Originally published at LinkedIn
Everybody talk about disengagement. There are studies showing that huge percent of the employees are disengaged and the idea of lifetime employment has gone. In tech, working 1 to 3 years for the same company is something usual, but not the years worked count – only the years the person was actually engaged in the job. I don’t want to waste time explaining how important engagement is, or proving that the majority of the people are not engaged. I’ll assume that if you continue reading this, you agree with the importance of engagement or you are curious enough to see what I’m going to suggest.
Engaging people is hard, keeping them engaged is even harder. The hardest is engaging someone who already feels disengaged. When someone is unhappy, a lot of small details in the everyday life of the company will be seen as a reason for unhappiness – some missed detail in the requirements, some company policy, colleague you don’t have a day to day job with, but you dislike, even the quality of the coffee or the way news in the company are being told. Those details were exactly the same when the person was engaged, but now they are “disengaging”. They are not the reason for the unhappiness, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do something about them. You see, if you don’t care about the quality of the coffee, that will be translated to “you don’t care about people”, and this is a serious problem. The bottom line is that disengagement reframes the person thinking and he start to complain about everything, but what he complains about is not what got you to this situatiation in the first place.
So how engaged people become disengaged in the first place? There can be countless reasons, but I’ll assume that nothing have changed in the company itself – no new policies, no new management, the workload is the same, etc. People however change. Work becomes boring as people master it, people change their interests, the situation in their life changes and sometimes they just demand more. They want reassignment, they don’t feel appreciated, maybe they don’t feel that they add enough value. Whatever the reason, people start to talk about the life in the company, the way work works, about their managers or colleagues. Disengagement develops over time and by the time management knows someone is not engaged in the work, the original reasons are buried deep under the mountain of disappointments. The management however has noticed the drop in the performance, but everytime they bring up the topic, they hear only complains that has nothing to do with the work itself. How to get out of there?
It will be much easier to tell how not to get there in the first place – listen to your people, hold regular one-on-ones, care about them, provide them with the best tools, provide them with regular training, give them enough freedom, challenge them, etc. Such advice is easy to find, but the chances are you already have disengaged employees.
First, address the small issues. Sometimes resolving a tiny office issue you think nobody really cares about can make all the difference. But most importantly, showing that you care about your people does more than actually resolving the issue. There is no such thing as “insignificant issue”.
Next, acknowledge that there are reasons for dissatisfaction, but they are not what got it to the disengagement. You will work toward resolving them, but you will work even harder toward resolving the root causes. Try to re-frame the situation – ask what the employee would ask for if you were interviewing her for a first time. Is it a different role? More flexibility? Perhaps the employee is dissatisfied with ineffectiveness of the processes, or with work she believes she should not doing? How she will design her work if she has all the power and resources necessary?
Sometimes you won’t receive honest answers. Too often people believe there is no chance something to be changed, so they don’t bring it up, or they are afraid to speak against their managers. You have to ask the right questions, but before that you should show your own honesty, you should ask for feedback about yourself and show how it is handled in a constructive manner, and you should agree that you both pursuit the employee happiness, and you just accept reality as it is, without judging who is right and wrong. Don’t give feedback in such talk, you are there to understand the motives behind someone’s disengagement and when he is disengaged, anything will be framed as one more reason for disengagement.
Sometimes the best choice is to let the person go. Maybe he is already overqualified, there may not be suitable career development, or maybe his focus has changed. Acknowledge that this is a possible scenario, and if that’s the case, you will act in the employee’s best interests – helping with finding more suitable job and letting go with gratitude.
Once you started, don’t limit yourself to the disengaged people. Engage everyone in a discussion how to make the work better, frequently ask your team for their opinions and listen to them even harder. Try to adopt a no-door policy and make it safe for any issue to be brought up. Any issue that was shared with you should be handled as a project – with a complete follow-trough. Even if unresolved, even if you are not going to resolve it at all – you have to keep the people informed about the situation, otherwise they may thing that you just don’t care. And there’s where disengagement often begins – in the belief that management doesn’t care enough.