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How to Spot & Motivate a Disengaged Employee

Kristen Ruttgaizer

August 29, 2019 · 5 min read

It’s old news that engaged workers are more productive and innovative, while disengaged workers carry a big cost. So why are we still struggling with disengagement, and what can we do about it?

Igloo recently teamed up with bestselling author and futurist Alexandra Levit of PeopleResults to get answers. Watch the webinar to hear Alexandra’s take on the current realities of employee engagement and some practical ways to identify and fix disengagement.

The reality of disengagement

The stats on engagement should be a wake-up call to every organization. Gallup’s newest poll reveals that just 34 per cent of Americans are engaged at work. About half of employees say they’re just showing up every day, and 13 per cent describe themselves as actively disengaged. The cost of this disengagement? Between $450 and $500 million a year, according to the latest research.

On the flip side, businesses with the most engaged workers have higher productivity, better retention, fewer accidents, and 21 per cent high profitability. As for employees, nobody wants to feel disconnected and burnt out. In fact, a recent report shows that 96 per cent of employees are at least attempting to maintain a high level of engagement.

Why haven’t we fixed employee engagement yet?

There’s no shortage of reasons to solve or at least reduce the problem, and most organizations have tried. But their success has been limited by these common missteps:


We don’t try to understand why. The single most effective way to find out why employees are disengaged is to ask them, but many of us avoid those uncomfortable conversations.


We haven’t benchmarked our performance. You can’t know how you’re doing on engagement unless you measure related performance indicators like turnover and conduct anonymous employee surveys.


We don’t act on feedback. You’ll do more harm than good to engagement levels if you succumb to analysis paralysis and do nothing tangible with employee feedback.

We don’t train our managers. Gallup found managers account for at least 70 per cent of the variance in employee engagement. Letting bad managers muddle through can cause engagement to plummet.

What does the future of engaging employees look like?

Looking ahead, things aren’t going to get easier when it comes to engaging your workforce. Here are a few reasons why:

  • Blurring personal/professional boundaries and tech fatigue: Technology may have freed employees from their cubicles, but now they’re juggling multiple apps and information overload 24/7. To make matters worse, 70 percent of remote workers in a new survey said they encounter challenges they wouldn’t face in the office.
  • Overwork: The research on overwork is indisputable: it’s bad for employees and the organization. Yet one study found nearly 70 percent of Americans are suffering from an overabundance of work, and two-thirds believe it’s the most significant factor negatively affecting their engagement.
  • Sandwiched employees: Many employees today have too much going on in their lives to prioritize work. They’re caring for children, supporting parents, nurturing hobbies, running small businesses on the side – and the list goes on.
  • Mental health crises: With employees getting stretched thinner and thinner, it’s no surprise that mental health struggles are on the rise. The teens and young adults who make up Generation Z – tomorrow’s employees – are more likely than any generation to report poor mental health. Therefore, companies must prioritize mental health in the workplace.

How to identify a disengaged employee

Still, there’s hope. But before you can tackle disengagement, you need to know what it looks like. These are some telltale signs to keep an eye out for:

1. Withdrawal

Disengaged workers do the bare minimum to get by. They don’t take initiative, collaborate with colleagues, seek professional development, or participate in anything beyond what’s essential. Keep in mind that someone also might just be introverted, so they might seem disengaged because they’re not talkative but their work will suggest otherwise if they actually are engaged.

2. Changing patterns

If employees are suddenly “not themselves” – coming in late, missing deadlines, being silent in meetings, or displaying other uncharacteristic behavior – it’s worth a closer look. Even if the case is simply that they’re going through a rough patch, opening a dialogue and letting them know that you care and understand will help them feel more connected and strengthen bonds.

3. Absenteeism

There are plenty of valid reasons for missing work, but engaged employees tend to find a way to be there. Excessive amounts of missed work may signal that they don’t feel that what they do is valuable and their time may as well be spent doing other things.

4. Negativity

When employees naysay every idea, refuse opportunities, and are curt with co-workers and supervisors, something’s up. Not only does it harm relationships with co-workers and — potentially — clients, it also brings productivity and creativity down as others begin to adopt the same mindset.

5. Exhaustion, cynicism, & inefficiency

Watch out for formerly high performers who appear worn out and are less effective than usual. This likely indicates burnout and can have the biggest impacts on your best employees if not taken care of.

Disengagement can be contagious

All of these signs to look for are usually not isolated to one person. If others start seeing more negativity around them, or coworkers taking more and more time off from work, or not engaging and collaborating on projects, they’re more likely to start doing it themselves. Putting a temporary bandage over the problem won’t help, you need to solve the root problem (and it likely won’t just be for one person).

So how can we fix disengagement?

Once you know what to look for, you’re ready to start fixing the problem. In the webinar we referenced above, Alexandra describes several effective interventions for addressing disengagement at the individual and organizational level. Here are a few examples for both:

At the individual level:

  • Initiate and sustain dialogue. Start a conversation, preferably in person, with a disengaged employee by demonstrating that you’re committed to helping them over the long term.
  • Promote collaboration. The flexible work environment is here to stay, so support all workers with collaboration tools, social outlets, and recognition.
  • Measure what you treasure. Determine whether employees’ basic needs are being met (training, recognition, positive manager relationship). Fill the gaps, then measure again.

At the organizational level:

  • Identify pain points. Identify where your weak links are in engagement based on employee engagement surveys, dialogue, and benchmarking.
  • Develop a high-tech, high-touch plan and set execution goals. Pilot projects are an efficient way to evaluate the usefulness of programs, technology, and policies meant to boost engagement. Be sure to track results regularly.
  • Expect to revisit frequently. You’ll never be officially “done” addressing disengagement. It should be a constantly evolving effort that’s responsive to changes in the workforce, organization, and industry.

Keep employees engaged with digital workplace solutions

Igloo creates digital workplace solutions that inspire employees to be more connected and engaged. We help you build and sustain digital destinations that bring people and resources together to solve critical business challenges.

To see how a digital workplace solution can help employee engagement as well as other business challenges, get in touch today.