Disengaged employees are often maligned as a blight on organisations. They are something to be moved along as soon as possible (if it is that easy!). There are even some articles openly referring to the disengaged employee as a ‘bad employee’. But is this fair to the disengaged employees in your workforce?
Is it fair to state that disengaged employees are not committed to either their own or their organisation’s growth and success? After all, while engagement and commitment are linked, they are still separate concepts. It might also be time to define disengagement and underperformance as two separate concepts.
There is no doubt that disengaged employees are linked with both underperformance and lower commitment. However, it is also possible that the negative connotations of such definitions are distracting us from the truth that will ultimately be of much greater benefit to our organisations than simply identifying and getting rid of disengaged employees.
The old saying is true here – it is detrimental to paint all disengaged employees with the same brush.
So, do disengaged employees care?
Some will care about the quality of the work they produce, while others will care about their own image in the organisation. Some employees will care about their own career and the impact their current predicament is having on it. Some will care about their team or certain members of that team. Some employees simply care about being respected and/or valued for the work they do, even though they may not hold any lofty ambitions for achievement or promotion. They just want to do their job and for that to be noticed now and then.
So, to simply say that disengaged employees ‘don’t care’ is inaccurate and causing many to miss the solution. Many disengaged employees do care. They actually care quite a lot in some cases.
This ‘care’, though, hasn’t been enough to keep these employees from becoming disengaged. That should be the main focus for organisations – employees who care about themselves and their work who still manage to become disengaged. Organisations need to focus on what has happened to create this situation, rather than belatedly trying to ‘fix’ the disengaged employees. It is possible that many of these employees have learned to be disengaged as a result of their experiences to date in their organisation and/or team.
Learning from Disengaged Employees
Our experiences tell us that a significant proportion of disengaged employees have an ‘ask’ that the employer is not meeting. This ‘ask’ is normally a fundamental requirement the employee will have of any workplace.
This has shown up consistently in our work. Disengaged participants are more likely to make a request for something they need work to provide. Many business owners and HR managers fear what employees might ask for, afraid that it will be costly and difficult to provide. They shouldn’t be afraid, though.
The ‘ask’ by disengaged employees is usually a clear sign that they care and want to do a good job. Caring is actually what may disengage some as they feel they are not cared for in the workplace. These employees just need the right conditions. Often, they can be empowered to seek the answer to their own ‘ask’ with support from the organisation if needed.
The etimes2 philosophy on employee engagement is that if an employee doesn’t care at some level, then they will be neither disengaged nor engaged. If they don’t care, then they are not emotionally invested in their job and so are less likely to experience the emotional outcome that is engagement/disengagement. These employees show up on the etimes2 dashboards as ‘sometimes engaged’, a category usually heavily populated by soon to be leavers (specifically referring to the experience and results of etimes2 clients).
On another occasion, 7% of a client’s workforce made a clear ask through the etimes2 software. This was unprompted and the employees making up this group were geographically dispersed, so it wasn’t discussed between them. They were all ‘disengaged’ and clearly showing they cared.
They asked for a career with their employer based on development through challenging and interesting work/projects. Their responses also clarified that they did not want development through training programmes. This was a ‘win-win’ situation bringing huge benefits to the organisation. All because they empowered people to reveal their ‘ask’.
The Moral of this Story
The key learning from all this is that we should not generalise when it comes to employee engagement. It is a personal experience based on what an employee needs from a job and whether she feels she is getting it.
Disengaged employees often do care. They are different from those who can be described as either ‘highly disengaged’ or ‘neither engaged nor disengaged’.
Empower your employees to reveal, and proactively seek the answer to, their ‘ask’. Then, watch a significant portion of your disengaged employees go.
Originally published in People Development Magazine