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How to Get Disengaged Employees More Engaged

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Below is an edited excerpt of a LinkedIn discussion which I recently participated in where I am responding to the comment from a member that “found that the chances of turning a disengaged employee into an ambivalent employee, let alone an engaged employee, are slim to none”.

My response: 

Anyone, except perhaps those who are trauma survivors, can become more engaged in the workplace. There is a great danger in the notion that the so-called “disengaged” cannot become engaged under the necessary conditions.

There is a currency of thought in the performance management space that loves to blame employees. How convenient — deliver a toxic (broadly defined) work environment — and then point the finger at employees for not gushing with gratitude over having a job. That mindset might have worked in the industrial revolution (and in a few subsequent decades), but no longer. A shortage of employable talent is the new reality, and unless you have really deep pockets, the best way to attract and retain talent is to create a High Performance Culture where people love coming to work.

I would agree that in most organizations it might be close to impossible to move the “actively disengaged” (we use a four point scale: actively disengaged, somewhat disengaged, somewhat engaged, actively engaged) to the “actively engaged” category — but it is primarily due to the conditions in the organization, not because the “disengaged” are in some way broken or hopeless cases. Stated differently, employee disengagement is typically due to shortcomings in the culture, management, or work environment — not shortcomings in the people. Now it is true that about 5-10% of employees are hardened veterans of the actively disengaged and ROI considerations necessitate getting them out of your organization. But if you just fire them and make no fundamental changes in culture or management skills, you will just breed more of the same — filling their ranks in no time.

The fact is we are hard-wired at a neurological level to be a part of something; to be a valued member of a team, to “belong.” Believe it or not, many employees actually see their workplace as a “safe haven” — in some cases safer than their home environment. We are talking about a relationship. Employees “attach” not just to people, however, they also connect with elements of the organization itself (e.g. mission, vision, impact).

The CEOs and senior leadership teams that “get this” fact will be miles ahead of the competition. As we continue to move out of this recession and their competitors start hemorrhaging talent now that opportunity knocks, these CEOs will be sitting comfortably with a cohesive team of employees who can’t imagine working anywhere else.

BEST PRACTICES TIP:  Employee behavior can change – but the change process may need to begin with senior leadership recognizing what drives workplace behavior.

To see this entire LinkedIn discussion, click here:

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