Knowing how to re-engage disengaged employees is critical for retention, morale, productivity, and innovation

One of the most important employer goals is to work towards having engaged employees. While it’s next to impossible to have fully engaged employees all of the time, a reasonable objective is to have most employees engaged most of the time. The challenge is that re-engaging disengaged employees requires that you actually know they’re disengaged. More often than not, these employees aren’t “bad” in any way and could even be among your most talented and valued. However, when employees are disengaged, not only do they tend to simply go through the motions and fail to innovate/add significant value, but it can also be harmful mentally and emotionally to themselves, and others.

While most of us go through periods of being less engaged from time to time, if left unchecked, true disengagement can negatively impact performance, cause employee morale to sink, and can lead to much deeper problems (for both employee and organization), if employers don’t take a proactive approach towards re-engagement.

How to maintain engagement and re-engage disengaged employees

The act of engagement is not a one-time event – it’s an ongoing conversation that’s acted on by both managers and employers. That’s why the keys to unlocking engagement shouldn’t be left in the hands of HR, but in the hands of frontline leaders. Some of the ways you and your managers can maintain engagement as well as re-engage disengaged employees include:

Be realistic and transparent when you hire

To help avoid disengagement in the first place, be sure to transparently provide a realistic job preview during the hiring process. It’s easy for both hiring manager and job candidate to get swept along with the excitement of discovering a good fit, but it’s essential to make sure the job matches candidate expectations – and vice versa.

Be clear on and stay true to your culture and values

Walk the talk of your organizational culture and values. One of the most significant factors associated with employee disengagement is when their managers’ (or that of leadership overall) actions are clearly at odds with the spoken culture.

Align your organizational direction and goals

Make sure all employees (and potential new hires) know where your organization is heading and are clear on goals, so that everyone feels aligned and moving in the same direction. Share information frequently and freely about progress within the organization and encourage openness and honesty.

Conduct stay interviews and regular one-to-ones – talk less, ask, and listen more

Too often, employers discover how disengaged an employee is (or was) during their exit interview, instead of uncovering it proactively, and while there’s still a chance to do something about it. To counter this, consider conducting regular “stay interviews” with employees 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 questions include:

  • Do you feel that you’re working towards your strengths? Why or why not?
  • How satisfied are you with the amount, style, and quality of feedback you receive?
  • What would you like to do differently, or work towards in your role/or in our organization?
  • What motivates you to come to work and/or what makes you want to stay at home?
  • Do your values feel aligned with our organization, do you feel your work is meaningful?

In addition to the questions asked, pay attention to what’s actually said as well as what’s not. Engaged employees are typically quick to offer feedback (even if it’s negative), whereas a disengaged employee may just go through the motions, using as few words as possible. This provides opportunities to inquire further. Also, take note of body language. If they seem excited or animated, it’s a sign of passion and engagement. If they seem deflated or closed off – even if their words indicate otherwise – these could be signs of disengagement or other concerns.

Draw on the power of positive psychology and empowerment

There’s 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’re empowered to make choices and decisions for themselves.

Social support and feedback can also drive a positive experience in the workplace. While the abundance of research can feel overwhelming, employers, managers and HR professionals would benefit from understanding some of the more robust theories to help effectively shape their engagement efforts.

Develop your own “engagement signature”

On the other hand, while research is all good in theory, like best practices for others, it can only take your unique organization so far. What matters is your organization and your people. Unfortunately, many employers focus on what’s wrong, rather than what’s right. They tend to look at why people aren’t as engaged as they could be, rather than understanding why engaged employees 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 facilitate engagement to spread. For example, you could empower your employees, particularly the most engaged ones, to share stories, exchange ideas, and help mentor others across the business. This doesn’t necessarily have to be in-person or one-to-one. At an organizational event (e.g., during an annual retreat), you can even have different teams create 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.

Have you experienced disengagement in your organization?
What did you do to re-engage employees?