Choosing to Stay: Transforming disengaged employees into engaged contributors

It’s hard to imagine an employee articulating a conscious decision to disengage from his work. How do you think he’d start that conversation with his supervisor? “I’m sorry, but I just don’t feel like doing this job. So unless you intend to watch over me like a hawk, I’ll most likely be exerting minimal effort in my eight hours here today.”

Any co-worker overhearing that conversation would certainly think twice about a boss who responded with, “Thanks for letting me know. Hope we don’t put too much of a strain on you with work expectations today.”

But that’s just what’s happening (albeit non-verbally) in organizations across the country as legions of disengaged workers continue to punch the clock on a daily basis. By not confronting obviously disengaged employees, leaders passively endorse the morale-sucking behavior that distracts engaged employees from fully realizing their potential. Yet not all disengaged employees are “lost causes.” Leaders can make a significant impact on employees at all levels of engagement and transform them into true team players.

Step 1: Identify Their Engagement Level

Engagement is defined as the productive use of an employee’s ideas, talents, and energy. Engagement influences what employees do, what results they produce, and how they affect those around them. And it’s important for supervisors to understand that employees choose their level of engagement based on how well their own critical needs are being met at work.

For easy identification, most employees can fit into one of four levels of engagement as defined by the Center for Talent Retention (CTR):

  • Level 1 is disengaged.
    These employees only contribute 55 percent of their abilities to their jobs. They only work when they have to, would rather be doing something else, and their work results do not meet the organization’s standards. Disengaged employees are negative in their interactions and do not view themselves as part of the organization. Yet when managers take action, they can get about one in ten disengaged employees to the engaged level.
  • Level 2 is somewhat engaged.
    These employees contribute 75 percent of their abilities to their jobs. They’re selective about where they put their energy, do what it takes to get by, and spend a lot of time doing things that are not helping customers or the organization. The deliver when they have to or when they’re being watched. About one in two of these employees can be moved to the engaged level.
  • Level 3 is engaged.
    These employees contribute 100 percent to their jobs and deliver good, solid, consistent performance. They always do their fair share of work and focus on their deliverables, project, and individual responsibilities. About one in five has the potential to increase to fully engaged.
  • Level 4 is fully engaged.
    These individuals are passionate about their work and the organization. They feel as if they are a true owner. These employees contribute 122 percent to their jobs and will do whatever it takes to deliver results, including finding innovative solutions to the toughest problems. When managers invest time in these employees, they can keep 100 percent of them fully engaged.

Step 2: Create an Action Plan

It’s equally important to maintain the engagement level of the “engaged” and “fully engaged” employees as it is to increase the level of the “somewhat engaged” and “disengaged” employees. However, most leaders admit that while they have “disengaged” and “somewhat engaged” employees, they refrain from taking action.

Just as the disengaged employees are choosing to be mentally absent from work, the manager who chooses not to address that employee is endorsing the behavior and the level of service provided by that employee.

If the organization is committed to progress and service excellence, then it should also be committed to taking action to raise the employee engagement level. Many employee engagement problems begin on day one when the potential employee is interviewed. Oftentimes, we don’t ask job candidates what is important to them in securing a particular position. Knowing this information up front can go a long way toward managing the candidate’s expectations of the job and determining how well he would fit the job description.

Taking the employee’s critical needs into account when developing an engagement action plan will help the manager and employee identify what the employee can do to increase his engagement level. Employees who feel their needs are being met are more likely to choose to ramp up their engagement level.

Step 3: Coach for Success

Once the manager and employee have created an engagement action plan, the employee will rely on the manager to coach him through the plan. As employees strive to increase their engagement levels, managers must be available with clear feedback that guides and encourages. Continue to clarify actions with the employee as it relates to the employees’ goals and objectives. Help employees to identify and overcome barriers.

While the biggest “bang for the buck” in increasing engagement levels will be seen in moving a disengaged performer to and engaged performer, don’t forget that it’s equally as valuable to invest time in maintaining fully engaged performers. The brightest and the best are choosing to be that way, and they want to work for someone who helps them achieve their best and encourages them along the way.

It is true that employees choose their level of engagement and, therefore, choose if they are truly present at work or not, but leaders are just as important in determining engagement level. Choose to continue to avoid the disengaged and you’ll find that the entire workforce (as well as your customers) will ultimately suffer.

Choose to collaborate with employees on increasing their level of engagement and you’ll end up raising the bar not just on the engagement level but the overall service level of your organization.

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