The disengaging workplace and how to flip the coin

April 13th, 8:59 am

The disengaged workplace is a term used to describe workplaces that are unproductive, lack passion, and are lethargic. It is not uncommon for an employee at work to walk around with their head down, not even bothering to speak to a coworker.

Here are some key findings from disengaged workplaces and how we can improve our own workplace practices.

Findings from Disengaged Workplaces

The most recent Gallup study of workplace engagement found that only 22% of employees were completely engaged at work. The data found that 87% of workers are disengaged. The percentage of workers who reported that they're completely engaged has been declining since 2007. One in three Americans say they'd actually rather spend a day off at the beach than in the office.

Nearly three-quarters of the workforce said that they didn't think their job matched their actual capabilities. This costs the US economy between $450-550 billion in lost productivity every year.

Why do people disengage at work?

According to Jim Lofgren, a neuroscientist and an associate professor at the University of Michigan, a lack of interest is usually what starts the disengagement process. "We have a strong sense of social comparison. If we compare ourselves to other people and don't get that validation, we may feel a lack of purpose," he explained.

This social comparison can manifest itself in terms of leadership. If a leader doesn't have that sense of purpose, people become disengaged. A disengaged workplace is all too common. Since then, there has been a rising interest in workplace engagement.

Low productivity and lack of passion

Low productivity is a huge issue that diminishes our ability as a country to attract talented people and their talents to help us advance our innovation. Also, low productivity also can directly impact the bottom line. Low productivity leads to high turnover and can lead to a reduction in employee engagement.

In research conducted by Jim Holder, it was found that 61% of employees felt the workplace lacked passion. It’s time to rethink the phrase, “give a rat’s ass.” The end goal is to give customers a feeling of passion and admiration. Engaged employees bring passion and a sense of purpose to the table. Engaged employees also place emphasis on the customer’s experience and are willing to take risks for the customer.

Why do we need passionate employees? People who are passionate display their real identity, thoughts, and feelings at work via creativity, the use of personal voice, emotional expression, authenticity, nondefensive communication, playfulness, and ethical behaviour.

How do disengaged workplaces affect the business outside of work?

William Kahn, the father of the employee engagement movement mentions that: “People defend their preferred self by hiding their true identity, thoughts, and feelings during role performances, becoming defensive, impersonal or emotionally unexpressive, bureaucratic, self-estranged, and closed.”

The most obvious way that the disengaged workplace negatively affects the business is with decreased productivity. With so many employees sitting at desks watching Netflix, or sending emails while they're on vacation, productivity may be drastically decreased. Employees are becoming less engaged with their jobs, which can contribute to stress, depression, and overall employee dissatisfaction.

Furthermore, employees who are consistently under-engaged are more likely to start looking for new jobs. Sometimes, just having a routine work environment can trigger employees to disengage, or keep them from being fully present at work. And, as you can probably tell, a lack of productivity means less revenue for the company.

Read more about the Dysfunctions of a Team

What's the role of psychological safety?

Popularised beyond Google by the New York Times in 2016, it pushed the work of Amy C. Edmondson, the Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School. Psychological safety refers to workplaces where all team members feel safe to voice their concerns and opinions. It also involves the opportunity to share successes, learn and grow.

Physical safety should be a concern to anyone who works in a workplace. The absence of a co-worker who is an active danger to you, that is potentially lethal or incapacitating, can be blissful (I hope). Yet, the workplace can be a dangerous place for applicants who try to prove or disprove that they are safe candidates for the job. A successful team should be encouraged to share ideas and to be held accountable for them.

Edmondson argues that organisations exist in one of three zones - the learning zone, the anxiety zone, or the comfort zone.

  • Leaders that allow for questions and discussions and also hold their employees accountable for excellence fall into the "learning zone"
  • Leaders who only hold their employees accountable for excellence without creating psychological safety fall into the "anxiety zone"
  • Leaders who create psychological safety without holding their employees accountable for excellence all into the "comfort zone"

Read more about psychological safety.

What are some strategies to improve workplace engagement?

Improving workplace engagement starts with knowledge about the problem and the range of factors that influence engagement. Many organisational leaders believe that employee engagement will increase productivity and performance. The challenge to one's self-image in psychologically unsafe environments is huge. We want to appear intelligent, competent, cooperative and positive in front of our peers and bosses. Rather than risk doing so, we shut down and disengage.

Edmonson argues that to deliver the high-performance of the “learning zone” today’s leaders are tasked to do three things.

  • Make explicit that there is enormous uncertainty ahead and enormous interdependence - that we've never been here before; we can't know what will happen; we've got to have everybody's brains and voices in the game.
  • Encourage peers and subordinates to speak up and ask questions, admit mistakes, offer ideas and challenge conventions.
  • Stop expecting immediate solutions (and address the dangerous inanity of the “don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions” meme) and start asking a lot of questions to model curiosity as a vital organisational value
  • To tackle impression management in their teams, leaders should stop projecting an image themselves (of confidence, competence, authority) and summon the courage to show up vulnerable. If leaders embraced a more authentic stance, faced their fears and uncertainty with courage, admitted their struggles, then their teams would then feel more connected, inspired and more inclined to offer perspectives and experiment.
  • Summon up the courage and wisdom to turn to the people inside the organisation for the increased capacities required for it to survive and thrive in the future, as opposed to instinctively calling in outside consulting ‘help’ that further disengages your own people by clearly demonstrating that you don’t trust, value or even recognise their potential to step up.

But let’s be clear, this is an exceedingly difficult task in today’s organisations.

How can we measure workplace engagement and how can we track improvements?

The ability to measure engagement is difficult, but the trick is to develop metrics. You can have discussions and surveys with employees to find out how they feel about the workplace. It is also a good idea to have a professional meeting with your team and discuss how you feel about the culture at your workplace.

Once you know what employees think, you can focus on ways to improve this. The majority of employees do not come to work to be disengaged, but they do not feel engaged. So, you should try to understand why this is the case. Deliver an environment in which immeasurable concepts, such as creativity, play, critical thought, and cognitive flexibility, thrive.

A great way to start is by facilitating workshops and experiences that enhance your team’s connectivity.

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