The signs of disengagement: what managers should look for

Published 31st October 2018 by Investors in People

What causes disengagement?

Organisations are extremely complex entities and so are people. The variables that go into one person’s experience at work are, therefore, unique to that individual and that organisation. This means the causes of one person’s disengagement can be vastly different from someone else’s and that it’s hard to point to universal causes of disengagement.

But it’s fair to say that there are potential causes that tend to remain stable across different people and different organisations. Saunders and Tiwari (2014) provide a long list of potential causes of disengagement [PDF], including unmet job expectations, underutilisation of talent, poor work-life balance, lack of recognition or advancement opportunities and inadequate resources.

Take a look at the full list [PDF] to educate yourself on where organisational shortcomings or managerial behaviours may be increasing the likelihood of disengagement. Why? Because the first stage of tackling disengagement is, of course, to prevent it happening in the first place.

The golden sign of disengagement: a clear change

As we said above, everyone is different, which means that universal signs of disengagement – just like universal causes of disengagement – are hard to come by. Some people are quiet, some are loud. Some enthusiastically put in discretionary effort while some work their contractual hours only.

What is normal covers a wide spectrum, which is why it’s hard to find universal signs of disengagement. But when people start to display behaviours that deviate from their own personal norm, it can signal disengagement with the job, although of course it can also indicate a wider personal problem, such as a significant life event.

With that in mind, let’s look at some of the more common signs of disengagement, but just remember to bear in mind that you must start with what the individual employee is like when trying to understand if they’re disengaged or not.

Reduced concern for procedural fairness

Process fairness is important to people generally and morale and engagement are very sensitive to organisational justice. This is why, for example, giving individuals in teams bespoke working arrangements can undermine team dynamics.

Perceptions of unfairness tend to provoke a strong reaction, which can be overt or covert. On the flipside, perceptions of process fairness tend to have a positive effect on performance. Yet these positive effects tend to be less obvious when employees plan to leave, according to research from Collins et al (2012).

When employees are less concerned about being treated fairly at work in a variety of procedural situations, such as promotions and employee recognition, you may therefore be looking at a sign of disengagement because they are actually on the way out the door.

Detachment from some or all spheres of organisational life

Kahn (1990) defines ‘personal disengagement’ as the ‘uncoupling of selves from work roles,’ in which employees ‘defend themselves physically, cognitively or emotionally.’ This makes sense: if you ‘disengage’ with something, you withdraw from active participation.

The uncoupling can occur in some or all spheres of organisational life. The interpersonal sphere is a common area for uncoupling, where the individual’s disengagement weakens social links with colleagues. This can be especially damaging not just to the individual but also to team dynamics. This can also be easier to spot than uncoupling in other spheres.

Bear in mind that uncoupling doesn’t always present in the same way. Defence, as mentioned above, won’t always involve more common behaviours like displaying anger or being emotionally absent. A passionate employee who plays devil’s advocate in meetings shows detachment when they heartily and enthusiastically agree with ideas. This ‘positive’ role reversal may actually point to a significant case of disengagement.

Poor time management and energy management

Poor time management or energy management – manifesting in signs such as absenteeism, lack of punctuality or exhaustion at work – always have a cause. This cause can be personal or something work-related.

It may be more likely to be a work-related cause if combined with other factors in this article. If it’s something personal, the individual’s energy levels may actually improve from being at work (because they’re away from the stressful situation).

Time and energy management are areas where individuals differ greatly in their skills, conscientiousness and natural inclinations. The important thing, as always, is for managers to notice changes in time or energy management patterns and investigate accordingly.

A regression towards presenteeism

Disengaged employees tend to fall into three camps: those who aren’t aware they’re disengaged, those who are aware they’re disengaged but don’t care if the organisation knows it and those who are disengaged and don’t want the spotlight to fall on them.

This last group may show a tendency to make sure they are working hard when being watched, to overtly hit their contractual obligations and to generally be cordial and agreeable in situations where they feel they are being judged. Depending on the individual, this can be a hard sign to interpret.

This contrasts to those who are highly engaged at work, who are more likely to gravitate between periods of high-energy flow and lower-energy periods of reflection, meetings or administrative tasks. In this state, we tend to be more guided by our workload and natural patterns, which means that to an outsider, our working patterns seem less structured. We are not trying hard to put a particular ‘spin’ on them.

Ready for your next step? We have some great articles to take your employee engagement programmes to the next level: read our three key ideas to transform your engagement efforts, find out why sharing information is so critical or discover why the line manager is your essential engagement starting point.