Are Your Employees Disengaged?

Dr Cathy Bush and Dr Tara Peters

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Dr Cathy Bush and Dr Tara Peters, (2020, March 16). Are Your Employees Disengaged?. Psychreg on Organisational Psychology. https://www.psychreg.org/employees-disengaged/
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According to Gallup, nearly 70% of US employees are disengaged in the workplace. It’s shocking to know that almost 7 out of 10 workers are not engaged at work. That’s a staggering number and US companies pay for that every year in lost productivity and increased turnover. 

The obvious question is ‘why is this happening?’  In our book, The Demotivated Employee, we like to use the basket analogy to explain how this works.

Imagine an employee who is just starting a new job, or just arriving to work for the day, ‘carrying’ an invisible basket filled with their motivation for work. They’re excited about the chance to contribute, to learn and grow, or to perform meaningful work. They may also be motivated to provide for their family, or to achieve some major accomplishments in their work. However, over time, those full baskets begin to empty because holes are poked in them. For example, when employees are stressed and can’t get help from their manager, this pokes a hole in their basket. Or when an employee has conflict with a co-worker and the issue goes unresolved, the basket gets another hole punched in it. This causes an employee to lose motivation. As you can imagine, demotivated employees are less likely to be engaged.

So, take a look at the list of 10 behaviours of leaders that we have listed below.

Write down the number associated with any of the items that people in your organisation would say that you do on a regular basis. If you are not in a formal leadership position, think about the behaviours that you use as a member of your work group or in another aspect of your life in which people look to you for leadership.

  1. I take time to reach out to talk with each of the employees who report to me about general topics that helps me understand their various goals, values, and personalities.
  2. I have a consistent style of leadership that is very predictable for employees across all types of situations that they face.
  3. The culture of the group that I lead gives people a lot of freedom and autonomy to complete their work.
  4. I regularly discuss my perceptions about specific employees with other managers and employees who are impacted by the work of various employees.
  5. I make sure that employees know that their input and ideas are welcome, and create an environment where they can speak freely.
  6. When I see two people who are struggling to work well together, I avoid getting involved in their drama, and expect that they will work out their differences.
  7. When I can see that an employee is stressed out, I make time to talk through their issues and concerns and help them manage their stress.
  8. I thrive on the excitement of changing processes and developing new procedures, even though I can see that it is taking a toll on others.
  9. I make an effort to create cohesiveness among the people who work together in my department.
  10. The culture of the group that I lead has a lot of structure, rules, and procedures, and I make sure to teach employees how to follow the hierarchy that is in place.

Now, look at the pattern of the numbers that you wrote down, to see how many are even and how many are odd numbers. If you’re doing the even-numbered behaviours, then you’re engaging in leadership actions that are likely to cause employees to be demotivated. 

Don’t be too hard on yourself.  Most of us do some of those even-numbered behaviours, without recognising the negative impact that it is having on employees. We don’t imagine you are trying to demotivate them, but it is important to consider how these even-numbered behaviours are having such a negative impact.

Let’s take a look at #2 as an example. If your leadership style is consistent, regardless of the situation, then it’s likely that there’s a mismatch between your style and what the situation requires in terms of how you should respond some of the time. Leaders need to be able to flex their style to match the situation they’re facing, rather than making employees adjust to the fixed style of the leader.

Ken Blanchard calls this situational leadership, and it is specifically designed to address the different levels of commitment and competence that employees have on different tasks, which means that they need variation in how their leader interacts across these various situations in their jobs. 

On the other hand, if you’re engaged in the odd-numbered behaviours, then you’re doing things that can help to keep an employee’s basket full. Or, if there are holes already in their motivation baskets these odd-numbered behaviours are likely to help repair the holes more quickly and assist the employee in regaining their motivation.

So, what can you do to grow and get better? We recommend the following action steps: 

  • Pick an even-numbered behaviour you’re going to work on changing, and set a SMART goal.
  • Identify specific actions you can take to stop the behaviour. For example, you might replace it with some of the odd-numbered behaviours.
  • Get an accountability partner to help hold you accountable to the changes you are working on.

There are no quick solutions or magic bullets to ‘cure’ employee disengagement. However, there are tangible steps that you can take in order to make a difference.  As the saying goes, people don’t leave companies, they leave bosses, so it is up to you as the leader to address these issues of disengagement and demotivation before your valuable employees walk out the door.

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Image credit: Freepik


Dr Cathy Bush and Dr Tara Peters are the co-authors of The Demotivated Employee: Helping Leaders Solve the Motivation Crisis That Is Plaguing Business


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