5 Things We Can Learn From Disengaged Employees

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In a recent article on our blog, I suggested that many disengaged employees do care about their work, careers, and how they are seen professionally by other people.  This suggestion is based on our work with client organisations.  Disengaged employees, when given the opportunity, are more likely to communicate what they need to be engaged.

It appears that many are keen to have their say and, when they do, it is generally a very useful insight to what is driving their disengagement.  They tell us that they care and want to do a good job.  And, they tell us what is stopping them.

What do disengaged employees want?

For example, we recently uncovered a big win for a SME client.  A significant portion of their workforce (8%), all reporting as disengaged, used the opportunity presented to communicate their ‘ask’ in order to be re-engaged.  They wanted a career with their employer where they could see development and opportunity to advance through interesting and challenging work.  They wanted additional projects to develop and make the normal working day more meaningful and enjoyable.

This is just one example.  It shows that not all disengaged employees are ‘beyond repair’.  Such examples show that many employees may be disengaged as a result of caring about their job and/or their career.  The group of employees in the example above all care.  They want something from their jobs and careers that the employer wasn’t aware of and, obviously, wasn’t providing as a result.

So, what do employers need to learn?

The key issue for organisations is to understand this element of care among some disengaged employees and learn some important lessons.  The first part of this lesson is to understand that all disengaged employees are definitely not the same.  They should not all be ‘painted with the same brush’. 

So, there are several key learning points:

  1. Being emotionally charged does not always equal being negative

Many disengaged employees are emotionally charged because they care about what they feel they aren’t getting in return for their time, attendance, effort, skills, experience and intellect at work.  Salary only serves to keep employees turning up at work, but isn’t enough to keep people engaged.  These emotions mean that disengaged employees will usually respond to surveys and answer questions if they feel that they are listened to and anonymity is assured. 

  1. Each individual employee has her own ‘ask’ from work

Each individual employee has his/her own specific requirements from work in addition to the salary and benefits package on offer.  We all know this as the ‘what is in it for me’ scenario.  This is a personal blend of requirements that mix elements of development, growth, career enhancement, relationships, trust, respect, authority, autonomy, interesting work, contribution, value and so on.  This list can go on and is a hugely personal experience.

  1. Employee ‘asks’ are usually about the ‘little things’

There is often a fear that encouraging and empowering employees to reveal their ‘ask’ will be expensive and difficult. 

It rarely turns out that way, though.  Most employees know what they want from their work in order to be engaged.  It is usually about small things such as interesting work, development on the job, better relationships and better communication.  The ‘asks’ reflect how they want to feel and be treated at work.  These can usually be worked on and delivered with little time and expense by the organisation (see 5 below)

  1. Disengaged employees offer significant opportunities

When you look at your disengaged employees, can you remember why your organisation employed them in the first place?  That’s right, because they demonstrated their talent, skills, and potential during the selection process.  Do they no longer possess this talent, skills and potential? 

They do still possess all of these skills.  The problem is that they may not be giving it to their employer, i.e. you. 

Small positive steps in employee engagement bring big rewards.  There is no need to chase the big grand gesture and hope for a massive uplift in engagement.  The small steps count more, cost less and earn more on the bottom-line.  To illustrate this, in the example above, our client was able to immediately target savings of over £70,000 in absenteeism and downtime alone.  This was before factoring in savings in quality, accuracy, and customer retention.

  1. A ‘one size fits all’ engagement strategy will under-achieve

When each employee has his/her own ‘ask’ from work, it is very difficult for a broad employee engagement strategy to meet all these requirements.  The big wins can be achieved through enabling employees to reveal their ‘ask’.  These are the small things that matter most.  These are the things that affect how people feel as individual employees at work.  How they feel drives how engaged they will be.

Obviously, it appears difficult to meet the ‘ask’ of all employees.  Remember, for most employees it is about the little things.  They can be empowered to take some control over how they feel.  The opportunities they seek can also be made available once you are aware of them. 

Disengaged employees offer a massive and extremely valuable learning opportunity for organisations that won’t be picked up by a simple employee engagement survey.  You just need to dig a little deeper.

What are you doing to learn from the disengaged employees in your organisation?

About etimes2

etimes2 ltd, Together We Work Better

Nigel McPolin is an Organisational Psychologist, Employee Engagement Specialist and the Founder & CEO of etimes2 ltd. 

etimes2 ltd is an Organisational Psychology consultancy and host of the Amazing Workplaces programme, where our psychologists work closely with our clients, utilising both their expertise and our software to discover the key engagement and performance drivers specific to their business.  Our psychologists help the client explore and understand all aspects of their workforce including engagement, empowerment, motivation, and performance.  etimes2 empowers our clients to build Amazing Workplaces.

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