Podcast: How to Engage a Disengaged Employee
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Leadership Dec 2, 2022

Podcast: How to Engage a Disengaged Employee

On this episode of The Insightful Leader, we hear how leaders can work with their “quiet-quitters” and rebuild morale.

Based on the research and insights of

Leigh Thompson

Listening: How to Engage a Disengaged Employee
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The term “quiet-quitting” has arguably permeated the zeitgeist of the post-pandemic business world. It refers to a phenomenon where workers do the bare minimum at work to collect a paycheck, and it comes at a time when people are reevaluating what they owe their employers.

But while managers try to assess whether quiet-quitters are within their ranks, the real issue may not be as serious—or as permanent. More likely than not, it’s a matter of reengaging employees who want to be invested at work, says Leigh Thompson, a professor of management and organizations at Kellogg.

“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?” she asks.

In this episode of The Insightful Leader, Thompson tells us how to give employees the support they need to get back in the saddle.

Podcast Transcript:

Laura PAVIN: Leigh Thompson feels like rolling her eyes whenever people talk about quiet-quitting. In fact, a lot of the time, she thinks it’s not the problem managers are facing at all.

Leigh THOMPSON: It’s almost like the pharmaceutical companies: they show us a commercial at night, and it’s like, I didn’t even know this problem existed and now I have to go ask my doctor about it.

PAVIN: In other words, just like drug ads can convince us we have various illnesses that we probably do not have, Thompson thinks that all this talk of quiet-quitting can lead managers to some inaccurate diagnoses about why our teams aren’t performing the way we think they should be.

Now, quiet-quitting can mean different things for different people. But for our purposes, we’re referring to this idea of workers doing the bare minimum to collect a paycheck. It’s an idea that’s taken hold at a time when people are talking more about what they really owe their employers in a post-pandemic world.

Thompson is a professor of management and organizations at Kellogg. She’s an expert in navigating and negotiating relationships at work. And she thinks that the business community’s fixation on the idea that their workers want to sleepwalk their way through their jobs is a bit misguided.

THOMPSON: Most of us want to be engaged because it’s just more fun to be engaged.

PAVIN: You’re listening to The Insightful Leader. I’m Laura Pavin. Today on the podcast, we talk about how to reengage employees at work. Because odds are, if you think someone is quietly quitting their job, they probably just need you to help them feel a little more invested in it. They are not a lost cause. And so, with Thompson’s help, we’ll look at how to create an environment where people want to do their best work. And we’ll consider how to give everyone on your team a say in how that happens.

That’s next.


PAVIN: Thompson remembers when she was teaching a course and there was a student who was always sitting in the back of the classroom, tended to arrive late, didn’t make a lot of eye contact—but the biggest deal of all, Thompson said, was that he didn’t show up to the final exam.

THOMPSON: Didn’t call; there was no email. And, you know, I really thought, you know what, who do you think you are? And boy are you in trouble right now.

PAVIN: A couple of hours after the exam. The student shows up at Thompson’s office.

THOMPSON: And I’m ready to just say, here’s how you’re screwing up and here’s how I am really not gonna give you any kind of extension or anything like that. And his first words to me were, “My cancer has come back.” And what I realized is that what I had coded as I guess a quiet-quitter in my class was actually fighting for his life. And he wanted to know whether I would work with him to figure out when he could take this exam so that he could march across the graduation stage.

PAVIN: The student had been hoping Thompson would work with him on rescheduling his exam so that he could graduate. Thompson was mortified that her judgment around this student was so far off from his reality. But it put something into perspective for her.

THOMPSON: We need to check our own assumptions. What I’m using as a team leader to evaluate whether people are all in or bringing 110 percent to work, maybe I’m not even focusing on the right cues.

PAVIN: She thinks a similar thing is happening with managers and their so-called quiet-quitters.

It’s why she says that, instead of assuming you’ve got an employee who’s just not that into their job anymore, you will want to first consider what else might be going on. People deal with stress differently. Maybe they’re not talking during the meeting because they’re processing how to deal with a new obstacle.

Or maybe this person shows their enthusiasm for work differently than you.

THOMPSON: Because 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.

PAVIN: Whatever the reason, you’ll need to put your finger on what it is. And you’ll do that by checking in with people periodically to see what’s going on. Have a meeting, and ask them about what excites them. And when was the last time they felt engaged and energized at work? Respectfully probe around to figure out if it’s you or it’s them that’s making them disengage.

So, check your assumptions, and have conversations. That’s the first step towards getting people more engaged at work.

But there’s a kicker here, Thompson says. When you’re talking to your employees about what’s going on and how they feel about work, you should be asking someone else the same questions: yourself.

THOMPSON: Team leaders are very contagious. If my effect is low or negative, or glass is half empty, that is actually going to strongly affect the mental set of my team.

