Why Employees Are Disengaged and What You Can Do About It

disengaged employees

Gallup, the analytics and consulting firm, started measuring employee engagement in 2000. They published that employee engagement was at an all-time high of 34% in 2018. Although that is good news, we are far from finished when it comes to creating companies that are exciting and fulfilling places to work at (whether virtual or in-person).

Gallup published a separate article exploring the reasons behind why the majority of U.S. employees are not engaged despite the gains. For every two engaged employees, there is one disengaged. That means your organization has employees that are either doing nothing or deliberately undermining the efforts of others.

How do we change this?

Types of engagement

There’s more to workplace engagement than engaged or disengaged. Let’s explore what they are as defined by Gallup:


Engaged employees are known for their enthusiasm and commitment to their work and workplace. They are reliable and great team players. They are easy to recognize because they usually own problems and projects making them role models in our organizations.

They may be a high-potential employee who displays an enterprise leader mindset which is defined by ICEDR, a Global HR Talent Academy as someone that is “accountable for the economic and social welfare of the total enterprise, across divisions, businesses, functions and locations. An enterprise leader… will make decisions with the entire corporation in mind.” These are the employees we want in our organizations.

Not engaged

Employees who are not engaged at their workplaces will put in the time but not so much the effort. They will follow directions but are unlikely to take initiative to problem solve and be expected to step up unless asked.  There are multiple reasons why employees get disengaged that we’ll touch upon later on in the post.

Actively disengaged

Actively disengaged employees are what organizations are most cognizant of. They have engagement needs that are not being met and that makes them resentful. This leads them to take out their frustrations on the company by potentially undermining the efforts of the rest of the engaged employees. They’re either people we need to get rid of or people who show that our businesses need to change their commitment to making the workplace more engaging.

How do you spot a disengaged employee in the workplace?

While learning about the different types of employee engagement we may be thinking of those we work with and how to categorize them. Here’s how to spot a disengaged employee in your workplace.

Obvious signs

There are the obvious signs of a disengaged or downright neglectful employee. These signs include:

  • Showing up late consistently;
  • The quality of work plummeting;
  • Missing deadlines repeatedly; and
  • other telltale signs that they’re checkout mentally and may be altogether soon.

Lack of energy at work

Other signs of disengaged employees are lackluster attitudes toward their work. When employees start to seem burned out or grudgingly taking on projects this could be a sign they’re disengaged. They could be in need of a vacation, but more likely, they need something more sustainable to reignite their enthusiasm for work.

How they respond to and solicit feedback

A disengaged employee will stop soliciting feedback or responding to it positively. An employee that is hungry to learn and grow will ask their managers how they’re doing and where they can improve. They want feedback. In contrast, a disengaged employee won’t ask for feedback and when they received it they may ignore it or accept it and then not change their behavior afterward.

Withdraw from culture

Purdue University released a report exploring the how and why people quite their jobs. They found eight motivational forces that lead to either attatchment or withdrawl in a job, or simply, signs they’re going to stay or leave (see table 2 in the report). They found that a defining trait that was common in all motivational forces was what they termed “membership-related behaviors.” The defining factor was their membership or how included in the culture they felt. Those that are disengaged start to withdraw which trigger the leads to the factors them leaving.


One of the primary characteristics of disengaged employees is that they’re bitter. Their needs have clearly not been met and the way they are responding is with resentment. Their bitterness reveals itself as consistent negativity, irritability, and the other signs already listed.

There may be more than a single reason why employees get disengaged. It could be because of a lack of career growth opportunities, salary, poor communication among the team, or a multitude of other reasons.

How do you engage a disengaged employee?

Using extrinsic vs intrinsic motivation

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a thought leader in organizational psychology, shares in his HBR article, “How to Work With Someone Who’s Disengaged” that you shouldn’t try to find intrinsically motivate them. They won’t respond well to motivational speeches and it’s too challenging to find the thing that will get them into a state of flow consistently. Instead, be clear about what’s in it for them or the consequences of not doing it. Some employers prepare employee corporate gifts for those who overcome difficulties and become more engaged in the company’s culture.

Identify the root problem(s)

If an employee is disengaged, but not at the point of no return it may warrant a deeper discussion on why they feel the way they do. You may need to put your managerial hat on and have the possible uncomfortable conversation around the deeper problem behind their disengagement. Here’s how to do get to the root of their disengagement:

  1. Skip the small talk and acknowledge the problem you want to address.
  2. Listen carefully to their answers and ask probing questions to get them to add more detail.
  3. After you uncover underlying frustrations seek solutions together.

The problems may be fundamental to their feelings of inclusion or recognition, but they may als be practical things like how you communicate as a team. Teams that have disorganized workfkows and poor project management unsurprisingly also have disengaged employees. Having project management tools (especially when leading a remote team) is crucial to a teams success.

This leads to our final point on finding ways to work with disengaged team members.

Cooperate to find solutions

If you’ve done the hard work of identifying the underlying issues that are negatively affecting an employee’s performance that’s great, but only half the battle. The next part of your hard conversation is to find practical solutions. Here are some things to consider:

  • Do they need a new project to work on?
  • Is there a manager or employee that they’re having a hard time working with?
  • Are they swamped with work and in need of a break?
  • Do they need help finding a mentor who cares about their career development?

These questions will help identify the underlying motivations that will hopefully lead you away from having to use only external motivators with them.

Additionally, a talent assessment can guide you in identifying practical solutions by understanding the employee’s strengths, weaknesses, and career aspirations, enabling you to address project allocation, interpersonal challenges, workload management, and mentorship needs effectively.

Mentorship and employee engagement

In another of Gallup’s studies on what drives employee engagement, they found that employees “want relationships, particularly with a manager who can coach them to the next level. This is who drives employee engagement…The manager or team leader alone accounts for 70% of the variance in team engagement.”

Mentorship and employee engagement graph

Why mentorship improves engagement

Employee engagement is about being recognized and valued in an organization. If employees feel that their company doesn’t care about them then they’ll leave for one that does. For that reason, mentorship is integral to sustaining employee engagement beyond just surveys that everyone is happy at work.

Mentors are Not Managers

There’s a crucial difference between mentors and managers. Mentors are non-evaluative and act as guides to support their mentee’s holistic career. Mentors go beyond performance reviews. They’re here to listen and provide an outside look at situations.

One of the biggest benefits of having a mentor is accountability. Having a mentor coach you through an exercise, learning material, or difficult conversation can ensure you follow through and are set up for success. Because mentors are non-evaluative, it relieves the pressure and gives mentees more room to vocalize their struggles and failures.

How to introduce mentoring into your organization

We’ve all had people in our lives who have helped us get to where we are. And employees that are stuck feeling disenfranchised with where they are may need a mentor to shed light on new opportunities for them to grow.

Companies that are serious about solving the issue of disengagement may consider starting a mentorship program to make sure every employee has someone investing in their continued growth.


Our organizations need employees that are engaged or we won’t remain competitive. There are many ways to increase employee engagement but they go beyond surface-level niceties like gift cards or games nights like the selection of custom crystal awards for the most engaged employees will motivate others to be more active and take the initiative.

Employees require leaders to engage in uncomfortable conversations around why employees feel disengaged and what they can do about it.

Leaders that actively seek to show employees that they’re valued by giving them recognition for the work they do will realize the benefits. Their employees will be happier and they’ll do better work. They’ll also be a joy to work with. One of the primary ways to achieve this is through providing mentorship opportunities to all employees. By pairing employees with leaders who will help them grow and work through challenges they’ll begin to feel more connected to the company and engaged.