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What disengaged employees reveal about your workplace culture

September 22, 2022 - 14 min read
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    When we think of a healthy, thriving workplace culture, we often think of a bustle of activity. Employees are excited to be at work, take initiative, and are connected to the company's mission. They care about what they do, find fulfillment in the work, and see themselves as a key part of the organization's success.

    Unfortunately, if many of us were asked to describe our current workplace, it wouldn’t match this organizational utopia. By some estimates, up to 87% of employees are disengaged at work. Over half of workers are in a state of languish. The term “quiet quitting” has taken over social media, growing steam every week. And in the United States, the cost of disengagement is north of $500 billion dollars a year.

    We spend a lot of our time at work — so why don’t we make the most of it? Wouldn’t it feel better to do things that we enjoy, or at least care about? The truth behind employee engagement isn’t as straightforward as it may seem. There are many factors that contribute to disengaged employees, and some are harder to spot than others.

    Why do employees become disengaged?

    Most employees start their tenure at a new company with excitement. They want to show up at their best, do their best, and make a good impression on the people they work with. You can’t predict which employees will become disengaged or when it will happen. At some point, a gap develops that can be hard to name or fill.

    In his piece for Harvard Business Review, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, professor of business psychology at University College London and at Columbia University, describes it "as the problematic gap between a person’s maximal and typical performance."

    When engagement is high, there’s very little difference between the two — meaning people are performing at their best on a regular basis. But when engagement is low, maximal performance (or the best a person can do) is rarely on display.

     Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, professor of business psychology at University College London and at Columbia University

    From this perspective, we can describe engagement as narrowing the gap between our peak and typical performance. But this doesn’t happen through trying to force a result. If we assume that most employees meet their first days in a new role with excitement and optimism, the gap we need to address begins to widen after that point. It likely comes from some deficiency in the relationship between the employee and their new environment — not the employee themselves.

    Lack of connection

    BetterUp’s research shows that U.S. employees are in the midst of a connection crisis at work. When we don’t have relationships at work, we’re more likely to feel burned out, stressed out, and — you guessed it — disengaged. Part of this could be blamed on the pandemic and the shift to working from home, but employees already working in person told BetterUp they felt even less socially connected to colleagues than their hybrid colleagues. 

    Download The Connection Crisis: Why community matters in the new world of work

    In addition to the impact of connection at work, we can also feel disconnected from the work itself. Our company’s values need to be a match for our own in order for us to feel satisfied by what we do. When that’s missing, we often lose interest in the work itself. Conversely, even a mundane task can be immensely fulfilling if our reason for doing it is aligned with who we are.

    Lack of recognition

    Those first weeks and months are often a honeymoon period for both the employee and the employer. Managers are eager to see their new hires off to a good start. They’re often quick to praise efforts and initiative in the early days. But a lack of recognition for continued efforts can quickly lead to disengaged workers. 

    Lack of mobility

    A recent McKinsey report indicates that people are still leaving jobs in large numbers. Nearly 40% of employees are still looking for a new job due to lack of opportunities in their present one. When employees begin to feel stagnant, bored, or unchallenged, they often check out due to the lack of stimulation. Opportunities for growth are often a signal to someone that their work and growth are seen, recognized, and valued.

    Lack of flexibility

    Part of bringing your whole self to work means finding a viable balance between work and home life. Few employees will put up with continually having to choose between their work and family responsibilities. 

    In fact, what many people are calling “quiet quitting” now is a knee-jerk reaction to many employees feeling like work is taking over their lives. Many are disengaging emotionally.  What this is, in actuality, is an attempt to reclaim boundaries. If a company or manager has unreasonable expectations about availability and workload, people will often try to meet them — then check out completely.

    Quiet quitting isn’t the answer to burnout — it's a protective reaction, much like the fight or flight response. Unfortunately, just as chronic stress can cause health issues, quiet quitting can actually fuel burnout. It may ease emotional work in the short term — but it causes people to miss out on the satisfaction and engagement that comes with flow


    What are the signs of a disengaged employee?

    When employee engagement levels drop, it isn’t always obvious. A person might be completing all of their assigned work but have no job satisfaction. Their current performance doesn’t mean that they won’t soon leave. Here are some signs of low employee engagement:

    What is the impact of disengaged employees?

    There’s perhaps no greater factor impacting your work environment than disengaged employees.

