How to spot weak employee engagement

How To Spot the Symptoms of Weak Employee Engagement Before It’s Too Late

You’ve noticed that your team isn’t working together well lately and they are complaining about each other to you. Or, maybe one of your stars isn’t hitting the mark anymore. That new hire hasn’t hit their stride as you thought they would by now. Your detail person has been making mistakes lately. Perhaps you’ve noticed the office is pretty quiet at 5 o’clock.

These are all signs of trouble, signals your employees are disconnected from their jobs. These are all signs of weak engagement.

Engagement can be low for many reasons. The person could be the wrong fit for the company or the manager. They could be going through a life change. A wedding, baby, divorce, death in family, new home, side gig, even a new pet can cause someone to be distracted at work or have other priorities.

But many times, it’s the job itself that has caused the lack of enthusiasm. And um, sometimes as the manager, whether you like to admit or not, you are even the cause.

Most people think that once an employee has lost their engagement in a job, they are a lost cause. They might even be labeled a ‘bad employee’. Here’s the interesting part…

The truth is that every employee’s engagement waxes and wanes many times throughout their tenure, for all sorts of reasons.

A disengaged employee isn’t hopeless, it can actually be a cry for help. If addressed skilfully, they can turn around into a dedicated, valuable team member. Noticing early when someone’s engagement is weakening can make the difference between being able to re-engage them or not. And…

It’s worth it to invest your time in employee engagement for a number of reasons, profit for one. A Gallup poll recently showed that companies in the top of their class for employee engagement were 21% more profitable and 20% more productive.

It’s also worth it because the rest of your employees deserve to work with engaged team members who are contributing and pulling their weight. Without good engagement on your team, you are robbing yourself and your company of results.

Here are 9 things to watch for so you can catch an employee’s engagement when it starts to weaken and turn it around before it’s too late…

1. I haven’t seen one of my employees for a while

If you haven’t seen someone much lately, don’t wait for them to come to you. It’s a great time to check in and look for signs they need attention.

If the issue is workload, this is your chance to show them you’ve got their back. If it’s not a busy time, yet they still haven’t been around, it’s time to ask how they are doing.

You can gauge by the openness of their answer how they are feeling. If you get a vague answer or one that doesn’t answer your question, it might be time to have a deeper discussion about how their job is going.

2. Why all the closed doors?

Gossip is the cancer of the workplace. It can suck the life out of your office because it promotes fear, pain, and suffering instead of anything productive or positive. Particularly in times of change and stress, employees can burn up a good portion of their hours gossiping.

The scary thing is that you, as a manager, are often the last to know about gossip unless you have a suckup that comes and tells you everything (a problem of a different kind).

You might see obvious signs like the comment at the bottom of the email string that someone forgot to delete, meetings that unravel into complaint sessions, or people actually coming to you to talk. But also watch for signs like closed doors, talking in low voices, people suddenly going out to lunch, the rapid scatter when you approach, and employees being unusually sweet or distant.

These are signs of protective measures. When an employee starts to feel they need to protect themselves, you’ve lost their engagement.

3. Damn I am good, everyone comes to me for my expert decision making

We aren’t talking about important decisions here, the kind where you want to be involved because the stakes are high. It’s smaller things that aren’t critical to your business.

Don’t let it feed your ego when everyone comes to you for small decisions. It doesn’t mean you are great, it means that your employees are seeking safety. They are not putting themselves out on a limb to decide something. Instead, they are coming to you to push the responsibility up the chain.

The real danger here is that when your employee comes to you for small decisions with no solutions of their own, it shows they aren’t trying to think. They aren’t asking questions and pushing limits. And, they are likely not telling you their ideas for improvement.

4. Why are people complaining about the most insignificant things?

If it feels like people are nitpicking about things that don’t seem important like they hate the pens in the supply closet, or things that can’t be changed easily like benefits, it can be a symptom of deeper issues. When people feel unhappiness, they look around to see what is causing it so they can make it stop.

They will often assign their unhappy feelings to the first things that come to mind.

While the problem of the pens should be addressed eventually, if you ask a few more questions you might find that there is something bigger under the surface that needs your attention now.

