Employee Disengagement Destroys Productivity

By Dr. Scott Simmerman

Updated Over a Week Ago

Minute Read

Imagine a workplace where employee disengagement is a thing of the past and the environment is mutual trust and respect, and creative energies engage everyone in a shared purpose. This is a place where both people and ideas are valued and where all do their best and collaborate to contribute, optimize and improve.

But now let’s get back to the real world…

Leaders are Always Looking

Welcome to the average workplace, the majority of whom are disengaged and only casually involved.

Many leaders in management might think that people would be happy to have a job, and they are. But that happiness does not translate into productivity and performance results.

Statistics show 85% of employees report their morale declines significantly after spending six months on the job (Sirota Survey Intelligence), and 49% of workers say they constantly have their antennae out for new job opportunities, even when they are happy in their current position.

Few feel their current employer is giving them a fair deal in terms of advancement opportunities (Kelly survey).

Minimally-Acceptable Standards

What begins as an energetic, positive, and committed new hire becomes one of those people who simply disappear and are working only to get by, noticing if something better might come their way.

Focused on meeting the minimally acceptable standards of productivity and quality, they no longer seem interested.

They are not the first person you call on when something needs to get done. And there are a lot of them in most workplaces.

As leaders and customers, you know who they are. Most were attractive job candidates and solid new hires, and some are now supervisors and managers. There is little about them that causes them to stick out.

What could possibly be wrong with an employee who:

  • Is a nice person and was a skillful job candidate
  • Quietly processes and handles transactions, day in and day out
  • Arrives on time and rarely leaves early or misses a workday
  • Follows policies and procedures
  • Is seldom aggressive or defensive
  • Goes through the motions of working, attends meetings, joins teams, gets things done
  • Does nothing that causes them to attract much attention

But as the great leader and legendary basketball coach John Wooden said, “Never mistake activity for achievement.”

One may hope that people are actively involved and intrinsically motivated to perform, but reality and research say that many are just on the job.

As we used to say in a college beer-drinking game, “I’m in, but I’m out.” When we needed to take a pause and leave the game, “Keep me in, but I am not playing.” This is a reality for many.

Disengagement Productivity Numbers

The Numbers

Before I get to thoughts on improving the situation, let me share a bit more information for those who like statistics and details.

Gallup has done extensive surveys and reporting on engagement:

  • 70% of US workers are not engaged and are somewhat sleepwalking during their days
  • 54% of the workers are muddled in the middle
  • “Saboteurs” represent the actively disengaged other 17% of the workforce

The middle 54% are choosing not to produce to their potential. And things are not getting better, even though many organizations report they are “working on engaging people.”

Employee engagement has actually declined from 24% to 13% in 2 years. (Mercer’s 2012 Attraction and Retention Survey)

The Opportunities

Randstad Corp. found that 70% of employees say, “You have to work late and work overtime to get ahead,” and Towers Watson found that 39% of employees feel senior management does not exhibit attitudes and behaviors that reflect that they even care about the well-being of their employees.

And while 59% of engaged employees say that their job brings out their most creative ideas, only 3% of disengaged employees report this. (Gallup)

Survey the muddled 54%, and they will say that they like their jobs and they are even happy at work. Nothing will stand out statistically, and they may even add some positive comments.

Many are neither interested in looking for a new job nor in getting more training, even though they would leave if something came up. Most say things are just fine as they are.

They are not exactly demotivated, but they are certainly not engaged and involved, nor are they top performers in any respect.

Read the above as Average. Middle. Muddling. Mundane. Unexceptional. Disengaged.

Statistically, their results are found around the middle of any curve of performance results.

Disengaged Employee

The Situation

These same muddling-along middle-curve people also have the highest potential impact on individual and overall workplace performance improvement if you could improve their results. They have more headroom than most others since it is not a capability issue but one of the choices.

They are simply choosing not to excel and not to commit themselves to higher levels of performance and expectations.

The Big Idea is to engage some of the disengaged. This moves the average performance level up (and may also engage some of the poorer performers since they do not want to be too far below the average).

Just Okay

Little Billy has never talked. One morning, when Mom serves him breakfast, he says, “Mom, oatmeal cold.” Mom is obviously pretty excited, and she asks him why he has never said anything before.

His response? “Up until now, everything has been okay.”

Like Little Billy, “everything been okay” is the case for most workers. Not good or bad, just okay.

How do we get them “to talk” about what needs to be changed? How do we give them more and better choices and alternatives?

Employees want to succeed when they are hired and start the job. And the company wants them to be successful. What has happened, and what can we do?

