DisengagementIf I was forced to make a list of my biggest failures in the past 44 years, I can honestly say that my divorce would be on top of that list. Standing in court and citing ‘Irreconcilable Differences’ as a reason for dissolving a long term relationship just felt like such a cop-out because I’m one of those solution-driven people and a fixer by nature.

A few years down the line and with the benefit of hindsight, I realised that despite my there’s nothing that can’t be fixed’ attitude, both people in that relationship had committed the Ultimate Betrayal. We had simply disengaged.

The reason why disengagement is the ultimate betrayal is because you can’t tell how or when exactly it happened but at some stage you made a series of decisions to disconnect from another person. This is what makes disengagement such a dangerous animal. Unlike an affair in a marriage or a traumatic event, you can’t name the actual incident and you simply can’t say when it started. It happens through a series of subtle actions or non-actions, words spoken or not spoken and before you know it, there is simply no connection or a sense of belonging.

At this stage some readers could be thinking, this is a sad story but probably more Facebook material. They may have a point, sharing vulnerabilities on a professional network where we all put our best foot forward may be a risk. In my opinion sharing vulnerabilities also allows us to connect and engage at a human level.

But for the slightly uncomfortable, let’s keep it professional:

Human beings are hardwired to seek connection, have a sense of belonging and actively engage in both our personal and work relationships. As Brene Brown writes in her brilliant book, Daring Greatly, the importance of social acceptance and connection is reinforced by our brain chemistry, and the pain that results from social rejection and disconnection is real pain. If the need for connection is such an integral part of who we are, why then do leaders have to grapple with the challenge of disengaged colleagues and employees?

My personal story is simply an example that demonstrates that in relationships, personal and professional relationships, the Ultimate Betrayal takes place due to a number of choices and decisions. Unlike personal relationships and because of practical needs, it is less likely in a professional relationship to cite ‘irreconcilable differences’ and move on. Disengaged employees simply stay in the relationship and go through the motions – they stay for the kids ie. their salary.

When disengagement takes place, innovative ideas dry up, suggestions are no longer provided, questions aren’t asked and there aren’t even complaints.  Managers do all the talking at team meetings which are grudgingly attended by a group of individuals staring at their crotches while whatsapping or getting to the next level of Candy Crush. Training is seen as an irritation and not an opportunity. Feedback on anything is as scarce as chicken teeth. Sound familiar?

But before we start marching up and down our office passages crying out “the end is nigh”, there is some good news:

  1. It can be avoided.
  2. It can be rectified

How can we avoid staff disengagement?

In the beginning of any relationship the wooing process is given a considerable amount of energy and attention. Organisations have great induction sessions and go out of their way to welcome new recruits into the family. After psyching new employees up about being part of the team, telling them all about the exciting vision, how we want them to be innovative and contribute to the success of the organisation we hand them over to technically skilled experienced managers.

If these managers aren’t highly engaged themselves, equipped with the necessary leadership and coaching skills, even the best onboarding programme will not prevent disengagement. Remember we are social creatures, we connect to people not to organisations. This is why we believe that people don’t leave organisations, they leave managers. In other words, an employee will first disengage from the manager, which ends up in organisational disengagement.

A disengaged team member has probably experienced one or more of these situations:

  • When offering suggestions or innovative ideas, they are told: “That won’t work but you will eventually learn how we do things around here”.
  •  When questioning a process or procedure implemented by another department, they are reminded that it is not in their area of responsibility or expertise and there are unspoken rules about not stepping on other people’s toes. In other words, this is Our Silo and in Our Silo we shall remain.
  • When there is training, the manager will take it upon herself to select the areas she feels her employees need to be trained in and will not invite any input or feedback from her team.
  • Coaching sessions with the manager will focus on the team member’s weaknesses and remedial actions.
  • When a mistake is made, the culprit is subjected to public humiliation and to ensure a lesson was learnt they will receive continual reminders of their past indiscretion at each performance discussion for an extended period.
  • Strong performers will be left to their own devices and won’t receive any coaching and feedback on their performance. If it isn’t broke, why fix it?

Some of the examples may seem familiar and even the lightest versions of any of these behaviours executed over extended period will ultimately lead to disengagement. Leaders with high levels of self- and social-awareness, will be in the position to recognise these actions and take the necessary steps to change course. Fortunately, both levels of awareness form part emotional intelligence, which can be developed.

So how do we, as leaders, avoid committing the Ultimate Betrayal?

Here are a few suggestions for leaders who want their teams to connect and thrive:

  1. Reflect and recharge – You can’t increase your team’s engagement levels if you’re disengaged. If you’re not engaged, consider what matters most to you. Then consider where the organisation needs you to focus your talents. Can a few job tweaks improve things? If you are already fully engaged, find ways to “infect” others.
  2. Remember that feedback is a gift. Employees want feedback. They deserve information that can help them achieve their goals and the organisation’s. Giving regular feedback will help create the team engagement you need to increase your organization’s performance. Let them know what they do well so they can keep doing those things with confidence. Encouraging your team members to provide you with feedback on your performance, and using this feedback to improve your leadership skills will also enhance engagement. Side bar – this does require a certain amount of maturity on the manager’s part.
  3. Talk and listen more. Communication (especially in today’s email-driven workplace) is often one-way. Conversation, on the other hand, is about dialogue between two or more people. Conversation drives clarity. It is by far the most effective vehicle for providing performance feedback and increasing your team’s engagement levels. It is the only way to efficiently generate new ideas for increasing business results and personal job satisfaction. It helps prevent misunderstandings and it builds trust.
  4. Coach on an ongoing basis. Managers need to remember that their staff members are creative and resourceful individuals. Coaching isn’t about trying to ‘fix’ someone; it’s about helping them discover strengths they’ve always had. Focus on catching people doing things right. The development of coaching skills for managers should be high on the training agenda.
  5. Actively involve staff in their own development. Team members know what they are struggling with and by making them responsible for their development, managers are communicating trust. Adults are also more likely to be susceptible to learning in an environment where they have control in shaping and guiding the learning process. Methodologies such as the Peer-to-Peer Training model provide employees with the opportunity to set the training agenda, own the programme and measure outcomes.

Disengaged employees are not a lost cause and if we realise we may be guilty of committing the Ultimate Betrayal, it will take time and energy on our part, but it can be fixed. By applying some of the practices listed above we also have the opportunity to develop a team that is emotionally engaged, creative and unafraid to make its voice heard – ultimately this is what we want.  

Alternatively, we can throw our hands in the air, site “irreconcilable differences” and remain on the same path – after all, jobs are scarce and disengaged staff members don’t leave and still provide a satisfactory service. The burning question though … Can we really afford them to stay?

As a human being, I am all about connection and engagement, so let’s connect and share views; tell me what you think.

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