Disengagement is a Major Issue In Organizations. It’s Multifaceted and Costs Your Company Money


Employee disengagement is not just a phase; it’s a contagion that can result in your entire team disengaging from their work and one another. That progression may happen slowly over time or seemingly overnight. When it does, however, it's a sign that something in your organization isn't working. If left unaddressed, employee disengagement will create a toxic work environment. And it's a lot harder to recover from a toxic work environment than from a disengaged workforce.

Employees who are unmotivated, frustrated,  or disinterested show all the symptoms of a disengaged workforce. Most employees will make an effort to hide the earliest indications of disengagement from you, so it’s crucial that you pay close attention and heed the warning signs. The longer employee disengagement persists, the more difficult it will be to rectify.  

A disengaged workforce is a common, multifaceted problem

Employee disengagement is both behavioral and emotional. The primary behavioral indicator of employee disengagement is low productivity, but it might also present as increased absenteeism, turnover, and mistakes. The emotional indicators range from low morale with minimal communication to increased anger and conflict. Over time, disengagement damages your employees’ well-being and happiness. 

It also costs your company money. A study by McLean & Company, an HR research and advisory firm, found that disengaged employees cost an organization approximately $3,400 for every $10,000 in annual salary. The same study reported that lost productivity due to disengaged employees costs the U.S. economy up to $350 billion annually. If companies want to bolster productivity and profitability, increase customer loyalty, and slash attrition and disengagement losses, they must build an engaged workforce. 

You cannot measure the health of your organization by productivity and profitability numbers alone. The overall health of your organization is reflected in your people. Are they happy at work? Are they productive, motivated, and energized? Or are they just going through the motions? As a leader, it is your responsibility to pay attention to your team -; to notice not just the level of their performance, but their emotional states. Ignoring the problem won’t make it go away. 

What causes employee disengagement?

A 2022 Gallup report on the State of Global Workplace found that 60% of people are emotionally detached at work, and 19% are miserable due to what they experience as unfair treatment, unmanageable workloads, unclear communication from managers, lack of manager support, and unreasonable time pressures.

Unfortunately, these problems are not new. During my 20+ years of consulting with companies of all sizes, from Fortune 500 companies to family businesses, I’ve helped countless leaders improve their company culture by listening and responding appropriately to negative feedback from their employees. The first instinct of many leaders is to dismiss such feedback, which only exacerbates the underlying problem. Below are the most common missteps I’ve observed and the impact they have on employee engagement:

  • When employees complained about their managers’ or fellow team members’ poor, ineffective, or confrontative communication styles, leadership offered sympathetic words but no solutions. By failing to address the situation, leadership sent a strong message to employees and managers that poor communication was acceptable and not to be challenged.  
  • When employees reported feeling overwhelmed and anxious, leadership told them that stress and overwhelm are part of the job. By failing to acknowledge and address employees’ concerns, leadership sent a clear message that the health and wellness of their team were not important.
  • When employees raised concerns about a proposed policy change, leadership dismissed them as challenging or trouble-makers. By failing to listen to and understand those concerns, leadership sent a clear message that there is no room for dissent and that the way to advance your career is to follow the rules without question -; even when doing so puts the company at risk. 

As a leader, you have a lot on your plate. It is easy to jump to conclusions, minimize an employee’s concerns, or assume there is nothing to be done. But failing to acknowledge and address your employees’ concerns sets an example and makes it easier for other employees to follow suit. It creates a culture of dismissal, and over time, your employees will continue to disengage from their work. Given the message you’re sending, can you blame them? So how can you course correct?

5 steps to combatting employee disengagement

Start with the end goal in mind: To combat disengagement, plan to build an engaged workforce. Create a culture with clear and defined roles and expectations, empathy, open communication, ongoing feedback, and a sense of belonging for all employees. More specifically:

    1. Invest in practical communication skills training. Good communication is a critical business tool. It not only improves teamwork, productivity, and profitability, but it supports a positive work environment and an engaged workforce. Practical communication skills training is a foundational element of any employee engagement initiative and is a long-lasting transferable skill. 
    2. Conduct an honest assessment of employee engagement. Assess the overall functioning of the workplace environment, including the culture, leadership skills, communication styles, and levels of engagement. Identify areas of disconnect and re-examine problems reported in the past year.  
    3. Demonstrate your commitment to improving the organizational culture. Meet with your managers and employees and ask them to share their experiences and honest feedback (you may need to reassure them that such honesty will be welcomed and appreciated). Gain helpful insights by asking direct questions and listening to the answers. Where can we improve? How can we improve? How can we create a better work environment?   
    4. Model effective communication. Approach each interaction with curiosity and an open mind. Do not make assumptions about what the person is going to say. Instead, actively listen to them. Recognize that you are responsible for improving employee engagement, and that requires you to listen. Do not get defensive when an employee says something that sounds like they are blaming you. Collect your thoughts, and own your part sincerely and respectfully. By taking ownership, you allow the other person to feel heard so you can put the issue to rest. By modeling this communication style, you show other employees, especially those who have to engage with dissatisfied customers or upset team members, how to respond in an empathetic and solution-oriented way.    
    5. Reflect on your experience. Disengagement often starts at the top, so use this experience to discover how you can improve as a leader and how you can help your organization thrive. In addition to getting to know your employees as individuals, think about how you can show them that they matter to the organization. Encourage your managers to celebrate people’s successes and to help their teams grow professionally. Own your mistakes and those of your business, and teach employees how to do the same. Allow your employees to become advocates for one another. Empower them to address company mistakes within their purviews, such as errors in vacation accruals or salary increases. These steps will help you create an engaged and positive company culture.  

The world of work is changing. Organizations can no longer afford to think of their employees as cogs in a wheel -; instead, they must consider and pay attention to the whole person. Signs of disengagement are often subtle and don’t always present as a dip in productivity. As the Gallup study noted, “When leaders take responsibility for the well-being of their workers, the result is not only productive organizations but thriving individuals, families, and communities.” 

It can be humbling to take a step back and assess your organizational structure and functioning. But it is a necessary process to connect with your employees, prevent or repair disengagement, and demonstrate your commitment to the people with whom you work and the organization. 


©Copyright 2022 Debra Roberts, LCSW All rights reserved. No portion of this material may be reproduced without permission from the publisher.

A version of this article was initially published on Inc.com as:
A Disengaged Workforce Is a Harbinger of a Toxic Workplace Culture