5. Our customers have become #2 or even #3

You might think it’s great that your customer service, accounting, returns, tech support, and/or salespeople are following company policies to the letter. It makes things easier because you don’t have to deal with special requests and everything is kept uniform. You can get on to your job. But…

While all companies need policies, they can be a shield to hide behind. Policy can be used as a substitute for problem solving, an easy way to get on to the next one. Saying “no” to customers before trying to solve their problem is a sign of weak engagement.

And, it doesn’t bode well for the long term health of the company if the apathy spreads.

Employee that care will prioritize customer satisfaction, come up with a creative solution, and bring it to you for discussion if they don’t have the latitude to make the call themselves. If you hear your staff saying “no” to customers more than once in a great while or telling stories with pride about how they said “no”, it’s time to pay attention.

6. Nickel and diming the company

Employees have a choice where they devote their time and energy. They make this calculation constantly, usually subconsciously. When they are engaged, they will give extra effort or time without even noticing.

If their engagement is weaking, you can see the equation shift. They might leave more promptly, calculating when the time clock rounds up to the hour. They might come in a little later, take longer lunches, or the worst indicator of all: call in sick on Monday morning.

7. When pointing fingers becomes a defense

When you have a leader that will first blame others and make excuses when something goes wrong, it creates a finger-pointing problem. And the higher up the leader, the bigger the problem. In a healthy organization, leaders take responsibility for their employee’s actions and ownership of problems that arise from their team.

When an employee sees their leader stand by their side through a misstep, the employee gains confidence to own  their mistake and learn from the situation, creating knowledge that can be passed on to other groups. When the company can learn from mistakes, it can grow. (If a company makes no mistakes, they aren’t pushing hard enough.)

Pointing fingers and blaming others is dangerous. It creates a fear-based culture where people spend time covering their backsides. Not only is this unproductive time, it’s a terrible mindset to be in as an employee. If you think about it…

When an employee constantly feels the need to create cover, they are living in fear of losing their livelihood, their career path, and their stability. In a state of fear and defensiveness, they will choose the conservative solutions that will keep them out of danger. They will not put themselves out for an idea for fear of getting in trouble if it doesn’t go well.

And, you need their best thinking, not what has been safe in the past.

8. Watching from the sidelines while someone has a heart attack

In a cohesive team, players work together towards the same goal. They won’t watch as someone flails, but instead step in to offer their assistance or knowledge. You won’t hear the familiar phrase “It’s not my job”.

Some companies have built their cultures on a competitive model where employees need others to fail for the security of their own job. GE is famous for this but others like Microsoft and Amazon have proudly touted their dog-eat-dog cultures.

While these have been successful businesses, what could have been possible if people worked together rather than against each other? A competitive culture forces employees to focus on ‘me’ rather than ‘us’. They are engaged in the outcome for themselves, rather than the department, division, or company as a whole.

We can see how this culture has played out in today’s business field. Amid talks of a company break-up, GE’s stock is at a six-year low. And, Amazon has a 14 month employee turnover rate. Conversely, Microsoft realized they needed teamwork to be competitive. Their stock is at an all-time high after years of working to change their culture.

9. The lone wolf kills teams

When someone pulls back from the team and starts to work on their own, it could be from team burnout. Working in teams is taxing — more so for some than others. If you see a retreat to the safety of one’s own job, it’s a good time to talk.

It’s helpful to evaluate the individual cost that teamwork takes from each of your employees. Teamwork will have a different effect given personality type, team role, job title, and personal preferences. For example, a sensitive person without rank will be taxed more from teamwork than the head of the department, particularly if they are the team leader who is responsible for getting the work done by people whom they can’t control.

The signs of weakening employee engagement are subtle, until they aren’t.

Once you can see the early signs of disengagement, you have cleared your biggest hurdle. It’s not easy to see — really see — what is going on with the people who are closest to us. It’s even harder in a work situation where incomes are on the line.

Employees put on their best faces and hide their emotions at work. It can be a challenge to see how they are really feeling. Breaking through that barrier and seeing them clearly is an accomplishment. From this first step, a more open relationship can start to form for the employee and manager, as well as the greater team.

Seeing that engagement is weakening opens the door for you to have an honest dialogue. It’s a chance to find out more about how this person sees themselves as a part of your team, where they want to go with their job, and how they are motivated.

If you see these red flags as a gift and if you’ve caught it soon enough, it’s possible to revive your employee’s engagement. They might even become your next star.

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