The Three Stages of Employee Disengagement
By Rodney Hood
"There is only one thing worse than investing in employees only to lose them, and that is to lose them and they stay on payroll."
Employees disengage because the position is not a quality fit or they gave up for any number of reasons. Whether an employee separates the organization or they are a disengaged employee who remains with the company it is a costly proposition. The relationship between disengaged employees and business outcomes are significant.
Throughout the article, I refer to employee in the context of frontline representatives and leadership as supervisors or above. However, a disengaged employee can be at any level of the organizational structure. Employees disengage from their work responsibilities and the organizational mission for many reasons and when they do, it can have a cascading affect throughout the company.
The ultimate goal of managing employee engagement is to give employees the support, resource, tools they need and motivation that they require so that they have no reason to disengage and plenty of reasons to stay excited about their job. A leaders primary responsibility is to inspire employees to become the best version of themselves and give 100% to the mission and business goals. Leaders at all levels need to understand that their employees are their internal customers and it is vital that they care for them as they would the external customers. Our challenge is to be on top of the performance metrics and the morale and behavior of our employees for signs of disengagement.
If we do not identify an employee before they disengage completely, they may leave the company, which cost the organizations thousands of dollars to replace them. Even worse, they quit and stay on the payroll, which can be even more costly. This is where the real expense and damage to a company occurs. They disengage from the mission, putting out the least possible amount of effort to retain their job for as long as they can make it last. Unfortunately, it requires a lot of effort managing this problem and the time to follow proper procedure and HR policy before separating them can seem like an eternity.
The cost can be significant in lost productivity and wasted resources trying to manage this high maintenance situation. Their disruptive behavior and dissent can create morale problems with other employees around them and move through the office like a virus. Significant damage can result from the negative behavior as well as potential lost business or even lost customers.
Some Key Findings: 2011 BlessingWhite Research Published Dec 2010 / Jan 2011
- The ratio of engaged employees to disengaged employees is 2-1
- More employees are looking for new opportunities outside their organization today than 2008.
- Employees view opportunities to apply their talents, career development and training as top drivers of job satisfaction.
- Trust in executives appears to have more than twice the impact on engagement levels than trust in immediate managers does.
- Managers are not necessarily doing the things that matter most. The actions most correlated with high engagement are not always the ones that receive the most favorable ratings.
- Executives appear to struggle with key leadership behaviors, especially what is required to create a high-performance culture.
- Engagement surveys without visible follow-up action may actually decrease engagement levels, suggesting that organizations think twice before flipping the switch on measurement without 100% commitment for action planning based on the results.
Reference: Employee Engagement Report 2011 Blessing White Research Published Dec 2010 / Jan 2011
What are the Signs of Employee Disengagement and How do we Manage it?
What are the signs?
Employee disengagement is like a disease that gets worse when gone untreated. Disengagement like the worse possible disease starts out small can grow without you even knowing it until it is too late and can be highly contagious to those around them. Therefore, we can look at it in three stages, our first strategy is prevention by doing those right things that prevent it from happening and like in a medical diagnosis, the goal is to catch it at the earliest possible stage and cure it.
Stage I: Changes in performance
Measurable performance is usually the real tell-all or initial symptom that a problem may be developing. A performance management process will provide the information on performance trends that will allow you to spot or validate potential issues with either an employee or a problem within your leadership. When performance falls off and the employee had demonstrated that they could perform at an acceptable or above standard level then something is changing. It is leadership's responsibility to watch for negative trends and catch these at the earliest possible stage. The sooner that you discover their performance falling off the odds of fixing it are the best. I have seen supervisors that made little effort to help an employee perform to their fullest ability because they themselves have disengaged or they have a personal indifference with that particular employee and they want them to fail. This is where senior management needs to stay in touch with the metrics and know when to intercede. Challenge the frontline leaders to explain why this is happening; ask them to provide an assessment of what is going on and what they are doing to help the employee improve. This is where having a formal performance management program in place with required documentation of trends and action plans is beneficial. Make sure that the managers and supervisors understand that their measure of success is gauged on how all of their employees perform. Encourage them to spend equally time and effort with all their employees not just the easy ones or those they enjoy working with.
Stage II: Changes in Behavior or Attitude
A shift in demeanor may precede a drop in performance but usually it will follow and is a red flag before they completely disengage. Again, they may still be giving a fair effort so performance has not completely slipped but they are disgruntled in some way. Usually it is obvious; they simply do not seem content, they may be easily agitated or impatient and withdrawn from the team environment. We all have bad days however; a change in the employee's overall demeanor that occurs frequently is a distinct symptom of disengagement. The signs may be subtle, exceptional performing employees that develop an issue of some type may never falter in performance because they are simply that good and their demeanor may not noticeably change because they are internalizing their frustration. Nevertheless, they are not happy and the employee is going to move on if there concerns are not resolved soon.
