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Signs of Low Employee Engagement

February 17, 2021

Mark Smedley

in BLOG

Do you know the warning signs of low employee engagement? Get tips on recognizing the signs and learn how to counteract low employee engagement.


A lot of leaders go into panic mode when they start seeing the signs of low employee engagement. What do we do to get people excited again? Is the problem the work or the environment? Do we have time to fix things before good employees begin to quit?

Right now, this is starting to happen everywhere. The increasing pace of change within companies creates uncertainty. Are your employees still on board with the company's strategy? Furthermore, do they see their role in it? Are they energized by the day-to-day activities of their jobs? Infrequently collecting engagement scores isn't enough to tell. You have to look deeper and more often. 

In an increasingly virtual world, leaders miss out on some of the easier to catch signs of a disengaged worker. Absent a Zoom glitch, we’re unlikely to catch an employee expressing frustration in an overheard conversation. On top of that, it’s harder to read body language and interpret nonverbal cues in a virtual meeting.

As we’ve transitioned from the concept of work-life balance to work-life integration, it can also be tricky for leaders to differentiate a disengaged employee from an employee experiencing burnout or distraction as they try to attend to the nonwork aspects of their life. Did my previously vocal employee become quiet in meetings because she’s disengaged? Or, does she simply stay on mute because she’s trying to minimize background noise?

The stakes of ignoring the signs of low employee engagement are staggering. Gallup estimates that about 13% of employees are actively disengaged in their roles, while a mere 36% are engaged. And the remaining 51%? They’re simply not engaged, meaning they don’t feel attached to their work or company.

Ouch. How much do you think that’s costing you per person? Now expand that out across your entire workforce. While you’re doing some big calculations, let’s talk about what to do about it.


Warning Signs of Decreased Employee Engagement

What are signs of low employee engagement? On their own, none of these are sure signs of disengagement. However, the more of these signs of low employee engagement that are present, the more likely an employee is no longer engaged.

1. Their job performance will suffer.

One of the first signs of a disengaged employee is a change in job performance. And this can show itself in a variety of ways. You may see someone who typically has very high work standards begin to miss deadlines or make careless mistakes. Your most productive worker may fall to the middle of the pack.

If you bring up job performance to a disengaged employee, they will be less receptive to feedback. Worse, they may show little motivation to get better. They will often rationalize their poor performance (for example, by attributing it to factors outside of their control).

2. They will be the most resistant to change.

Whether it’s getting behind a new company initiative or following a new process, disengaged employees are slowest to adapt. They will glamorize the status quo or past ways of working. They will also frequently and loudly voice opposition to change. Their tendency will be to focus on the disruptive parts of the change while ignoring potential benefits.

The reasons for this are twofold. First, an engaged worker tends to be more committed to and energized by the company and its vision. Second, as we all know, change takes effort. Disengaged employees often lack the motivation and energy to push through challenges associated with change.

3. They avoid activities that show an investment in the company.

An engaged employee is willing to contribute beyond the minimum tasks required by their job. They will often volunteer for activities that contribute to the team or corporate culture. They are the ones to sign up for a task force or volunteer to train a new employee. Engaged employees do these things because they are committed to the company, and they see the value of helping improve the workplace.

One of the signs of low employee engagement is withdrawing from these kinds of activities and focusing on doing just enough to get by. This can also be an indication that an employee has one foot out the door. After all, why would someone volunteer to help the team or company if they don’t plan to stay?

4. They approach problems differently.

One characteristic shared by both a highly engaged and actively disengaged employee is that they’re willing to discuss problems in the work environment. The signs of low employee engagement can be found in how they do this.

Engaged employees present problems seeking solutions. They may have their own ideas for a fix, or they may be looking to others with decision-making authority to improve the situation. In fact, having an environment where there is psychological safety to speak up and share concerns is one that will foster higher engagement levels.

Disengaged employees, on the other hand, will focus on the problem itself, without any aim toward solutions. Their focus will be on venting and commiserating. And colleagues who propose ideas for solving problems will often be met with dismissiveness or criticism.


How Low Employee Engagement Can Affect Other Team Members and the Business

As you’re finishing up your calculations on how much each disengaged employee costs you, it’s time to multiply that figure. Because the impact of low employee engagement goes far beyond one person. It spreads throughout the company culture, affecting overall employee morale.

Here are some signs to look for that employee disengagement is spreading: 

1. Meetings typically turn into complaining sessions.

There’s always a place for a productive discussion about workplace challenges. However, when every meeting includes employees openly discussing their grievances (often with a pile-on effect), it’s a sign that disengagement is spreading. 

Engaged employees will describe leaving these meetings feeling deflated and exhausted, and with low morale. Why? It can be difficult for them to see the workplace through the negative lens of disengaged employees.

2. An “us versus them” mentality.

Because a disengaged, unhappy employee is more disconnected from their team and the company, they will typically view problems through their own lens. Thus, they fail to see others’ perspectives.

This often leads to an “us versus them” mentality, where whoever represents the other side (e.g., senior leadership, their direct team leader, another department or group) is typically the villain or scapegoat. This mentality can become a shared narrative among work groups as employee disengagement spreads.

3. A disruptive imbalance of workloads.

Disengaged employees are less likely to apply discretionary effort to their work. This can place an unfair burden on higher performers to pick up the slack. And this affects the morale of engaged employees, as it leads to employee burnout and calls into question fairness and equity in the distribution of work.

4. Changes in turnover.

Ultimately, if employee disengagement spreads unchecked, employee turnover will start to increase. Engaged employees may begin to feel the lack of passion in their more disengaged colleagues. This creates a toxic culture and environment that will often be described as uninspired or lacking innovation.

