How to Manage a Disengaged Employee—and Get Them Excited about Work Again
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Leadership Organizations Apr 26, 2023

How to Manage a Disengaged Employee—and Get Them Excited about Work Again

Don’t give up on checked-out team members. Try these strategies instead.

CEO cheering on team with pom-poms

Michael Meier

Based on the research and insights of

Leigh Thompson

Quiet-quitting, as a concept, has always been around. When TikTok got a hold of it, it became a suspected diagnosis for millions of employees.

According to the viral video, quiet-quitting is doing the bare minimum at work. Rather than going above and beyond, the sole goal of a quiet-quitter is to do enough to justify their continued compensation.

But while pandemic-exacerbated stressors may have many employees feeling exhausted, demoralized, and disengaged at work, this isn’t quite the same thing as actively deciding to check out, says Leigh Thompson, a professor of management and organizations at Kellogg and an expert on navigating and negotiating relationships at work.

And luckily, disengagement is treatable. “Most of us want to be engaged, because it’s just more fun to be engaged. If I’m going to be at work, why not be engaged?” Thompson said.

She offers some strategies for reengaging employees.

Turn the lens inward

If you suspect someone in your ranks is quitting quietly, Thompson recommends that you first consider the possibility that you could be misreading their behavior.

“If I’m an extrovert, and I’m extremely animated in the way I talk, maybe I shouldn’t be using those same cues to judge whether another person on my team is really engaged,” Thompson said.

Meet with the employee and ask what engages and energizes them. And ask them about the last time they felt excited about work. In these types of conversations, you might learn that they like their job but show their enthusiasm a little more quietly than others—like you—do.

If the issue is work-related, however, you’ll first want to consider whether someone else is to blame: yourself.

“Any question we ask of that team member, we’ve got to ask ourselves,” Thompson said. “If my effect is low, or negative, or glass-is-half-empty, that is actually going to strongly affect the mental state of my team.”

Managers set the tone for their teams, Thompson says. Her research bears this out. She has found that, in negotiating tasks, the emotional state of the more powerful party has a bigger impact on the ultimate outcome than the emotional state of the less powerful party. In other words, a leader’s mood affects others in a big way.

“If I’m an extrovert, and I’m extremely animated in the way I talk, maybe I shouldn’t be using those same cues to judge whether another person on my team is really engaged.”

Leigh Thompson

So, make sure you’re not emitting negativity. If you are, forgive yourself—and then correct it.

“As leaders, we need to check our own energy levels, because each one of us has probably undergone a profound change since the pandemic,” Thompson said.

Coauthor a solution

Whether the issue lies with you or the employee, you’ll want to consider giving your team a reset—with their help.

Thompson recommends instituting a team charter—a one-page document coauthored by the team that answers three questions: What is the team’s purpose, what are everyone’s roles and responsibilities, and what are the norms and ground rules everyone must follow?

Collaboration is key to the charter’s success.

“If you get people to buy into something, and they feel like they’ve helped author it, then they’re probably going to support it,” Thompson said.

This across-the-board approach will also help eliminate suspicions that a corrective action is targeting someone specific, which could have a chilling effect. In fact, that’s why it’s not a bad idea to ask your team to work on this document before any new issues arise.

“The team charter should be a proactive statement—not a reactive statement,” Thompson said. “I think a lot of leaders could have a really good meeting now with their teams by saying, ‘Here are some things that I’d like to address before they become a problem. How are we going to deal with vacations? How are we going to deal with people who want to do remote work? Can we all come up with a working plan?’”

It might be awkward or uncomfortable to spell out how everyone should behave if the team has never sat down to address how it runs, Thompson says. That’s why, instead of having everyone share their thoughts out loud, allow them to anonymously write down their thoughts on a cloud-based shared document, like Google Docs. Use their responses to write-up a draft, and have the team suggest edits that shape the final document.

Help people feel accountable

Once your team has agreed on a final charter, you’ll want to create an environment where people feel like they’re being held accountable. This may involve holding short meetings on a regular basis to check in with members of your team: How well have they fulfilled their obligations?

Another effective way to create a sense of accountability is to have a weekly or semi-regular gathering where teammates can announce what they’ve accomplished that week, month, or whatever time frame makes sense for your team’s workflow. Thompson says teams that “stand and deliver” tend to be more productive than those who don’t.

Finally, Thompson suggests finding a way to show people the impact of their work. People tend to be more engaged when they know that the hours they put in are actually making some kind of difference. For example, nonprofit teams might like to see and interact with the beneficiaries of their work.

It can be difficult to know whether someone on your team has mentally “clocked out” from work, but Thompson says it’s important to give people the chance to prove they want
to be engaged—and that they haven’t quietly quit.

And if your efforts to reenergized a disengaged employee fail, Thompson says, the issue may end up correcting itself.

“If you have an engaged workplace, whoever is quietly checked out probably won’t want to be around. It’s just going to get too uncomfortable to be around a lot of people who are really engaged and passionate, and they’ll self-eject,” Thompson said.

Featured Faculty

J. Jay Gerber Professor of Dispute Resolution & Organizations; Professor of Management & Organizations; Director of Kellogg Team and Group Research Center; Professor of Psychology, Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences (Courtesy)

About the Writer

Laura Pavin is the multimedia editor of Kellogg Insight.

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