First, let’s say that employee engagement isn't clear-cut; you cannot flip a switch and have your employees engaged or disengaged.
Here is some data. Gallup has been tracking what it calls "employee engagement" since 2000, using quarterly surveys of around 15,000 full- and part-time employees. The Gallup survey of roughly 67,000 people in 2022 found only 32% of workers are engaged with their work compared with 36% in 2020. The share of workers found to be "actively disengaged" has risen since 2020, while the percentage of those in the middle — those considered "not engaged" — has remained about the same.
A lot is going on here, so let’s break this down into easily chewable bites.
What is Actively Disengaged
First, let’s say that employee engagement isn't clear-cut; you cannot flip a switch and have your employees engaged or disengaged. According to Gallup, you can have three personas or types of engagement, engaged, not engaged, and actively disengaged.
The first two are matters of energy and passion. The engaged worker is passionate, driven, and present; they have not just a connection but a profound connection to their work and the company. They are the ones who push innovation and support their co-workers. They have abundant energy and pleasure while working. They are fully engaged.
The second type, not engaged, are the ones who are “checked out.” They are the workers who know what the job entails and do the bare minimum to get by. They may expend the amount of energy needed to do the baseline of the job and not get fired, but they don’t honestly care. They do not support, offer ideas, or even bother thinking about the job. They are not present. They are not engaged.
As an employer, you dream of having an office full of the first type, the engaged workers. The second type is not great, but they aren’t holding things up, and they do the job. Barely.
The real problem for employers is the actively disengaged employee. These employees are so miserable at work, so frustrated and unhappy that they make a show of their situation. They have a bad attitude and complain, and they will, at times, undermine their fellow employees and the work they are doing.
Actively disengaged workers are not only a drag to be around; they can severely impact a company’s bottom line due to productivity issues and the spreading of their bad attitudes throughout the company.
The Change is Quick
The disengaged worker can swiftly become an actively disengaged worker if you’re not paying attention. When the change begins, this is the time to jump on it and either sit the employee down and talk with them or suggest that another employment opportunity may be better for them.
Suppose you notice an employee who has been on the edge suddenly taking more breaks, spending more time chatting with his co-workers, and getting into arguments more in the office. In that case, these are signs that active disengagement is approaching. When it starts, you need to address it immediately. If you don't, perhaps your management skills are part of the cause of this active disengagement.
Stopping it at the start is vital because, at the inception of the active disengagement, the worker is most likely to try to gather supporters. This is a way for that employee’s negative energy and bad attitude to spread through the company. Those who are sort of disengaged may hear the complaint and feel emboldened to actively disengage as well.
Workers who are engaged will also be affected by this negative energy, and they may get into arguments and lose their passion for the work if the active disengager is not dealt with. If left unchecked, you’ll eventually have to deal with having a toxic workplace.
Communication is Key
For both employer and employee, communication is critical. According to Gallup, 51% of employees are very disengaged and have no interest in communicating with co-workers or management. They are silent and just stewing in their misery.
Of that 51%, 44% say they feel disengaged because of a lack of communication from management. They complain that they don't know what they’re supposed to do or what is expected of them, and they get little to no guidance.
Much of this is due to the massive changes in how we work due to the pandemic. We have moved toward a gig economy with more short-contract workers, on-demand workers, and freelancers. This means communications and deeper relationships at work are more difficult to form. This is just the way of the working world now, and management should be cautioned not to use this new work style as an excuse.
It may seem overly simple or like low-hanging fruit, but it's true; simple communication can assuage some of the disconnected feelings and squelch the growing number of actively disengaged workers.
Set up more one-on-one meetings with people, and focus on the ones who have been working with you for some time, don't reserve the meetings for the new folks only. Focusing on the new people will be noticed, which will be used by the actively disengaged as a reason to revolt. Be aware.
Schedule weekly zoom chats, gatherings, games, or just check-ins, But be present, listen, ask questions and use the time to truly connect with your employees; you will be surprised how a little contact can change the entire temperament of the office.
Management must understand that communication has always been the key to better business. You are communicating with clients and employees alike. Keeping everyone informed, heard, and connected, will go a long way to assuaging some of the ill feelings in this new work world.
But is it all up to management?
You can make excuses or do the job you’re hired for, presuming you applied for the job in the first place.
Let’s be honest; being actively disengaged is a choice. A person decides they are not happy, and they decide that, instead of looking for ways to be happier, get engaged, and perform at their best, they will check out or be actively disruptive. Does this make them happier or more engaged? No, not at all.
It is easy to drop all this active disengagement in management’s lap, but the employee also bears responsibility. The employee applied, interviewed for the job, understood what the job was, wanted the job, and they accepted the position when they were offered it. So, why is it that the employee demands management engage them?
The actively engaged employee who works hard, is connected, does more than just the job description, is easy and pleasant to work with, went through the same process; they saw the job, applied, interviewed, and were hired. The difference is that highly engaged employee is active in their own life. They see what they want, and they move toward it. They know they are responsible for the work they were hired to do, and they do it.
Your Job, Your Responsibility
It’s easy to make excuses. Google workplace, and you’ll find a thousand opinions about how you should or shouldn’t behave at work or what you should demand at work. Because of the pandemic, people have changed their ideas about employment and the notion of doing everything for the company; putting the company first is a fading memory.
Yes, you deserve a solid work-life balance. But when you're working, you need to do the work. The cult of participation trophies has damaged us; now, 50% of college students believe they deserve at least a B grade because they showed up.
Showing up for the job is a tiny, tiny sliver of what’s required of you to get paid or keep the job. This “I’m here, praise me” attitude may be what’s causing some of the disengagement. Getting a B in school meant participating, asking questions, studying, you know, doing the things that students have been doing for centuries. Education is not a passive activity, and neither is your job.
If you’re waiting to be told what to do, you’re not doing your job. If you need to know, ask. Set up a meeting, keep asking, and keep digging. If you’re so special that you need the work explained to you every single day, maybe you’re not ready to move out of your parent’s basement.
This may sound harsh, but let’s be serious. The main complaint of those who are actively disengaged is poor communication. Their response is to be silent, stew in their misery, and disruptive to the rest of the office. Is that good communication?
Yes, management can communicate better, but communication is a two-way street. Employees must do better as well. And if you’re unsure, ask. Just ask. We did this in school; we raised our hands and asked. Now we’re adults and don't have to raise our hands. But part of being an adult in the working world is taking responsibility for your job.
There is a lot of information about actively disengaged workers, and most research deals with Millennials and Gen Zers, but that’s not being discussed. No matter what generation you hold claim to, the fact remains you’re an adult, you’ve been hired to do a job, and you need to do what the job requires.
Management does need to take some responsibility for keeping employees engaged, but employees must be willing to engage and communicate how best to do that.
If you’re actively disengaged, thoroughly checked out, and miserable at work and have decided to make a show and disrupt, you will never be happy. Understand you’re making this negative choice; no one is telling you to behave this way. You can choose to engage, meet the company halfway at least, or look for another job.
If you take this actively disengaged attitude into the new job, you’ll be looking for work for the rest of your life.
The choice is yours.