Five signs your employees don’t care anymore

From absenteeism to poor-quality work, leadership expert Karen Gately identifies the warning signs of employee disengagement and what you can do about them

Five signs your employees don’t care anymore

Business Strategy


Put simply, engagement is the extent to which people feel connected with and committed to their job, team and organization. Being connected is most clearly reflected in the emotional ownership people feel – in other words, how much they really care about achieving their own objectives as well as about the success of their team.

The ultimate indication of disengagement is when it results in a decision to leave the job. While some people will stay in a role they’re not happy in, most will eventually choose to look for a new and better opportunity elsewhere. Of course, some people leave feeling satisfied with their employment experience, but the reality is that many don’t. Inspiring people to build a career rather than simply do a job is an important challenge for leaders.

Most people move on because they are looking for something they don’t have or can’t get where they are. Whether that’s a more interesting or challenging job, more money, a greater work–life balance, or a healthier workplace culture, the reasons people choose to leave are many and varied.

How to spot disengagement
The five most common signs of disengaged employees include:

1. Absenteeism
Absenteeism involves high rates of frequent and unplanned leave. Most people find it much harder to get out of bed and go to work when they are dreading what’s waiting for them when they get there.

2. Lack of discretionary effort
Discretionary effort is defined as what people do because they want to, not because they feel obligated to. Disengaged people typically do only what they have to do to keep their job. Some deliberately limit their contributions in silent protest at their unhappiness.

3. Absence of teamwork
People who are disengaged will often fail to work well with other people. Those who are engaged will often find their disengaged colleagues frustrating and a roadblock to success. The potential for these frustrations to escalate into conflicts is very high.

4. Suboptimal productivity
Simply focusing on the task at hand, let alone driving to achieve optimal results,  is a challenge for disengaged staff. While they struggle to find energy and focus, their job is not getting done.

5. Poor-quality work
Errors, overlooked priorities and missed deadlines are just a few examples of the impacts disengagement has on the standard of performance achieved.

Common challenges in small business
Keeping people engaged in a small business environment can be especially difficult. Among the most common challenges leaders face include:
  • Providing rewarding careers. Often small businesses are not in a position to offer the career advancement people are looking for. Looking for and providing opportunities for people to learn and grow with the business are critical challenges.
  • Investing the time needed to help people feel valued and supported. Often leaders in small businesses have a heavy individual workload to manage. The demands of service delivery, business growth and financial management make spending time with staff challenging. Typically, this leads to inadequate focus on the essentials of people management: providing clarity, coaching and accountability.

Driving engagement
Identifying and accepting the fact that you have a staff engagement issue is the first step toward overcoming it. Choosing to do something about it is the next. The leaders I work with are typically frustrated by the demands on their time and energy of having to deal with performance issues, and all too often they fail to act. Overlooking or avoiding obvious signs of disengagement is a common mistake leaders make.

Each person is unique, and to influence their commitment takes understanding of what makes them tick. As I share in my latest book, The People Manager’s Toolkit, the most important thing any leader can do to improve engagement is focus on the spirit of their team.

Our spirit is the positive energy that we have in reserve and draw on to get our job done. People who are energized typically choose to behave in ways that enable success. Conversely, when people are drained, they become more likely to disengage and behave in ways that undermine not only their own success, but also that of their team. The following are four common influencers of a person’s spirit and therefore engagement at work.

1. Sense of personal value
How we feel about ourselves, as well as how we believe others feel about us, energizes or drains our spirit. Feeling valued, qualified, capable and successful are powerful energizers and drivers of engagement. Influence people to feel valued, and they are more likely to remain connected with their job and your business.

2. Relationships
The quality of our relationships with our boss, colleagues, staff, clients, service providers, etc., influence the way we feel about being at work. When we trust and respect the people we work with, we are more likely to be engaged. Contemplate for a moment the people who inspire you to give your all. Equally, reflect on those who cause you to minimize your efforts and do no more than you have to.

3. Purpose and meaning
How people feel about what they and their organization contribute to the world matters. Doing a job that has an altruistic purpose energizes many people, while others derive purpose and meaning from the harmony between their values and those of the organization they work for. Still other people want to feel like they’re a part of something bigger than themselves or are contributing to their organization’s success.

4. Belief
The strength of our belief is reflected in how we feel about the future and our ability to influence that future. Examples of the types of positive emotions we want people to feel include being hopeful, optimistic, confident and empowered.

Make engagement matter. Hire and retain people who want to be there, understand your team and deliberately influence the things that energize their spirit, and you are well on your way to overcoming most causes of disengagement. As a leader, there is a lot you can do to influence the engagement of your team, but only so much. Expect people to also take ownership of their own spirit and level of engagement. As the age-old saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

Karen Gately is a leadership and people management specialist and a founder of Ryan Gately. She works with leaders and HR teams to drive business results through the talent and energy of people. Gately is the author of The People Manager’s Toolkit: A Practical Guide to Getting the Best from People (Wiley) and The Corporate Dojo: Driving Extraordinary Results Through Spirited People.

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