At this stage, usually the employee's feelings are no longer underground and you want to make every effort to win them back. If there is a problem between the supervisor and the employee this is the time where a more experienced leader needs to intercede. Usually the next level up manager can make a difference by getting the employee to voice their opinion and disclose those pinch points that are bothering them. When it comes to developing a performance improvement plan a manager needs to take part in developing it. There should be a clearly documented commitment of what the employee and management will do to get the employee back on track.
Stage III: Complete Employee Disengagement "Game on"
This is a point where the signs may be difficult to read in some cases the employees have given up and are simply biding their time so they may not be showing the obvious signs of dissatisfaction. The point from stage I to stage III may have happened so quickly that we missed the warning sign and missed our opportunity. This is why leaders need to be vigilant to both the performance trends and the pulse of the culture and morale of individuals.
A vindictive employee who believes they were unfairly treated may actually be relieved knowing that they are eventually leaving the company and no longer committed to their responsibilities or the company mission. They may even feel a bit of satisfaction with the prospect of getting back at the leadership or company for their perceived injustice and now in their mind it is GAME ON. When this happens, part of their strategy could be to create the perception that they are content, remember now it becomes a game or challenge to inflict payback and fool the leadership. Many times a disengaged employee's attitude changes in a positive mode, keep in mind they are now working less and they perceive that as inflicting payback to their supervisor or the organization.
Do not give up on the employee at this point; you might still be able to retrieve them from this downward spiral with the right combination of effort and technique. Sometimes an employee must reach this point before they see the destructive path they are taking and may very well be willing and even anxious to get back on track. That said also bear in mind that no matter how badly we would like to save the employee and get them to reengage, like in poker you need to know when to hold them and when to fold them.
How To Minimize Employee Disengagement
The ideal approach to employee engagement is taking the steps necessary to minimize it from happening and then proactively managing it. Although we cannot eradicate Employee Disengagement completely from the organization, there are things we can do to minimize it and manage it. Our goal is obviously to match the right people to the job when hiring and although this is an important component it is not a silver bullet, people disengage regardless of the job match. Our strategy is to know what the important key employee engagement factors are and make them part of your Employee Engagement management strategy. I will list a few key considerations; this is not a comprehensive approach rather the essence of what is required to keep employees motivated and engaged in their job and the company mission.
Developing Management Tools:
Deploy a well-designed performance management system with metric tracking, established performance standards to help you monitor for the symptoms of employee disengagement. You need a way to know who is performing at the top of their game and where there may be problems or training needs. Knowing what to look for and properly interpreting the data can indicate a leadership issue as well as an individual employee problem. The focus in performance management is to identify problems at the earliest possible stage, assess it, design a strategy for approaching the problem and work with the employee as a partner to resolve the issue. When coaching the employees it is a combination of agreeing on the problem at hand, determining who will commit to doing what. A significant component of the coaching is motivation, inspiring change not demanding it, they must want to do it for themselves as well as for you, therefore you have to earn their trust and gain their respect. Also coach the coaches, make sure that your leadership group are professionals and that they treat their internal customers with proper respect and that their goal should be to help the employees reach their goals. The biggest culprit to employee dissatisfaction is poor coaching, if a leader does not know how to deliver effective motivational feedback they can frustrate the employees and cause them to give up. They need to focus on the positive and collaborate with the employees to strive for the next level of performance and do it in an encouraging manner, adult-to-adult ego state; do not speak to them from a position of authority.
Establishing A Communication Strategy:
Establish good two-way communications, be a generous listener and clear proactive communicator, providing frequent one on one interaction with the employees. Every time you leave your office no matter how tense or frustrated you may feel inside put your game face on and smile at everyone that you come into contact with. Give them the sincere greeting that you value them, and that should not be an act, because everyone contributes value to the mission. People can easily misinterpret an intense facial expression, you may be working on a challenging problem but an employee does not know that and it can lower their opinion of the leadership. Check in with them to make sure that they have what they need to do their job and soliciting feedback on how we can support them better and what does the leadership do right and where can we improve. Ask questions and listen, when you begin listening twice as much as speaking you know that you are becoming a better communicator. Asking the employee's opinion is in itself an act of respect for them. It demonstrates that their opinion matters and that you care about them. Most important thank them for the feedback and tell them what you will do and whatever you tell them you are going to do you better follow through. The rule of great customer service is under promise and over deliver, when making commitments to your employees this is a key rule in building and sustaining trust.
