In order to re-engage a disengaged employee, you first have to know how to spot them. And that in itself can be tricky, because disengaged employees aren’t necessarily bad employees (they could even be some of your most talented workers). They do, however, tend to only do what’s absolutely necessary to get the job done… and no more. Typically, they don’t offer up suggestions to improve the workflow, they rarely work late, and they don’t give their jobs much afterthought when they finish for the day.

It doesn’t sound that bad, but if left unchecked, disengagement can cause employee morale to sink and performance to plummet, and can lead to much deeper problems, if employers don’t take a proactive approach towards re-engaging their workforce.

How to re-engage your disengaged employees

The act of engagement is not a one-time event – it’s an ongoing conversation that’s acted on by managers and employers. That’s why the keys to unlocking engagement are not in the hands of HR, but in the hands of frontline leaders.

Be realistic when you hire

To help avoid a disengaged employee in the first place, offer a very realistic job preview during the hiring process. It’s easy for both the interviewer and job candidate to get swept along with the excitement about discovering a good fit, but it’s essential to make sure that the job matches their expectations, in order to avoid a mismatch.

Connect the dots of your company culture

  • Make sure all employees (and potential new hires) know where the organization is heading and are clear on the goals and values, so that everyone feels aligned in one direction
  • Share information frequently and freely about progress within the organization and encourage openness and honesty
  • Offer credit where it is due, give acknowledgement freely and say “thank you” often

For more details about how to use good communication to engage employees, see Seven Simple Ways to Bring the Best out of your Employees or Team.

The “stay interview” – talk less, ask more

Too often, employers discover how a disengaged employee is (or was) during their exit interview, instead of uncovering it while there’s still a chance to do something about it.

To counter this, consider conducting a “stay interview” where, if you ask the right questions, you can have an open conversation with an employee about their satisfaction and commitment to an organization.

Examples of stay interview questions:

  • How satisfied are you with the amount of feedback you’re receiving about your performance?
  • What talents or skills would you like to use more of in your job?
  • What is your wish list for an enhanced role, beyond what you are doing today?
  • What is it about your job that gets you excited about coming to work? And what is it about your job that makes you feel like staying under the duvet?
  • Do you feel like your work is meaningful? Why or why not?

Pay attention not just to what is being said, but what is left unsaid. Someone who is feeling engaged will be quick to offer up feedback (even if it’s negative), whereas a disengaged employee may just go through the motions, using as few words as possible, making it difficult to probe further.

Take note of their body language too. If they seem excited or animated, it’s a sign of passion and engagement. If they seem deflated, sad or closed off – even if their words indicate otherwise – these could be signs of disengagement.

The power of positive psychology

There is a wealth of research out there on how to shape engagement efforts, including that done by the recognized management psychologist, Frederick Herzberg, who argued that workers respond positively to more responsibility and authority in their daily tasks. Psychologists have also identified a universal human need for autonomy.

In other words, people generally do well when they are empowered to make choices and decisions for themselves.

Social support and feedback can also drive a positive experience in the workplace.

While it can be a lot to take in all the research, employers, managers and HR professionals would benefit from understanding some of the more robust theories to help effectively shape their engagement efforts.

Find your “engagement signature”

On the other hand, while research is good in theory, it can only take your organization so far. What matters is your organization and your people.

Unfortunately, many employers focus on what is wrong and not what is right. They look at why people aren’t as engaged as they could be, rather than looking at the engaged individuals and trying to figure out why they are so engaged. In other words, take a look at what’s working for those who are engaged and try to replicate it across your organization.

Consider this your “engagement signature” – your key to engagement in your workplace for your people.

Encourage grassroots engagement

Engagement can be contagious, and though you can’t force it, you can certainly inspire it.

Having figured out what really matters to people in your organization, employers and managers can help the feeling of engagement to spread. For example, empower your employees, particularly the most engaged employees, to share stories, exchange ideas and disseminate best practices across the business. This doesn’t have to be in person – with the huge popularity of social media, employees have lots of ways to connect. You can even have different teams create encouraging videos to share with one another to encourage engagement to become contagious.

Recognize engagement as a moving target, and check back often

Research shows that engagement fluctuates daily and with changing circumstances, so don’t make the mistake of thinking that you can address engagement just once.

What engages employees during busy times can be different from what keeps them engaged when things are slow or during change. To keep people engaged, employers must remain engaged, curious, and connected with their employees.