Spotting when things aren’t right: The 4 signs of a disengaged employee
Updated 26th February 2022
For progressive managers, the ideal work state is one where your employees take pride in their jobs. Employees should feel connected to their colleagues, and invested in the goals of the company. In other words, a progressive manager’s aim should be to engage their staff as much as possible. But a lack of engagement can often result in apathy that affects communication. This makes the issue of how to spot a disengaged employee a tricky one. But don't panic, because it’s something you can easily overcome by taking the right steps.
Why employee engagement matters
Let’s start by clarifying that employee engagement isn’t a magic bullet for every workplace. Yes, it’s usually a good indicator of overall wellbeing. But research from Gallup has found that engagement and wellbeing diverged for the first time during the pandemic. On top of that, engaged staff will hold you to a higher standard. They're much more likely to notice mistakes or inconsistencies in your management style.
But, if you can handle that, then the rewards are definitely worth it. Highly engaged employees have been shown to be up to 2.5x more financially productive than disengaged employees. They’re also more likely to buy into new tools and policies, which gives them their best odds of success. Engagement is also vital if you want your people go the extra mile to provide discretionary effort and creative insight.
Why disengagement is bad
For starters, disengaged staff are less productive. But that’s far from the only issue that can stem from a lack of engagement. The insidious truth about poor engagement is that it can be really hard to spot in a lot of cases.
Sure, your most actively disengaged employees might kick up a fuss. At least in the time before they leave the company altogether. But a moderate lack of engagement makes people more likely to just suffer in silence.
Long-standing engagement issues can make employees cynical. They may not see any value in bothering to communicate their issues. This means you have to be proactive and emotionally intelligent to pick up on it.
Total disengagement is much easier to spot. But at that point, there’s a very good chance they won’t be around much longer. Disengagement massively increases the risk of employee turnover. Staff become more vulnerable to being headhunted by a competitor, or leaving that business sector entirely. Turnover costs an average of £30,000 per lost employee. According to ONS figures for last year, turnover cost UK businesses a total of almost £5.5 billion in 2021.
But enough trying to scare you. Let’s look at some tips for how to spot a disengaged employee!
The four signs of poor employee engagement
It’s really important for managers to be able to pick up on spiraling engagement before it gets out of hand. This is why timely feedback and discussion matter. The longer you leave it, the harder it becomes to snap your employee out of that mindset. Our four tips for how to spot a disengaged employee include:
1: A lack of initiative
One of the clearest signs of a disengaged staff member is a lack of initiative. Some employees never seem to have their own ideas. Or they always wait for your say-so instead of making a decision. In those situations, you have to consider the possibility that they just don’t care. Personal autonomy is a strong indicator of high engagement, and if staff aren’t seizing it, that’s a bad sign.
2: They fade into the background in meetings
Provided you don’t overdo them, group meetings are very useful. They get your team on the same page, and let you all use each other as sounding boards. But disengaged employees don’t have the motivation to get heavily involved. They may only answer direct questions, and fail to show signs of active listening, like asking their own constructive questions.
3: They’re socially withdrawn
When it comes to how to spot a disengaged employee, social withdrawal isn’t necessarily a concrete indicator. For instance, you might have introverted team members, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t engaged in their work.
But, taken with everything else, social withdrawal can also signal that the employee lacks interest in their colleagues. People don't need to be extroverted to be a valuable team member. But a total lack of social engagement can make even the most skilled employee difficult to work with.
4: They’re often absent
Absenteeism is arguably the biggest sign for how to spot a disengaged employee. After all, failing to attend work can quickly become a sackable offense. Absenteeism might signal a total lack of interest in the role. But be aware that a lack of engagement can also stem from more serious reasons. It's often the result of poor physical health, mental wellbeing, or issues with work/life balance.
How to improve engagement for your team
Okay, so we’ve gone over how to spot a disengaged employee. Now, let’s look at some ways you can shore up engagement in your organisation:
Support employee wellbeing
The old notion that employees should leave their personal issues at the door is outdated. Employee wellbeing is one of the biggest priorities for managers in 2021. It’s unreasonable to expect employees struggling with physical or mental health problems to be fully engaged in their professional lives. It's just a shame it's taken a pandemic for some employers to realise that.
Provide development opportunities
People don’t all share the same ambitions, and not everyone’s gunning for the CEO position. But, even so, most people find the idea of a dead-end job off-putting. To ensure long-term engagement, you need to provide room for your employees to grow, learn new skills and challenge themselves.
Make employees feel valued
Disengagement often stems from a lack of appreciation. When nobody notices the effort we put in, our motivation to do it can really take a tumble. Recognition from a manager or other senior figure can really make a difference here, even more-so than financial incentives. And giving employees the means to recognise each other’s accomplishments can take some of the pressure off managers while helping to build social bonds between co-workers.
So, those are our tips for how to spot disengaged employees, and how to improve engagement in your workplace. Ultimately, the keys to an engaging workplace culture are consistent communication, honest feedback, and treating your employees like human beings.