Institute an engagement survey that provides the opportunity for employees to express their concerns. Just as you should do with your customers encourage people to express themselves and complain. It is better to have them complain to leadership allowing you the opportunity to address the issue rather than only complaining to others around them. Never act hastily there may be people that tend to exaggerate and you need to determine carefully truth from fiction. Unless you are serious about improving the work environment, do not initiate an employee engagement survey because if they do not see some positive change come from it you will do more damage then good. If you are sincere about managing employee engagement then there are many impressive things that the company and leadership will be doing. A good communication plan is vital to make sure the word gets out and just as important that you get credit for sincerely caring enough to do these things. This communication alone is powerful; utilize it as part of the strategy!
Model What You Expect:
Demonstrate sincere care for your employees and they will provide that same care for their customers. Caring for your employees bring out the best in them and it is the foundation of earning trust and gaining respect. The old fashion management of many years ago of "do what I say not as I do", are long gone. To get people to care about the mission, the customers and their job they need to know that you care about them. I mentioned earlier but its worth saying again, your employees are your internal customers treat them as such and however they are treated you are modeling quality customer service. Stay in touch with their requirements and expectations and be committed to work hard to satisfy their needs and they will give back that same loyalty and respect. Satisfy their needs and they in turn will take care of the external customers as well as stay engaged in the mission.
If you reflect back to the survey results the executive leaders are the most dangerous element to employee engagement. I believe in most cases they don't mean to do so but they are out of touch, they are busy with setting the vision, marketing the products, strategic planning, etc and don't stay connected to the people actually doing the work. Executive leadership must proactively reach out and get to know the employees and their needs are to do the job. Most importantly let the employees get to know you and make sure they know you care and appreciate them. Nearly everything we listed that the executives are doing could have a role for the front line employee to participate. If it is strategic planning, bring in groups of front line workers to ask their opinion and participate in the process. When the planning is complete bring them in, communicate the company vision, and thank them for their contribution to designing these strategies. Have quarterly meetings with groups of employees to get their feelings out on how things are going and what we should do differently, allow them into your world and get to know them nothing but good will come from these proactive efforts.
Provide Growth & Development Opportunities:
One of the most influential factors of employee engagement is they seek career growth opportunity, contribute to an important purpose and the chance to continue to develop themselves and their skills. So advancement or contributing to something they deem important and worthwhile work and continued educational development are high on their priority list of what excites them about a job. Look at every level of positions and design a career path plan that outlines where an employee can go to the next level, show them what the choices are and lay out the requirements needed to achieve career advancement. Additionally, some people have no desire for promotion they simply want to contribute at a higher level within their current position. A career path plan has to be a comprehensive program that shows the path from where they are to the next level options and everything needed to get there. The company should identify what they are willing to do to help them achieve employee career advancement. This can be the plan itself well communicated and socialized among the employees, tuition assistance, Mentoring programs and job shadowing opportunities to mention a few examples.
Be an Inspiring Leader:
Compel people to action by demonstrating sincere care for them and the contribution they make to the organizational mission. Your goal should be to inspire your employees to become the best version of themselves that they can possibly be. You do this by connecting with people at an emotional level and gaining trust. Inclusion of the employees in making decisions or enhancing procedures that affect them whenever possible will show that you respect them and value their input. Recognize employee's performance and demonstrate that you value them, reinforced behaviors get repeated. Throughout this article, you will notice redundant themes and that is because many of these best practices are values that are seamlessly interwoven. Inspiring leadership, sincerely caring for your employees, building trust and demonstrating respect for your employees, communication are some important components in managing employee engagement that merit repeating.
Experienced leaders know not to neglect the most important company resource, the people. Validate that the leadership staff possess the core competencies and practice the values that you have established for a people first culture. Develop a reward and recognition strategy to acknowledge people for the good job they are doing. Catch potential problems at the earliest possible stage and make every effort feasible to save employees. When someone has gone too far you need to know when it is time to part-company before their dissention causes more disengagement among others. The effort spent on managing employee engagement to achieve higher employee morale, reduce turnover and sustain customer loyalty is small price compared to the impact of increased productivity, reduced expense and higher quality service.
About Rodney Hood:
To the top!
Call Center Industry Executive & Thought Leader- Rod has 25 years of experience overseeing Industry leading organizations within the customer contact center and support call centers industry. He has lead large call center start-ups and successfully managed organizations through extremely fast challenging growth. He made a name for himself as an inspiring leader motivating an organizations most valued resource its employees to believe in the mission and themselves to reach their personal and professional potential. Rod is a passionate advocate for a "People First."