Have you ever had someone on your team that seems completely unmotivated? They don't participate in team discussions, they keep their head down, and you find yourself wondering what they think. You may even feel like they're not thinking, or that they don't care about their work. These people are disengaged employees, and that's as much your fault as it is theirs. So what can you do to help?

How do you identify disengaged employees?

Hypothetically, no new employee should be disengaged at the start of their employment. Assuming you have adequate recruiting and hiring processes in place—and your team's purpose is clear and compelling—your new hires are likely very engaged on Day One. They're excited to find their place in this new world and believe they are a valuable contributor in attaining the company's goals. Then something bad happens. Teammates are unhelpful or rude. The employee's manager doesn't listen to their concerns. Or the employee finds the nature of their day-to-day work to be unfulfilling. At first these may sound like external factors that the employee—or you as their team leader—are unable to control. However, through careful observation, you can identify early signs of lessened engagement. Identifying problems early can prevent your struggling employee from becoming completely disengaged.

Listen to what they're telling you

First and foremost, you can identify a disengaged employee by what they tell you. What concerns do they raise? Do they propose solutions to problems, or ask you to find a solution? Do they ask any questions at all? Silence is an indicator of disengagement. Similarly, voicing concerns without proposing solutions can be a sign of disengagement at work. There may be several reasons for a team member not speaking their mind. Perhaps they are intimidated by the people in the room, don't want to sound ignorant or stupid in front of their peers, or need a little time to fully form their thoughts. Whatever the reason, if you're noticing an absence of ideas from someone, they are not highly engaged.

Observe their behavior at work

In addition to their words (or lack thereof), watch how employees behave. Do they appear isolated from others? Do they dodge groups or keep headphones on all day? Do they appear upset, frustrated, or dejected? Disengaged employees are less likely to have friends at work, to join conversations with their peers, or to even passively listen to peer groups. The most disengaged employees wake up dreading work, wishing to remain as distant and undisturbed as possible throughout their work day. There are certainly times when people need to remain undisturbed. Creatives and other knowledge workers may need significant blocks of time to themselves in order to think through problems or come up with interesting new ideas. However, if all you see is isolating behavior without a related burst of ideas or productivity, you likely have a disengaged employee.

Why do employees become disengaged?

As I mentioned earlier, there are several reasons why someone may become disengaged. They may feel ignored, undervalued, sidelined, or perhaps even disliked. They may find that their personal values have diverged from those of their team. There are so many reasons to become disengaged that I simply can not list all of them here. And you won't be able to guess why a particular person is disengaged without asking them.

Find out what is important to them at work

When measuring employee engagement, I ask team members how much they value specific engagement factors. For example, an underpaid person may value compensation most. Alternatively, a person fully committed to your team's mission may value a sense of purpose in their work more than anything else.

Ask them how they perceive their work environment

Once I understand what is important to a person—what engagement factors they value most—I seek to understand how they believe the company performs in those areas. For example, I might ask a person if they would refer a friend to work on our team if I want insight into their job satisfaction.

Combine these insights to identify what matters most

Once you know what engagement factors are important to a person and how they perceive the company's work in those areas, you can paint a clear picture of the cause behind their disengagement. If a person strongly values autonomy (self-direction) in their work but all of their tasks are prioritized and assigned by you, they will feel less engaged.

Can disengaged employees become engaged?

Remember my earlier assertion: if you're recruiting and hiring well, no employee starts their job disengaged. They are highly engaged at the start. Their level of engagement changes over time as they discover more about their team—including you, their team leader—and themselves. Just as a person's level of engagement may decrease over time, it may also increase. Recognize, however, that a change in engagement—positive or negative—is a response to something that has happened with your team member. If their raise request is rejected, they'll feel less emotionally connected to the organization because their perception of their value does not match the organization's perception of their value. If they receive a spot bonus for doing great work, they'll feel appreciated and in alignment with the direction of the company.

