How to Get Disengaged Employees Back on Track

The stereotypical image of a disengaged employee is easy enough to conjure: a lackluster performer who does the bare minimum, takes no pride in his or her work, and doesn’t seem to have any ambition for future growth or progress. But, as is the case with all stereotypes, the reality is far more nuanced and complex. With research suggesting that disengagement can affect a whopping nine out of 10 employees, it’s clear that even top-tier employees can go through periods of feeling unmotivated and disenchanted with their work situation. This disengagement can manifest itself in a variety of ways: perhaps a previously punctual employee starts showing up late for meetings, or a usually conscientious employee begins turning in assignments with errors, or a once inventive employee hasn’t come up with any new ideas in a while.

In order to avoid unnecessary turnover, it’s vitally important that HR leaders pay attention to these warning signs that an employee is checking out, and take proactive steps to re-engage them and re-ignite their passion for their work. Some of the most effective tactics to try include the following:


Reach out and listen.


The first and most important part of solving the problem of employee disengagement is to have an honest and respectful conversation with the employee to find out what’s going on. Perhaps there’s a particular stressor in the workplace that you can help him or her deal with? Does the employee have an idea of what he or she needs in order to feel inspired but hasn’t known how to ask for it? Is a problem in the employee’s personal life taking a toll on his or her work? Start by asking these questions, and make sure you’re truly listening to the answers.


Let them know someone is watching.

One surprising thing that can cause employees to withdraw and disengage from their work is the sense that they’ve been left entirely to their own devices. While it’s true that no one likes a manager constantly hovering over their shoulder, it’s also true that no one likes to feel that nothing they do, good or bad, is ever noticed. Having a word with the employee’s direct manager or supervisor can help ascertain whether lines of communication and performance feedback between manager and employee are as open and dynamic as they should be, or whether the manager needs a reminder to take a more active interest in the employee’s work and progress.


Show your appreciation.

Of course, the best way to show employees that someone is watching them is to recognize the hard work and effort that they put in. Showing appreciation for a job well done is something that people neglect to do far too frequently—often because employers mistakenly believe that the only way to show appreciation is through financial rewards. However, this simply isn’t true. Showing appreciation can take on many forms, from publicly recognizing an employee’s contributions at a company meeting to awarding extra paid time off to a personal thank-you from the CEO.


Deliver new opportunities.


If an employee’s performance is going downhill due to a lack of engagement, you might be tempted to give that person fewer responsibilities, but in fact, you should be doing just the opposite. Boredom is one of the main ways that employee disengagement manifests itself, and employees become bored when they don’t have enough challenging and stimulating work to do. To help employees get out of their ruts, break up their day-to-day routines and give them an entirely new task, project, or even role based on skills you know they have but don’t often have the opportunity to use.


Set goals together.

A helpful way to refocus the attention of employees who have been drifting is to set goals together. Hold a collaborative brainstorming session to come up with a unique way in which they could contribute to a current or future project and then seal the deal by setting a firm deadline. By going through this process together, you’ll give employees something tangible to work towards, and because you’ve asked for their input, you’ll gain additional buy-in from them, and they will feel more invested in the results.


Let them in on the big picture.

Similar to the disengagement that arises from the feeling that no one is watching, employees can also become unmotivated when they feel like nothing more than cogs in a bigger machine, with little sense of the higher purpose of their work. As an HR leader, you can help give employees a better idea of the company’s strategy and more insight into the decisions that are being made at the board and executive levels. Understanding the broader goals regarding where the company is heading can help employees re-engage, particularly if they have the opportunity to give input on those goals during staff or strategy meetings.