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The dangers of disengagement: Strategies to raise levels of employee engagement


 — September 30th, 2018

The dangers of disengagement: Strategies to raise levels of employee engagement

The most successful companies – strong revenues, delighted customers, market-leading product offering – can find growth suddenly stagnating if management takes its eye off one very important ball: employee engagement.

Disengaged employees, whether simply apathetic or actively hostile, represent a threat not only to their own future within the organization but to overall company health. Some estimates put the cost of disengaged employees at a startling 20% of current revenue, and even this estimate could be conservative. Recognizing the signs early and elevating these team members' engagement should be a priority, to head off the costly problem of chronic disengagement.

As we've said elsewhere in our thoughts on this subject, engagement is critical because it's a measurement of employee's investment, psychologically, in the organization. A positive and productive relationship with coworkers is understandably a requirement for engagement, and the converse is also true: uncomfortable or combative work relationships can dampen productivity, delay projects and create an overall toxic atmosphere, something that management guru Don Rheem warns can inflict measurable emotional pain on fellow employees.

There is also the matter of the company's brand in the marketplace. In the era of websites like Glassdoor, where employees can rate their employers, low levels of employee satisfaction become visible for all to see. Disengaged or hostile employees leaving poor ratings for the company not only inhibit its chances of attracting the best talent but could even affect new business. As Rheem notes, some companies have taken to searching employee review sites before choosing a vendor, to ensure they're not about to go into business with a dysfunctional partner.

Interestingly, disengagement also presents a danger where it's between divisions of the company, not just between individuals. Internal functions can be hostile to each other and fail to see each other's value, which can lead to a spiral of blame and scapegoating.

One division of SAP Asia Pacific took the unusual step of improving the profile and understanding of its IT department in the form of an IT Day, showcasing the department's contribution to the organization. Participation was excellent, with around 200 employees taking part and events that included expert talks on how IT is driving productivity, cybersecurity and innovation. Expert booths, inspired by the Apple store model, also allowed employees to get immediate help with problems and try out new products. Employee feedback on the day was uniformly excellent -- not least because of the free cupcakes.

Proactive steps to address disengaged employees

One strategy for tackling disengagement may surprise you: IT industry veteran Thimaya Subaiya, now with Cisco, has recommended that companies proactively involve more disgruntled employees in change management initiatives. Rather than presenting a finished plan for transformation, Subaiya suggests brainstorming as a group, letting all team members know the direction the company would like to go, and asking for ideas on how to effect that change. He also suggests picking out some of the most disengaged employees for leadership positions in this process: "there is nothing that shows you want them to be an important part of your transformation more than asking them to help lead it," he advised.

Engagement expert Jim Harter of Gallup agrees: he says engagement can increase significantly when team members have some involvement in defining their role. In his experience, that sense of ownership can encourage even disengaged employees to willingly do what the organization requires of them, and more.

Finally, the process of staying in close regular contact with employees to determine their levels of engagement is vital. Regular engagement surveys are vital and should try to assess employees' skills and whether they feel they are working to their strengths.

You may spot opportunities for talent development here: Harter makes the point that disengaged employees are frequently found to be spending about half of their time doing tasks they don't do well. Those numbers are vastly different for engaged employees, who spend very little of their time (around 20%) doing tasks they don't feel equipped to do. Harter recommends organizations spend the time to get to know employees on an individual basis, including their strengths. "You have to...get them in a position where they can use their strengths more regularly."

Whatever steps you take to address disengagement among employees, do make it a priority, and don't shy away from probing into the reasons for that disengagement. Experts strongly advise sitting down with unhappy team members and bringing issues out into the open.

It can be easy to let wishful thinking take over and hope that disengagement will resolve itself, but that's unlikely to happen. Better to be bold, look the disengagement problem in the eye, and take proactive steps to make things better.

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