Disengaged employees, who lack a strong attachment to the company, can easily be persuaded to leave by things that highly engaged employees may not be persuaded by. These include things like a better title or a small pay increase.


Bottom-Line Impacts of Poor Employee Engagement

Employee engagement ultimately impacts a company’s bottom line. According to research by Gallup, there’s a significant relationship between employee engagement and key measures of organizational success. Teams that are highly engaged see a 10% increase in customer ratings and perform 20% better in achieving sales results. Additionally, the behaviors of highly engaged teams result in 21% greater profitability.

When looked at in aggregate, the impact of low employee engagement is enormous. One study estimates that disengaged employees cost companies around half a trillion dollars per year! These sobering statistics send a clear message.

Employee engagement isn’t just “an HR thing” that we do a survey about every couple of years. If not actively attended to, low employee engagement limits a company’s ability to reach its potential, execute its strategy, and achieve results.

So, with the stakes being this high, it’s important to consider the sources of employee disengagement.


What Disengaged Employees Are Missing

Many of the factors that have the biggest impact on employee engagement can be found in a company’s leadership practices. So, many of the biggest drivers of employee engagement link to leadership competencies. Consider some of the typical issues that disengaged employees face:

1. They don’t feel empowered to make decisions that affect their jobs.

When employees feel micro-managed and discouraged from thinking about ways to make their jobs better, it’s hard to feel passionate and fully invested in work. When this is the case, leaders often lack skills in competencies like Delegation and Driving Innovation.

2. They don’t see opportunities to grow and develop.

Engaged employees contribute at higher levels because they can see how their hard work pays off. This can be in the form of advancement opportunities. Or, simply it can be the intrinsic reward of growing within their role and refining their craft.

Disengaged, unhappy employees often feel stuck in their roles, unable to see a clear career path. They experience stagnation and feel like they aren’t learning new skills. At an organizational level, it’s important to address employee engagement challenges by establishing clear career paths and developing career mobility strategies. Individual leaders can focus on developing competencies like Coaching and Building Talent.

3. They experience exclusion in the workplace.

When employees experience exclusionary practices, employee engagement suffers. Sometimes, it can be subtle. The team member who is always talked over in meetings. The person whose ideas are rarely given consideration. The new employee who always gets told things like, “that’s the way we’ve always done it.”

More overt forms of exclusion cut even deeper into employee satisfaction and engagement. An employee who feels like they were passed over for a promotion because of their gender, age, or other characteristic will have a hard time feeling enthusiastic about their contributions to the company. Employees who don’t think their leader or team values what makes them unique will feel unable to bring their full selves to work. And, as a result, they’re more likely to be less engaged.

If this environment exists in a work group or company, it’s critical that leaders improve in the competency Creating an Inclusive Environment.

4. They don’t find personal meaning and fulfillment in their work.

Disengaged employees are missing a sense that their work makes a difference. In some cases, they don’t understand how what they do contributes to the bigger picture of the company. In others, they may no longer feel a connection to the mission or vision of the company. Either way, it’s important that leaders sharpen their skills in competencies like Inspiring Others and Energizing the Organization.


How to Counteract Low Employee Engagement

With the knowledge of what disengaged employees are missing, it’s important to develop strategies to counteract low employee morale and signs of low employee engagement. One common and dangerous pitfall is to only monitor and address employee engagement in alignment with your employee engagement survey.

We’d never dream of only assessing the company’s financial performance every 18 months. So much changes within the business, its customers, and the market in that time. The same discipline should be applied to employee engagement.

This is not to suggest that you conduct employee engagement surveys more frequently. In fact, too much focus on measurement or an engagement score can detract from the real work: improving employee engagement. By adopting a continuous approach to assessing and addressing the signs of low employee engagement, the engagement survey becomes an answer to the question “how have we done?” instead of “how are we doing?”

Who should be involved in improving employee engagement? HR having primary responsibility for employee engagement can be a warning sign that leaders aren’t taking a proactive enough role. To be clear, there is an important part for HR to play in providing supporting architecture and strategy.

For example, HR needs to manage the employee engagement survey process and analyze the data to identify company-wide trends and action plans. Additionally, HR and the talent development function play a key role to ensure leaders have the skills to engage employees as described above.

While HR’s role is essential, employee engagement is most directly influenced by individual leaders. They must have a continuous focus on the engagement of their teams and be able to spot the signs of low employee engagement early.


Leaders Drive Employee Engagement

In our leadership course Engaging and Retaining Talent, we teach leaders a set of skills they can use to foster an environment of high engagement. This includes things like practicing everyday skills that promote engagement. For example, leaders learn how to support virtual team members, solicit ideas and feedback, and show sincere appreciation.

Additionally, we provide leaders with a framework for having employee engagement and retention discussions. This is a critical and overlooked leadership practice. Many leaders miss the mark when they say things like, “you’d tell me if you’re not happy, right?”

A rich engagement conversation will go much deeper than that. It will draw out what the employee finds satisfying. It will also draw out what would make them happier and increase productivity, and whether we’re hitting the mark with employee recognition and growth opportunities.

Spotting the signs of low employee engagement and being able to proactively address disengagement are must-have skills for leaders at all levels. Helping leaders understand this responsibility and giving them tools to succeed should be fundamental to every company’s talent strategy.

By focusing on lead measures—the everyday behaviors that indicate engagement—we become less tied to the employee engagement survey cycle. And we also improve our ability to engage talent in an increasingly dynamic and unpredictable world.

Want to learn more about how to drive team engagement? Explore a sample engagement program.

Mark Smedley is a client relationship manager for DDI. He works with healthcare organizations to design and implement their leadership strategies.

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