Home / News / Business Of Life /  Re-engaging a disengaged worker


A star performer at a leading insurance company was known for his result-orientation, drive and sense of ownership. Fast-forward a year, and he was a mere shadow of his earlier energetic self. He looked withdrawn, contributed little at meetings and kept to himself. He continued working, of course, but his work performance was restricted to meeting his “key result areas". It was not unusual for him to walk in late, call in sick and miss deadlines.

According to a 2010 study by US-based performance management consultancy Gallup, Inc. (The State of the Global Workplace—A Worldwide Study of Employee Engagement And Wellbeing), 8% of India’s workforce is actively engaged, 55% not engaged and 37% actively disengaged. The “not engaged" employees are like zombies going through the motions at work without drive or ownership. They have “checked out", but continue working, perhaps because the current job is too lucrative to easily let go. Actively disengaged employees, on the other hand, could be unproductive, spread discontent and influence their co-workers negatively. They could even be disruptive, sabotaging projects and driving away customers.

In contrast, actively engaged employees have a wholesome impact on the organization. The Gallup study showed that the companies which emerged as the top 25% in its survey of employee engagement had significantly higher productivity, profitability and customer ratings, less turnover and absenteeism, fewer safety incidents and considerably higher earnings per share compared with the bottom 25%.

Saba Adil, head of human resources (HR) at AEGON Religare Life Insurance Co., Mumbai, says companies should be proactive in diagnosing problems since these can do untold harm—not just to the performance, but also to the overall morale of the organization.

What causes disengagement?

Terri Kabachnick, author of I Quit, But Forgot to Tell You, says disengagement could be triggered by a new boss, a new role, or when learning and development ends.

Sabu P. Augustine, Mumbai-based director of HR at Resources India, a member of advertising conglomerate Publicis Groupe, cites the case of a team member who was initially recognized for his performance but gradually slipped into “sleeping mode". Augustine says that perhaps his colleague felt he had successfully delivered on all the possibly challenging assignments that the organization could potentially offer and the job no longer excited him.

A lack of acknowledgement, appreciation or due credit for a task accomplished could be an important trigger too, according to Mumbai-based Zeena Paynter, vice-president, HR, IDBI Capital, an investment banking and financial services provider. She cites the example of an employee who became disengaged because he thought his compensation was not commensurate with his experience and contribution.

Mumbai-based Anil Bhatt, head of training, SBI Life Insurance Co. Ltd, says disengagement could be triggered by credit for achieving a task being taken by someone else, inadvertently or intentionally. An absence of regular communication can make matters worse, especially when the employee starts feeling that he is not part of the inner coterie of the manager.

Bhatt says it isn’t unusual for a person to progress in terms of job title and compensation without a sense of accompanying enrichment. For a person’s employability may be affected adversely by the high salary vis-à-vis the job, thereby forcing him to stay in the system.

What is the key to re-engaging employees?

The Great Place to Work Institute, a global research, consulting and training firm which does an annual study to identify organizations that are great places to work in, defines engaged employees as those who trust the people they work for, have pride in what they do and enjoy the people they work with.

So what is the role of employee-friendly policies related to compensation and benefits like flexi timings, work-from-home, and maternity, paternity and adoption leave? How about initiatives like welcome parties, birthday celebrations, or fun activities like wine-tasting and meditation sessions?

Undoubtedly, these initiatives go a long way in contributing to employee well-being, encouraging interaction and bonding, and adding an element of excitement. American psychologist Frederick Herzberg’s two-factor theory, however, categorizes these as hygiene factors that, at best, mitigate employee dissatisfaction but don’t necessarily trigger the discretionary effort which is important for motivation and engagement. A timely and effective response to any query by stakeholders such as the line manager, the senior management team and the HR department can prevent employee disengagement in the first place.

We list some of the queries most employees have—and to keep them motivated and attached, managers must take it on themselves to resolve these.

What is expected of me?

Mumbai-based Raj Bowen, managing director, PDI Ninth House India, a Korn/Ferry International company offering talent management and leadership solutions, says the manager plays a crucial role in helping a person discover his strengths, articulate his aspirations and then work towards identifying goals and a role commensurate with these.

So connect with the person by understanding his goals, priorities, preferences and concerns. Outline goals and expectations in measurable terms, and work with the employee to create a road map for getting there. Then provide the necessary resources, opportunities and support. Revisit and fine-tune the goals periodically.

How am I doing?

Any employee will be concerned about how he is faring at work. And understandably so. According to Bowen, the manager needs to open up the communication channels and play the role of a coach by providing feedback proactively, not just restricting it to the formal feedback milestones mandated by the performance management system. The trick lies in “saying it when you see it".

Remember that your star performer may not continue performing with the same zest in the absence of a pat on the back for exhibiting the desirable behaviour and performance level. And don’t assume that he knows. Tell him. Further, deliver feedback objectively, holding back judgement, and focusing on the behaviour rather than the person. Also, make it developmental and supportive by using the “we language"—“What can we do to address this? How can I help?"

Does anyone care?

Adil’s approach to people engagement is to try and understand their aspirations and then put together strategies with elements of job enrichment, enlargement and rotation, identifying roles that are interesting, meaningful and add value. Show an interest in an employee’s career development by facilitating the enhancement of skills, knowledge and expertise through formal and informal training, participation in internal and external forums and experiential learning opportunities in the form of stretch assignments and job rotation. Delegate to lend width, depth and challenge to his role.

How is the organization doing?

Adil says people have an inherent need to see the big picture by understanding how their little piece fits into the larger jigsaw puzzle. Therefore, it is crucial to listen to employees and offer regular updates on opportunities, challenges, structural changes and new products and businesses, through formal lines of communication like town halls, senior leadership coffee forums and other communication platforms. This also means employees don’t need to turn to the grapevine for information.

Helmut Maucher, former chairman and CEO of food company Nestlé S.A., too stressed this point in his book Leadership in Action: Tough-Minded Strategies From the Global Giant: “Employees need to be informed; information provides a sense of security, trust and identification with the company."

Strategies for re-engaging employees

According to Paynter, the trick lies in recognizing the symptoms early on, and then addressing the root cause. She says that while the line manager is best placed to recognize the symptoms, the matter can also be resolved through collaborative effort by the line manager or business head and HR.

She remembers an employee who had “switched off" because he felt that his boss tended to run down his ideas and found fault with anything he did. Paynter was able to turn him around through extensive counselling, and by equipping him with insights and tips on managing a boss.

Augustine’s potion for a disengaged direct reportee was to assign him a challenging project that came with greater responsibility. The idea was to make him feel important and recognized.

Bowen says that especially in the context of Gen Y and Gen Z employees, one doesn’t have the luxury of time for implementing re-engagement strategies—for their patience quotient is rather low. The response, therefore, needs to be quick, tangible and visible because, ultimately, an engaged workforce can lend an organization a significant competitive advantage.

Charu Sabnavis is the director of Delta Learning, a human resources consulting and training company.

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