How to Motivate Disengaged Employees

Real-World Tips for Motivating Actively Disengaged Workers

Employee engagement in the U.S. has been hovering around 33% for quite a few years now. With unemployment reaching record lows, today’s workers are increasingly dissatisfied with their work environments. American management is still primarily using a command-and-control, process-oriented, cost-accounting model to managing staff. Today’s disengaged employees expect much more from their workplace than they’re currently receiving. A little over 50% of the workforce are searching for new jobs or watching for openings.

Create a Sense of Purpose

Employees want to have a sense of purpose in their work. They want to feel that their work is leading to some kind of career progression, and they want to have a sense of “play” (that is, the work they do is fun and engaging). People do well when they have a sense of autonomy in their work and can apply their talents and strengths to what they do at their jobs.

Employers have nowhere to hide on the internet. Prospective employees can quickly find out what it’s like to work at a job and what the culture and values of an organization are through social media. Employee engagement must become a central pillar of any organization’s DNA.

Listen to Your Employees

Engaging with your employees is not a cookie cutter process. It is an ongoing process that requires you to understand what your disengaged employees need and want. You can look at what has worked in other organizations, but you will need to adapt those findings to your specific situation and organizational culture. A deep commitment from senior leadership will go a long way towards this step, as it will take time and resources, but don’t let that be a blocker to taking the initiative and diving in yourself. Even if you are a mid- or line-level manager, you can still change how you’re engaging with your team.

Improve Your Communication Skills

Millennials and subsequent generations have grown up in an always-on instant communication world, where their lives are largely experienced through smartphones and digital interactions. They expect a similar experience at work, but it’s not always a good idea to mix personal modes of communication with business transactions. Managers who consistently engage with employees in face-to-face, phone, and digital communications are three times as likely to have engaged employees.

Having the right communication tool is a key ingredient to meeting this demand effectively. Employers and workers can benefit from the newer generation’s preferences. Employees enjoy the flexibility of being able to work remotely with a dynamic schedule that allows them to tend to their personal lives. Tools like Zinc can provide employees with a seamless and integrated communication platform to stay in touch with colleagues and managers. Managers need to think about employee communications because they serve as the foundation of something that millennials consider incredibly important: company culture.

Make it Personal

Managers need to engage with employees beyond their work lives and make an authentic effort to get to know their reports. This leads to a safe environment where employees feel a sense of greater purpose — they are cared for and therefore care about the people around them — and are comfortable to take risks, try experiments, and challenge norms and expectations. To go from good to great.

Be Consistent

A key driver of disengaged employees is lack of clarity around performance expectations. Annual reviews, job descriptions, and more traditional forms of performance management leave too big of a gap between employees and managers. When managers communicate on a consistent basis – at least once a week – it makes it much easier to consistently give digestible, meaningful feedback on how well employees are meeting expectations. Great managers are constantly in communication with employees around their responsibilities and progress.

Play the Role of a Coach

Another thing to consider to increase engagement — something that only can occur with frequent communication — is moving towards more of a coaching style of management, and away from traditional command-and-control approaches. “Asking the right questions and providing tailored feedback is more important than telling people what to do” (HBR). Effective coaching is beyond the scope of this article, but the key idea is that effective communication is the foundation.

We also need to be aware of the risk of overdoing it and know when to take a step back. We need to ask ourselves if we are providing effective feedback based on our own expertise – and effectively communicating with other colleagues who have the needed expertise and skills outside of our own. Effective coaching and communication isn’t just between managers and their reports, but between colleagues throughout the organization who can work together to provide employees with learning opportunities across a breadth and depth of skills that no single manager could possess.

Motivating Disengaged Employees is a Continuous Process

If you see a connection between effective communication and the pillars of creating a high-performing, innovative team culture, you’re not wrong. A key aspect of inculcating your organization with high-performance behavior is never to rest on your laurels. Engagement, like all other aspects of today’s business, is not a one-and-done operation. It requires managers to remain curious and follow an improvement feedback loop (e.g. the Deming Cycle) that builds frequent, short feedback loops into any improvement process. Our approach to constantly improving engagement should mirror our overall organizational approach to improvement as a whole. If your people are your most valuable asset, then improving engagement should be treated as a key strategic activity for all leaders.

Recap:

  • Employees are more engaged when they have a sense of autonomy and can make choices for themselves
  • Traditional performance management is not effective at providing what employees need to be engaged
  • Effective communication tools can increase flexibility, build team cohesion, and create a safe environment that leads to higher-performing, more innovative team behavior
  • Managers should try to authentically engage with their reports beyond their work lives so that reports know their managers care about them as people (within appropriate limits)
  • Frequent, effective feedback around responsibilities and expectations can help employees understand how to perform their duties more effectively
  • What engages people during a large deal, a big re-org, or other peak moments, will not be the same as what’s required during “business as usual” times. Make sure you remain curious and engaged yourself.
  • Coaching and mentoring are both more aligned with what employees expect and are more effective than traditional command-and-control styles of management