February 13, 2018

The Easiest Ways To Create Disengaged Employees

In my line of work, on a fairly regular basis, I get to meet disengaged employees. The factors for their disengagement are often varied, never the same.

But there are unquestionably a few disengagement themes.

Take, for example, Shannon.

She joined her new organization about a year ago. It’s a high-tech company and she’s in a product marketing role.

To lure her over to the firm, Shannon’s boss waxed lyrical about this super cool initiative that was taking flight. There was flowery praise about her diverse background and 10+ years of experience. Shannon was an all-star in her previous roles and companies. Her “fit” would be a natural in the new confines.

Upon her arrival, Shannon could expect to be knee deep in creativity, decision-making, and action, the hallmarks of an Open Thinking organization. Her new boss promised she’d love the existing team—and other teams she would be working with across the business unit—as they progressed the super cool product marketing project. After all, it was a project that was to reshape the company’s product roadmap and future.

A year later, in essence, Shannon has lost her mojo. Her purpose of self is in question, and she most definitely has fallen into the job mindset at work. “What the heck is the point,” she mutters to herself.

Why is this happening?

For starters, Shannon had no idea about the fiefdoms and silos that were already running rampant in the organization she joined. The “teams” she was to be working with keep to themselves, refuse to share information or ideas, and view her as an annoyance. (If they have noticed her at all.)

Put differently, Shannon is a wee bit lost. She is fed scraps of information and has little to no idea what others are doing in the project. Even after repeated attempts to insert herself into aspects of the project she remains in the dark.  Shannon spends a lot of her time not only playing catch-up, she often tries to make sense of what she is supposed to be doing. The subway ride home each day has become arduous and painful as she thinks about what’s going wrong with her life.

Her boss is somewhat oblivious to the situation as well. Empathy is not his strong suit. Worse, he and other leaders at his level have fallen into a deep coma of bureaucratic approval requirements. While the leaders talk up a good game about trust, in fact, their actions are speaking louder than words. When Shannon does have an idea or finishes a task of some sort, the levels of approvals are nightmarish. She waits, and waits, and waits for something—anything—to be approved. Surfing the job boards and playing Words with Friends is not how she envisioned this role.

When Shannon’s boss does involve her in something, it’s as though she has been miscast. Think about tennis great Martina Navratilova playing quarterback for the New York Jets. Martina is a legend, but something just isn’t right.

The misuse of Shannon’s experience was palpable. Her talent was overlooked, forcing her to wither away surfing those job boards. Hired for the 10+ years of experience and what she could bring to this super cool initiative was the original plan. Instead, she waits, and waits, and waits to have her talents adequately utilized. Ultimately, this is not what she signed up for nor the dream job she envisioned.

Let’s break down Shannon’s situation.

She was so excited to join the company and to take part in the development of something awesome.

Within the first few weeks, she noticed things were going awry. I believe it boils down to two key aspects:

She was unable to create any value.

She did not feel valued.

When an employee is not able to create any value, a downward spiral is inevitable. Whether held up by bureaucracy, impeded by command and control leadership or prevented by entrenched hoarding of information through existing silos, any employee is going to become disengaged if there is no purpose to their role. If there is no (or little) opportunity to create value you can rest assured the employee will become disengaged. Yes, like Shannon.

The real tire fire of disengagement happens when the employee does not feel valued in their role. Like a tire fire, you can smell this from miles away. It’s the state in which the employee “checks out” for their boss, team and other peer groups see no need to involve them in the state of affairs.

When we become invisible at work, feelings of inadequateness loom large.

When we lack self-worth in our roles, emptiness is imminent.

There are far too many Shannon’s out there. Yes, she has a responsibility to take ownership and action to right her ship.

But Shannon wasn’t disengaged when she started her new role. In fact, she was a highly engaged, motivated and self-assured professional.

You might say she was once invaluable.

Now she questions her sense of self, purpose, and abilities.

This story is a classic example of how an engaged employee can quickly turn into a disengaged employee, spurred on by the environment she joined.

<Note: a version of this column originally appeared on Forbes>

Photo credit: Neil Moralee CC

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