Interviews” as a way to combat employee disengagement. This is not a performance conversation, but one in which you talk with your team members about how they feel about the company, the job, and their prospects here. During that conversation, Ross says, you should gauge their engagement level by listening to how readily they have answers, how their body language communicates their engagement, and other factors.

I can’t argue with the idea of asking your team members open ended questions. I would love it if each of you had significantly more of these types of conversations with your team members. You will certainly get a lot of information. But I’m not so sure that this practice alone will really improve your employee engagement level.

Why people leave

People don’t leave jobs, they leave bosses. I think Greg Savage puts it best:

“A ‘company’ is just a legal entity. A ‘business’ is a collection of desks and computers. No one resigns because of that.

It’s the decisions, the motivation, the atmosphere, the ethos, the support, the training, the vision, and the direction set by the leadership that they will follow.”

Having the kind of conversations that Ross suggests will make it less likely that you will be the kind of boss that people want to leave, but only if you do something with what you hear. It’s not the tone or body language of the team member you should be evaluating, it’s what all of that tells you about the environment you’ve created.

What creates employee engagement

Think about a team that you were on that had exceptional engagement. Really, right now, think back to a team you were part of where every member did their best and, gave their all. What was that like? What was the environment like that created that?

I’ve asked dozens of groups to do this exercise and everyone can think of a team like that. We’ve all had experiences of what it’s like to be on a terrific team. When I ask what made it that way I usually hear things like:

  • “The rules were clear, we all knew our roles.”
  • “We had a big challenge in front of us, the chips were down.”
  • “I respected and trusted the other team members — I wanted to give my best for them.”
  • “I couldn’t be the weakest link. I think we all felt that way.”

Identifying a big challenge, creating clear rules and roles, respect and trust. Those are all things that the leader is responsible for. The Stay Conversation that Ross is advocating might help you to see if you are being successful at doing that — but creating that kind of team, that kind of place where people want to give their all — is something you have to do.

If you have an employee engagement problem, you don’t need an employee engagement improvement plan. You need a leadership improvement plan.

Photo credit: Dwonderwall (Flickr)


  1. As the boss or the manager you have to set clear performance expectations for your employees, make sure they have what they need to do their jobs, and don’t forget to be generous in giving praise and recognition.

  2. While I think that the role of the “boss” is important I also think that the nature of the work force is changing radically. Job security is not defined by length of tenure with a firm (which it once was) but by less tangible (emotive) elements – like “satisfaction.” Satisfaction might be the challenge, it might commitment to a cause, it might be wanting to expereince something new – who knows. It’s great when you have the freedom to assemble teams on a project-speciic basis in which you can meld all of these things together. But usually you are faced with the need to address “second-best” resolutions to getting the task done as best you can and keeping the team focus and committed to that goal. All of your ideas are more short-run – task oriented managerial approaches. All are good but won’t necessarily result in a long term sustaunable work force.
    Personal loyalty is not as highly valued as it once was (by empoyers and employees) – and while recognition (monetary and otherwise) is clearly a motivator – most younger people view the path to suceesss as a jungle gym rather than a career ladder.
    While many bosses drive people away – a good many people leave for reasons over which the boss has little or no control – it’s not always a negative response but a movement to a “more fulfilling” position.
    Perhaps appreciating that fact – and making the experience mutually worthwhile is really the key to day’s employment picture.

    • Steve;

      You are right, this post is very short-term, task oriented. In other places I talk about creating a culture with clear values and connecting those values with your recruiting process. I just couldn’t cover it all in one post. Thanks for adding that perspective.

      I would challenge your second thought though, when people leave for a “more challenging position” the boss could have prevented that (if the employee was valuable) by engaging with the employee and helping them to learn, grow and expand their role. I wish more leaders engaged with employees on that level, taking their “side” and helping them to become more valuable, do better work, and make a bigger difference.

      • The term “prevent” is where we part company. Sounds rather paternalistic and control oriented. As I indicated “letting go” of control and putting the interests of the person ahead of the firm is something that younger staff appreciate. Maybe letting them experience the new swing in the next yard (as well as the environment in that yard) is something they need more than you building them a new swing in your own yard. Keeping the welcome mat out and demonstrating that level of interest it them as people rather than cogs in your machine (an exaggeration for effect) – pays off. Those who leave may come back with fresh perspectives and experiences to share (or recruit others on your behalf to take their place) – and those who stay see that openness and selflessness (if genuine) that make them appreciate the boss and opportunities they have. So by all means let them grow but also recognize the need to “let go” as well.

        • Steve;

          I’m not sure we are parting ways here. It may be more language and tone. I agree that we want to stay on the employee’s side of the table. If what’s in their best interest is to leave, they should do that. No one is irreplaceable. If a team member still has room to grow and contribute, and their values are aligned with the company values, I don’t know why they wouldn’t stay. I want to encourage the kind of conversations that let that happen rather than pretending that nothing is ever going to change and everyone is happy.

          I appreciate your pushes — we are much more on the same page than it came off, but in making my point I didn’t watch my language closely enough. Glad that you were, and that you helped me to clarify further.

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