Common Disengagement Issues

Common Factors

Your typical employee attitude survey will be ineffective in finding much from these people.

They are unlikely to complain publicly and sometimes will not even comment privately.

But it is highly likely that one or more of the following has happened:

Being Restrained

One area of concern is the miss-fit of policies, procedures, rules, and regulations. They may become frustrated because they are restrained in how they accomplish things.

hey might want to be more helpful to customers, or they may see possibilities of improvement that are either rejected as ideas or simply brushed aside.

Being Ignored

They may simply feel that they are ignored. They might not have feedback systems that provide effective information about their performance, and those results may be invisible, in their opinions, to their management team.

They might feel that they need training (or they are sent off to training for no apparent reason). And when they do extend forward, no one notices or comments. It changes nothing.

Not on the Team

They may feel like they are not part of the team or the in-crowd. People at the margins tend to become marginal.

As part of a team, they often feel that their efforts contribute to the overall good. But with no sense of such involvement, they tend to become less involved quickly.

After all, it’s hard to care for customers if you don’t feel anyone cares for you.

Annoyed Manager

Accidental Adversaries

Another factor was discussed by Peter Senge in his work on learning organizations and involved a series of small negative events that, in the bigger overall situation, would become more and more annoying over time. Repetitive small “pinches” could eventually be disruptive.

There was not one event or one thing, just a bunch of little things that added up. It should not be surprising that these loops could be common between workers or between an individual and a supervisor and that, left unattended, they underpin a motivational problem.


Defined as a negative consequence that occurs following some behavior, is another issue in many workplaces.

We are not talking about “public disgrace” here or corporeal punishment; we are more often talking about little comments, perceived slights, or the threat of negative consequences that could occur in response to behaviors.

Punishment – commonly referred to as aversive control – will generate Compliance Behavior, or what I consider a manager’s worst nightmare!

When leaders are strictly following policies, procedures, rules, and regulations, they will not be productive.

There are situations like safety where strict compliance is important, but less so for customer service, manufacturing, or similar kinds of activities.

In fact, most work slowdowns are anchored in people following things overly precisely and carefully.

A manager’s inadvertent negative or critical comment that is meant to be seen as feedback might be unintentionally perceived as punishment by the employee. This may simply lead them to withdraw and become less engaged.


Many situations can lead to people becoming disengaged, and the above is but a partial list of some of the more general factors.

It’s a long list, for sure, but we can get at those issues if we choose to do so.

Many supervisors are not really skilled at motivating these average performers, as they may not focus on this performance improvement opportunity and choose to do nothing.

After all, these are good employees, and they do get things done without a lot of supervision. So, they tend not to act: Why rock the boat or wake up sleeping dogs?

So a common result is that the individual becomes more and more disengaged over time until they reach an acceptable level of performance for themselves, one that they will justify and become congruent with.

That “new hire fire” simply burns down. They eventually become comfortable with the status quo.

Disengagement Issues Meeting

Leaders Addressing Disengagement

So, why address disengagement? Because it is one of the best things you can do for yourself, your workplace, and your team. It can help create many more positive outcomes for everyone involved.

Many are completely aware that they are underperforming, feeling as if they are given a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay. And they have reasons and justifications for any attitudes that impact the choices they make.

Attitudes tend to align with behavior. But the impact they can make on overall success is significant, simply because they have the capability and because they represent half of the workplace!

They also exert peer-support pressures on others simply by improving their level of performance.

How do You Motivate People?

Re-engage them.

Understand that this will take time and effort. You cannot do this to them, but you can do it with them. Change and improvement take time, but the capability is there. And, “Trust is the residue of promises fulfilled.” (Frank Navran)

I frame the solution in the simple context of Dis-Un-Engagement. And I will talk about the overall approach as Engagimentation, which equals engagement plus implementation. The key is to do things differently.


Identify the past and present things that are currently disengaging people, and use facilitation and teamwork to identify those factors and issues that can be changed, added, or reduced that will help to eliminate or minimize these performance issues and change the culture.

Actually, this is really straightforward and accomplished by:

  • Removing the perceived (common) or actual (sometimes) things that are disengaging people and teams, you serve the purpose of re-engaging and re-energizing them
  • Facilitating, you generate active involvement. You lead and engage
  • Creating a new sense of vision and mission for the future
  • Using teams to solve problems, you build the teamwork support, energy, and resources needed to supply the peer pressure to improve and sustain
Ways to Motivate without Money

Extrinsic Incentives

Many organizations try to control people’s behaviors extrinsically, a highly difficult process fraught with all sorts of potential negative side effects.