    Now, that’s not to say that a “negative” work environment is the fault of unhappy employees. Leaders and managers certainly have a role to play in workplace culture. But they have a kind of “multiplier effect” on existing issues at work. 

    Actively disengaged employees, however, can have an outsized negative impact on teams at work. They tend to be more vocal about their dissatisfaction. 

    Additionally, disengaged employees:

    Don't recommend the company. Whether products, services, or to people in their network, disengaged employees are far less likely to speak well of their employer. This can negatively impact recruitment, retention, and profitability.

    Impact the morale of others. While they may still be doing good work, disengaged employees don’t go the extra mile. This can make it harder for leaders to create widespread buy-in for the company's vision.

    Actively disengaged employees (those who are vocal about their dissatisfaction) may have an even more direct impact. Their desire to leave (or decision to leave) can trigger turnover contagion. That one employee may end up being the first of many.


    How do you motivate an employee who is disengaged?

    So what do you do with an employee who’s checked out? It depends on the reason for the low engagement. Ideally, you don’t just start coaching them out — you uncover what’s underneath this change of heart. If you want to truly “cure” low engagement — not drive presenteeism or counterfeit results — you need to get to the root of it.

    1. Ask questions

    This may seem obvious, but many leaders skip this step or ask about the wrong thing. If you want to find the cause of disengagement, ask your employees about what’s going on with them. Seek to listen and understand, not reprimand or judge. Once you know if there’s something (inside work or out) affecting their engagement, you’ll know what you can do to make a difference.

    2. Look for the spark

    Even the most jaded employee gets excited about something. It might be a new project. It might be a team member’s birthday. It might just be payday. Regardless, looking at what makes them just a tiny bit happier to be at work can clue you into their values.

    If your employee is excited about a new product or offering, they may crave variety in their role. If they only ever smile during team happy hours, they might be missing social connection. And if all they look forward to is payday, financial stress might be stealing their energy and motivation.

    Whatever it is that makes them smile, use it to draw them back in. Give them a chance to take on something new, plan a company retreat, or offer a financial incentive for strong performance.

    3. Recognize wins — even small ones

    If someone isn’t feeling connected to their workplace, even a small step back into the fray can feel like a personal risk. After all, they’re disconnecting (for one reason or another) to conserve emotional energy. If the additional effort isn’t noticed or recognized, they won’t see the need to continue it. 

    Just as you look for signs of disengagement, look for signs that people are connected — or connecting — to each other and the work they do. Celebrate when people meet deadlines, accomplish goals, and — especially — are proactive and honest. This type of reinforcement can help establish and maintain a highly engaged culture.

    4. Talk to your leaders

    As the saying goes — and the science proves — people don’t leave jobs, they often leave managers. Managers have the power to run people out of the door. But a good manager can be the antidote to employee burnout and disengagement

    Keep an eye on the numbers — particularly turnover and absenteeism — on a particular team. Ask for employee feedback and look for clues that they might feel disconnected. Not every person with a good manager will feel engaged. But if you don’t include managers as part of your engagement strategy, you won’t move the needle, either. 

    5. Don’t forget — people are people

    Work is important, and so is the bottom line. But in one, five, ten, or forty years with a company, people will have good days and bad days. Whether we like to admit it or not, our personal lives affect our work. Company culture has an impact on whether we can take the time we need to rebound and return to prior levels of performance.

    You don’t have to be best friends with everyone at your job, but it is important to develop trusting relationships. A dip in engagement might reflect a personal stressor, a health issue, or any number of other factors unrelated to interest and skill.

    If your company values its people, avoid punishing them for a dip in engagement or even performance. Retaining talent means coaching and supporting them through rough patches. If they generally do quality work, compassion will help them show up at their best.

    JLL, a BetterUp customer, talks about the importance of retaining employees through engagement. 

    You can’t put a band-aid on disengagement

    Many organizations try to make their disengaged employees “shape up or ship out.” It’s understandable why a team would want to find a quick fix, since it can have such an outsized impact on both profitability and culture. But you can’t put a bandage over employee disengagement.

    Carrot and stick approaches can force results, but you can’t force employees to care about their jobs. The only way to encourage high engagement is to understand what your team cares about. When you understand how your employees’ goals tie into the company’s goals, you’ll be able to keep them motivated and engaged.

    Struggling with employee engagement? One-on-one coaching with BetterUp can make a difference. Reach out and schedule a demo today.

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    Published September 22, 2022

    Allaya Cooks-Campbell

    BetterUp Staff Writer

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