We all strive to hire the best people for our organizations. Unfortunately, we don’t always get it right. Despite our best attempts, sometimes we draw the short straw when it comes to employee talent. Whether it happens through poor hiring practices or through a significant event (e.g., conflict) in the workplace, at some point every leader experiences a disengaged employee.
Employee disengagement is bad for everyone. Disengaged workers lack interest in their work, are easily distracted, have higher rates of absenteeism, and even possess a negative attitude toward their work which can be contagious for other employees. Disengaged workers cost an organization $3,400 for every $10,000 they earn. This means employers are actually paying more to have poor performing employees. Disengaged employees are also unhappy. No one makes it their goal to hate their job or to perform poorly at work. These employees likely started with high hopes only to reach a point of helplessness that manifested into apathy.
The simple solution is to get rid of the employee and find someone else. Right? Not always. The well is shallow for some employers. For some, it’s either the current employee or no one. And, while many business thought-leaders will argue that it’s better to have no one in the seat than the wrong person, that advice doesn’t neatly translate to all industries or situations.
Fortunately, a massive portion of employee engagement is directly tied to the leadership practices of the manager. More specifically, 70% of employee engagement is explained by the manager. That means through optimal leadership practices, a manager can reverse the resource-sucking black hole that is employee disengagement.
The first step is always to stop the bleeding. It starts with onboarding. Appropriate employee onboarding sets the foundation for long-term employee engagement. According to management consulting company, Gallup, every onboarding program must answer the following five questions for new employees:
1. “What do we believe in around here?”
This is an opportunity to share your company’s values with new employees. Engagement is not born from money. Employees need jobs to pay their bills, yes, but they excel at those jobs, because they are intrinsically motivated by the work itself. Sustainable motivation is held up by a solid purpose. Employees who share and identify with a company’s mission, values, and purpose are those who tend to be more engaged. A great example of this is Chick-fil-A. I have never experienced a disengaged Chick-fil-A employee, and this is no coincidence. Chick-fil-A’s vision, mission, and values are all customer oriented (e.g., “To have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A,” “To be America’s best quick-service restaurant at winning and keeping customers,” “Customer First”). And, as a result, Chick-fil-A stands out as the undisputed champion of fast-food customer service. Their values are clear and their employees know it.
2. “What are my strengths?”
Human beings naturally crave competence. When someone is good at something, they tend to enjoy that activity more. All employees have strengths. It’s the manager’s job to discover what those strengths are and utilize them in the workplace. When employee strengths and work tasks are aligned, it heightens the frequency of moments where that employee can shine. And, employee successes are self-reinforcing. In other words, when an employee experiences a win, she feels pride. That good feeling reinforces the behaviors that led to it.
3. “What is my role?”
Appropriate expectation management is one of the most critical leadership tasks. There is an element of salesmanship that often occurs during the job hiring process. Afterall, employers are posting the job for a reason- they need employees. However, the actual on-the-ground tasks of the job may differ slightly from what was promised during the job interview. Sadly, only about half of employees strongly indicate that they know what is expected of them at work. When employees don’t know what’s expected of them, it makes measuring success or failure difficult. What’s more, ambiguous guidance is fuel for behavioral drift (see Beware of Drift). By explicitly outlining an employee’s role and responsibilities, a manager is helping that employee know exactly where to place her energy.
4. “Who are my partners?”
We are social creatures who need social connection to thrive. We often look to others for guidance on how to behave in our everyday lives. The workplace is no exception. New employees want to fit in to their new company’s culture as quickly as possible and will often look to others to learn how. This can be a good thing when the company culture is strong and filled with other engaged employees but not-so-good if it’s not. A manager has the ability to facilitate these new relationships by pairing new employees with mentors or by introducing them to future project partners, collaborators, etc. These ice-breaking moments can lay the foundation for team cohesion- a powerful predictor of engagement.
5. “What does my future here look like?”
People, especially Americans, are future oriented. They have an innate need for progress and growth. There’s a reason why the term “dead-end job” has such a negative connotation. Stagnation equates to boredom or death. When managers give employees a long-term view of their future in the organization, they give them something to strive towards. Moreover, when a manager discusses long-term plans with an employee, it communicates the company’s investment in that employee. That investment will most certainly be reciprocated through an increase in work performance (i.e., engagement).
The most effective way to prevent disengagement in the workplace is through a proper onboarding process. Deliberate onboarding primes an employee to the values of the organization, outlines an employee’s roles and responsibilities, and lays the foundation for sustained motivation and employee engagement by identifying their strengths and future potential. Yet, onboarding is only part of the equation. What can managers do to mitigate disengagement or noncompliance in current or even veteran employees? See The Leader Toolbox: Managing Employee Noncompliance, Part II for the answer.