PAVIN: Thompson’s actually studied how the moods of team leaders are really contagious and affect the behavior of their teams: the more powerful a person is in the organization, she found, the more “contagious” their emotional mindset is. There was this one simulation she ran where business students were asked to play out the role of a superior and the role of a subordinate. The superior had to negotiate with the subordinate over the allocation of scarce resources, and obviously, the subordinate had a lot less “power” in the scenario. What she learned was that the emotional state of the powerful superior—positive or negative—affected the trust between the parties, it affected their performance on a collaborative task, and it affected how “fair” the outcomes were. If the powerful manager had a negative disposition, there ended up being lower trust, worse performance, and unfair allocation of resources. If the powerful manager had a positive disposition, on the other hand, trust flourished, collaboration was profitable, and the less-powerful person received more resources.

Now, keep in mind the environment and situation was the same. The only difference was what Thompson calls the “chronic emotional disposition” of the leader involved.

Thompson says that, each day, we consciously pack up our briefcase and get our meeting notes ready, but we are often unaware of whom we are bringing to work—our positive self or our negative self. We are even less aware how our chronic dispositions might be setting the stage for a negative workplace, she says.

THOMPSON: I look to leaders to set the emotional, affective energy, tone for their team. And just because we aren’t all physically co-present kind of in a face-to-face, let’s be around the conference room meeting, we’re still contagious when we communicate virtually.

PAVIN: Consider your own vibe. You could unknowingly be setting the very tone you’re trying to correct. If that’s the case, you’ll want to be the change you wish to see, as they say.


PAVIN: If you’re having these conversations with your employees and yourself, and you find that, yeah, people aren’t feeling that jazzed about what they’re doing at work. That’s when you’ll want to introduce something that Thompson calls the team charter.

THOMPSON: It is a one-page mission statement collectively coauthored by all members of the team. This is not a decree that’s kind of written by a leader and foisted on the team. This is a collectively written document.

PAVIN: It’s a set of marching orders, if you will, that every member of the team helps create. The co-creation part of all this is important because it allows each person to take ownership of what’s expected of them at work. And that makes people more likely to feel energized about what they do for the team.

What’s in this document? Three things.

The first? What is our purpose; why do we exist as a team? The answer to this question should be one sentence to keep things simple. It’s an organizing principle that should be at the center of everything the team does.

The second question this team charter should ask is, what are the roles and responsibilities of every team member?

THOMPSON: What is Leigh doing? What’s exactly Ashley’s contribution? Because what we wanna do is we want to, in some sense, understand, respect and leverage each other’s expertise.

PAVIN: Finally, you’ll want the team charter to address, what are the team’s norms and ground rules? Should everyone show up to meetings on time? Are hybrid meetings the preferred meeting format? Is it okay to challenge each other’s ideas out in the open or should people be doing that one-on-one?

This last element of the team charter—of having norms and ground rules—is often overlooked by teams, much to Thompson’s chagrin.

THOMPSON: If I hear one more team say, “Our rule is that we have no rules,” I’m gonna scream because those teams are the most dysfunctional when you don’t have any rules. What that means is that most people are frozen in place.

PAVIN: They’re frozen because they don’t know what’s expected of them and how they’ll be evaluated based on those expectations, which they don’t know! So then they look to others to measure themselves against. And it’s just a big mess, Thompson says.

THOMPSON: So, contrary to what our intuitions suggest, we wanna kind of build in more structure. And why not have the teams create that structure?

PAVIN: Thompson says team charters work best when they’re proactive, not reactive. Address potential issues before they become a problem. And if the team feels like certain aspects of the charter aren’t working anymore, give them the freedom to amend it when it makes sense. It should be a living document.

THOMPSON: You know, I know I’ve done this with my own team because let’s face it, a lot of things have changed since the pandemic. You know, we’re all doing a lot of remote work now, so I need my team member’s input, you know, like what’s a good turnaround time? You know, when should people ask for, you know, vacation days? One of the things that I do with my team is I say, “Look, if the three of you are gonna agree on something, I’m gonna support anything you do, because I trust you. And if you’re collaborating together, you know, that’s a lot more brain power than what I have.”

PAVIN: Quiet-quitting is certainly real. And it’s certainly not good for a company or its culture. But rather than assume your employees are partaking in this practice, ask yourself if something else is causing them to disengage at work. Have a conversation with them to figure it out. And ask yourself whether you’ve created a culture where just coasting by feels okay. And if you really want to create a culture where people are enthusiastic about their contributions, ask your team what they think should be expected of them, and have them hold themselves to it.

Do that, and you might just end up with a team that feels pretty fulfilled at work.


PAVIN: This episode of The Insightful Leader was produced by Laura Pavin, Jessica Love, Emily Stone, Fred Schmalz, and Maja Kos. It was mixed by Andrew Meriwether. Want more Insightful Leader episodes? You can find us on iTunes, Spotify, or our website: insight.kellogg.northwestern.edu. We’ll be back in a couple weeks with another episode of The Insightful Leader podcast.

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)

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