It's a question of time

Considering that any change in engagement is caused by something that has happened to your employee, you may face a difficult choice when working with disengaged employees. Positively influencing a person's engagement takes time. Employee engagement is an emotional connection and commitment to your company. That commitment works both ways: the employee invests time and energy in the relationship, and so does their leader. So the question becomes, for you, a leader of a team with several people who want your time and attention, where do you spend your time? Do you focus on very disengaged employees, who require considerable effort compared to more passionate engagement seekers?

How do you determine whose engagement level to focus on?

The answer to that question depends on your team. Do you have willing engagement seekers, who just need a little nudge to change their perspective? Or do you only have disengaged employees, who need significant time and attention to experience any meaningful change in employee engagement? Generally, if you have team members who want to be more engaged, pursue strengthening those working relationships before expending too much time on very disengaged employees.

Assess everyone's level of engagement

Start by making an assessment of each person's engagement level. Insight makes this as simple as sending a survey and reviewing our Employee Engagement Quadrant (EEQ), but this is an exercise you can run manually on small teams. Identify a few key areas of things in team members' work lives that you can influence, and then see how they feel about those areas. Use the importance/perception qualities of engagement described earlier in this article to see where people would be placed on an EEQ.

Identify which employees are open to increasing their engagement

Using the EEQ, you will see who to focus on first: engagement seekers, followed by satisfied employees, and finally disengaged employees. This recommended order is based on who you can most likely influence to become more highly engaged at work.

What do you do when a disengaged employee feels like a lost cause?

Many team leaders will feel compelled to "fix" disengaged employees. This is not the approach I recommend. Employee engagement is a two-way street—a personal relationship like any other—and as a leader you are just as responsible for disengagement as those who are disengaged. There are a number of options for how to address a disengaged employee. Your responsibility as a team leader is to choose the best option for you and your people.

Build and execute an action plan for engaging employees

In an ideal world, you work with your disengaged employee to positively influence their engagement. This includes identifying the most valued engagement factors, planning actions to take with the employee to positively influence those engagement factors, and iterating on the plan as the relationship moves in the right direction. Our Insight employee engagement platform takes care of the planning for you, prioritizing concrete, guided actions you can take with a person based on what they need at work most.

Ask another leader to try to help them

Since employee engagement is a human relationship, you may find that you can't always connect with every person. Sometimes the best thing you can do for a disengaged employee is step out of the way. Ask another company leader—preferably one you know the disengaged employee respects and enjoys—to help. If another leader has a greater impact on your disengaged employee, you will have a neutral third party who can give you advice on how to better support your people.

Suggest moving them to a different role

If an employee finds their work unrewarding or unfulfilling, perhaps they should be in a different role. Analyzing what they enjoy and discussing other needs and opportunities on your team may open both of your minds to ideas that meet everyone's objectives: necessary work gets done and everyone feels better about their contributions on the team.

Transition them to a more appropriate team

There may not always be an engaging role for every employee on your team. When you identify a possible place an employee could move to elsewhere in the organization, discuss the opportunity with them to determine if it would change their perspective. Convey that you want the employee in the most fulfilling and appropriate position for them, even if that means moving them to another team. Perhaps the disengaged employee declines the opportunity, but the offer alone may positively influence their engagement, so long as you come from a place of compassion when suggesting a transition.

Consider letting go of very disengaged employees

While terminating an employee should be a last resort, if you have exhausted your other options, you may find that termination is the best option for everyone. Compassionately helping a disengaged employee move on can alleviate the common problems with retaining a disengaged employee, preventing a domino effect on the rest of your team's level of engagement. Disengaged employees are sometimes perceived as not pulling their own weight, which leads to frustration from other team members. Making a sane exit plan for a disengaged employee may help them more than you realize. Giving a departing employee some leads on relevant job openings may help them land a more appropriate—and engaging—job than you could offer them in your organization. Just because a working relationship did not work out doesn't mean you have to end on bad terms. Chances are, if you're considering letting someone go, they are thinking of ways to get out of their situation too.

Measure and influence employee engagement with Insight

Book a demo today to get started with Insight, our employee engagement platform. Insight is the first employee engagement platform to offer personalized, concrete, guided action plans for each person on your team. Leaders will discover engagement ideas that positively influence engagement on an individual level, making them more effective and confident in their approach to employee engagement.