Why Your Employees Are Disengaged, and What to Do About It

by Talent Plus

The uncertainty of the future has intensified, and that is scary. While our lives have always been filled with unknowns and the world is perpetually evolving, recent shifts have rocked our perspectives, knocked us off balance and skewed our bearings. It is hard to know which way is up right now, let alone what is over the horizon and if we are moving in the right direction. As a result, leaders of teams and organizations are noticing something: their employees are disengaged and distracted. If you have not noticed this yet, it is probably because you are also disengaged and distracted. 

People are not simple; we are complex, and our feelings and behavior are influenced by a myriad of variables. Here are a few of the key reasons why employees are disengaged, as well as some key actions to take. 

  1. The basic needs of your employees are not being met. They feel that their safety and security are threatened. They feel vulnerable in terms of their employment status (in the US, this is also tied to health insurance), their own health and that of their loved ones, the strength of their communities, their financial security, their social connectedness, and the list goes on. If a person’s basic needs are not being met, how can they be expected to care about higher-level needs like a sense of purpose or self-actualization? 

What to do about it: Talk about it. Make a plan to do what you can and communicate the plan to your employees. Are you considering making or continuing furloughs or reductions in force? If not, tell them that. Are your employees able to perform their roles remotely? If so, encourage them to take advantage of that flexibility in order to protect and care for themselves and their loved ones. For further reassurance, provide them with the tools and resources to be productive at home. Are the extroverts on your team getting opportunities to connect with their colleagues? Social connection is sustenance for extroverts – they require it. Create opportunities and give people permission to take time out of their day to cultivate their relationships. Do you have employees working at the corporate office or on property? If so, communicate with your employees about the precautions the company has taken to follow the suggested guidelines and to keep everyone safe. 

  1. Your employees are ruminating. Complete this sentence: “What if…” For many people, the end of that thought might be “…I lose my job?” “…our company goes bankrupt?” “…my spouse cannot find another job soon?” “…my parents get sick?” These thoughts are troublesome. The more we think these thoughts, the more we think these thoughts. 

What to do about it: Break the cycle. Intervene in a productive way. This happens at the individual, team and organizational levels. How do you break the cycle? You must give people hope. They need to believe there are brighter days ahead. Optimism is not a conclusion; it is a belief. Optimism is not achieved once all the evidence is assessed and determined to point toward good things. Reality is the reverse; we search for evidence that supports our belief. We find what we look for. Our beliefs determine what we look for. To break the looping thoughts of dread, leadership must communicate genuine hope and optimism that is tempered by the realities of their current state. 

  1. Your employees feel aimless. At some point in March, Americans hunkered down to “wait out the storm.” It turns out that the storm is going to hang around for a while. Yet, many people have not switched out of the “hunker down” mode. There is a sense that if we just endure this a bit longer, there will be relief for us soon. 

What to do about it: Create a plan. If people feel like they are drifting without direction, there is little chance that they will feel any sense of motivation. Goals and destinations are what spark enthusiasm. Our visible horizon is much closer now than we are accustomed to, but we can still see ahead. Reevaluate your company’s priorities. It is critical that the goals that are communicated to employees are strongly aligned with the top priorities and the reputation of the company. Keep it simple: the landscape is likely to change and a simple plan allows for more nimble navigation. When your employees can see a clear line from their contributions today toward a simple company-wide goal, their sense of belonging and collaboration are prone to return. 

The secret ingredient to all these actions is integrity. Your ingenious plan is useless if it is not delivered with dignity and honesty. Your reassurance is empty if your employees do not feel like you are being transparent. 

If you read this and are thinking to yourself, “check, check and check,” you are not done. It is vital that leaders continually update their understanding of the landscape and their employees to recalibrate and stay on course. Companies that make deliberate choices, which prioritize their employees today, will put distance between themselves and their competitors. As companies navigate through the uncertainty of the current landscape, they must not lose sight of the reality that their employees and their families are trying to do the same. 

Cody Pfeiffer
Management Consultant