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Disengagement – What Is It, What Causes It, and What Can You Do About It?

Updated on January 9, 2018
tamarawilhite profile image

Tamara Wilhite is a technical writer, an industrial engineer, a mother of two, and a published sci-fi and horror author.

What is Disengagement in the Workplace?

Disengagement occurs when employees are no longer emotionally invested in their job, their job performance or the workplace.

Disengagement may exist from the start of someone’s career. New hires who are treated like disposable employees and with the assumption that they aren’t worth developing will never engage in the first place.

Disengagement may occur when someone is hired for the job because they have to have a job to move out of the house or take a position that they consider “beneath” them simply to make ends meet. Someone no longer sees the job as an avocation but JOB to pay the bills has disengaged.

How Do You Know You are Disengaged?

For the employee, the emotional signs are obvious. You have to pull yourself out of bed to go to work. When at work, you think of everything else to be done and everywhere else you need to be. When you are doing your work, you put significant effort into planning the minimum to be done or shortcuts to just get it done.

For the employer, disengagement isn’t as easy to diagnose. Disengagement in the workplace might be a symptom of depression, demands from their personal life, fatigue from overwork or illness and a number of other causes. Disengagement is likely if someone is engaging in passive-aggressive behaviors with their manager or coworkers. Disengagement is fairly certain if the person is actively job hunting. Disengagement is the most likely explanation if an employee’s performance has dropped off.

When star performers are treated as if they are part of the crowd, they may become disengaged.
When star performers are treated as if they are part of the crowd, they may become disengaged. | Source

What Happens When You Reduce Disengagement?

Disengagement comes from many sources. Disengagement may be due to personal reasons or professional reasons.

An employer can't do much about an employee's disengagement due to a death in the family or divorce, which drains their energy for anything except getting through the low point. Human resources can try to offer supportive policies like paid leave, grief counseling and other programs. Managers at all levels can remain personally connected to their employees, giving people the flexibility at work or emotional support when personal disaster strikes.

For example, a manager who sends flowers in response to the loss of an employee’s relative may or may not keep the person engaged, but insensitive demands to not take too much time off after the funeral will cause disengagement upon the person’s return. A person coping with a sudden breakup of the family has had his or her personal life thrown into turmoil.

A manager who doesn’t bother to ask why the person needs to suddenly leave in an afternoon to pick up a child from school or attend a legal briefing guarantees that the employee will be disengaged when at work, though it may not affect hours on the job. People suffering from disengagement may in fact resort to overtime to offset decreased productivity to get the work done or shift their true work hours to avoid having to work with people they do not like.

Companies can tackle causes of disengagement caused by workplace practices and policies. For example, a push to meet a deadline where the team puts in 120% effort that results in little recognition and reward results in de-motivation. Management that sets the 120% performance as the new baseline, expecting the sudden sprint to be a sustainable marathon, will spawn disengagement. Likewise, failure to address bully bosses who yell at people or demean them, expecting employees to act like military personnel, leads to disengagement. They will do just enough to get by or react only to avoid the pain and humiliation, but they will never give more than the minimum otherwise. Responding to the $50,000 cost saving idea with a $50 gift card or inventing a new product with a certificate of achievement can kill the desire of top employees to stay engaged.

Disengagement can hit small businesses as well as large firms. Small businesses where employees realize they have no hope of advancement unless they marry into the family can see disengagement rise.

A company will see disengagement if they try to solve disengagement by sending people to day long pep talks instead of addressing root causes of employee dissatisfaction.

Companies that improve engagement of their employees will see higher productivity, more innovation, better morale, and improved communications between levels of employees and departments and greater retention.

Disengagement can be treated at the very start by ensuring that new hires at all skill levels are treated well, fully trained in company policies and given information they need. You do not need formal one on one mentoring, but anyone who feels they haven’t been given the information or resources to succeed or seem set up to fail will be disengaged if they don’t outright quit.

Be careful of demanding passionate involvement of interviewees. They are actively seeking a position, or else they wouldn’t be in the interview. However, many interviewees are interviewing at many different companies with a low chance of being hired by each. Hire those who are competent to fill the position, have a pleasant personality and personality type that fits the job and fit with the corporate culture. Hiring the people who seem the most passionate may mean that you are hiring the youngest, the most desperate in the hiring pool or the best actors.

Engagement is best developed through rapid assimilation into the company culture, full in-depth training for the position, new hires never treated as if they are a burden on their coworkers and people who are a good fit with the position and culture. However, you will get disengagement if an unqualified candidate slows down the team and the manager punishes the group for poor performance, if the new hire doesn’t get the help to get up and going with the position, if someone is hired who is a poor fit with the team or position.

What Damage Does Disengagement Do to the Company?

Disengagement causes decreased productivity because the disengaged do just enough to get by and get paid. Disengagement results in increased error rates because they don't care about getting it absolutely right the first time. You will see mediocre customer service because it is doing the bare minimum; no one wants to bother to go the extra mile.

Disengagement on a personal scale increases the odds that the employee will leave the company. High levels of disengagement among employees lead to high turnover as well as hurt the quality of new hires because the overall mood in the company drives away candidates who pick up the negative vibe.


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