Money works, but there is a continuous need to increase its amounts to get the same results over time, and you will get a lot of competitive responses between people that have negative side effects and interfere with teamwork.

Plus, extrinsic incentives will only motivate the top performers in most situations.

We will get performance by being more direct and aggressive. But it will be compliance-focused and not exceptional. And do not turn your back since various kinds of retribution and sabotage are common.

People Want to Succeed

We simply have to help them come back in and re-engage.

A lot of disengagement is due to the fact that people feel they have no voice and no one is listening.

Show this simple cartoon and ask people what they see:

Most people would agree that the illustration represents how things really work in their organization because they know that a lot of things thump and bump as they work to get things done.

The issue is they do not often perceive that anyone really cares, and they will meet their personal goals if they just keep doing what they are doing.

Using the above cartoon, ask people for general ideas and themes, and then ask them to generate some square wheels and then some round wheels.

This exercise does a lot in regards to generating peer support and perspective on what needs to be improved. That camaraderie of focus can do a lot to improve overall workplace morale.

Ideas to Curb Disengagement

Generating Good Ideas

Because they offer up their ideas about issues and opportunities in a group process, most things do get out on the table for consideration and discussion.

The key is to generate ideas that help them focus on improvement.

A similar and congruent approach is to use a Visioning Process, one that jumps right to the potential for improvement. You might show them a theme like this:

Then simply ask them what they accomplished that generated such a great result. Asking is a critical behavior…

  • Engaged employees outperform average employees by 20%
  • 59% of engaged employees say that their job brings out their most creative ideas
  • 3% of dis-engaged employees report their job brings out their most creative ideas

Good ideas will be generated, many of which can be implemented with a little focus and teamwork.

It is a proven fact that this kind of approach is one of the best strategies there is for helping groups cooperate and to improve motivation.

The Engagimentation Process

Not everyone is a good problem solver, and some are actually pretty poor at it.

The top performers generally are more skilled at managing roadblocks and at identifying approaches that simply work better to solve problems.

Plus, in general, those appointed to management positions have better experiences with certain situations.

Not every disengaging factor is equally difficult to manage, nor does each have the same kind of cultural impediments.

Some disengaging factors may be quite difficult to deal with and require energy and skills.

Dealing with these will often require manager intervention and even escalation. They are often major issues like personnel policies or company practices.

Other problems often require analysis and support and have team-based solutions. Motivated teams can be quite effective at doing all kinds of engaging activities by bringing people and resources together for solid efforts.

There are disengaging factors that may not be solvable, but often a work-around or temporary solution may resolve the demotivational aspects of these kinds of issues.

Again, we are talking about doing things to better engage and involve people in the workplace to improve their performance and productivity. Actions and follow-ups can have an impact.

At the same time, some of these disengaging factors are perceived as more real than they are and, thus, may require little or no effort to improve.

Workplace Improvements

The power lies in involvement and collaboration.

Help participants generate ownership and clarify issues and opportunities. Delegate as much power as possible to the teams and team leaders. Build trust by following through on your promises and commitments. Lead them forward on their ideas.

At the same time, you are working to implement workplace improvements; you must look to the performance management system itself to identify ways to provide timely, supportive feedback about that performance.

If you do not change the measurement and feedback systems in some way, it is likely that the existing program will not support any improvements.

Start by asking them about the issues and help them to define what they want to do differently.


Imagine a workplace where the welfare of each person is built on an environment of mutual trust and respect and where positive, creative energies engage everyone in a shared purpose.

Imagine a place where both people and ideas are valued and where all do their best and collaborate to contribute.

Then, you can start to get some of their ideas about what needs to be changed and improved.

Create a more attractive vision of the future and generate some peer support for closing the gap between what they see and what they want.

How Can You Improve Engagement?

If you have ideas that you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

Would you like to contribute a post?

Dr. Scott Simmerman
Dr. Scott Simmerman
Scott is a keynote speaker, conference speaker, workshop and seminar leader, and professional facilitator. He has facilitated his highly actionable team building events in over 30 countries.
  • aboutleaders.com group login - andportal says:

    […] Leaders Never Mistake Activity for Achievement pt.1 … […]

  • five nights at freddy's says:

    I am delighted to have discovered this excellent webpage. It provides me with a wealth of intriguing information about everything around me, particularly the topic of the preceding article.

  • {"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}
    Brilliant Leadership Logo

    Improve Yourself & Your Team

    Get The Training Proven By 40,000+ Leaders