On a Monday not long ago a friend left us a voice mail. He is one of the most talented marketing professionals we know, but after years of feeling "dissed" at his company he had become disengaged at work. What follows is the transcript of the message:

It's 10:24 and I'm driving in to work. [pause] That's right, 10:24. Business as usual. And it just . . . doesn't . . . matter. [sarcastically] But I'm committed. You can call me a workaholic, you can call me a chocoholic, but doggone it I will be there at the crack of eleven every day, making sure that the 4.5 hours I put in . . . drumming on my desk with my pencils like George Costanza working on the Penske account . . . remember that episode? . . .

He trailed off without finishing the thought. It would have been funny if it weren't so haunting. Talent wasted.

Our friend may be an extreme case, but almost every manager today is dealing with disengagement of some kind or other.Despite all the hard work bosses have invested in recent years to be caring and attentive, statistics show workers aren't buying it. The average employee spends about fifteen hours a month complaining about his or her manager. That's twenty-two full working days a year, an entire month of workdays spent grumbling and getting nothing done. It is a crippling crisis of disengagement, and the symptom is what many in the military refer to as "retired on active duty."

It takes a concerted effort to reengage people who have checked out. We wish we could tell you it will be easy, but it takes work. It forces leaders to become coaches and no longer players. But the results can be worthwhile as you learn to harness the full power of all the people in your care.

Here, in capsule form, are just a few of the steps we've found that can have a powerful effect in helping checked out employees check back in:

1. Believe in them again.

Can you teach an old dog new tricks? Often you can. As one example, a few years ago we met Ty, a sales rep at a mid-size company (we've changed his name and will keep the firm's name confidential). He had worked for his organization for 20 years, and had been a top producer, but a new strategic-sales direction had left him floundering. Ty had gone from top 10 in sales to bottom 10, and the leadership team believed that Ty couldn't cut it--confiding they were about to let him go. "Sales people don't forget how to sell," we argued. "He's still got it in him, you just have to bring it out." We worked a little with Ty, but more importantly his sales leaders invested their time. They let him know they cared and they believed in him; they actively listened to his concerns; and they started to find ways for him to sell in this new world--playing to his strengths. It may sound like we've written a Hollywood ending, but two years later Ty was #1 in the company (out of more than 100 areas). We were there when he accepted an award for that achievement, and he couldn't hold back the emotion in his appreciation for leaders who believed in him when he was struggling.

2. Learn what their aspirations are.

Great managers think differently about their employees. They believe their team's success is not the result of their own genius, but a direct outcome of their peoples' unique ingenuity and talent. As a result, they treat people like individuals with their own specific goals and aspirations; and they create opportunities for their people to grow and develop--thereby retaining more of them, and certainly engaging more of them. Before a checked-out employee will buy back into the culture, that person must be able to answer the WIIFM question for him or herself: "What's in it for me?" What the best managers do is learn specifically what motivates each of their people--especially those who are disengaged--and then they meet to sculpt the nature of their employees' jobs just a bit to better meet their motivating drivers. We aren't suggesting that all distasteful tasks are thrown out and nothing but plum assignments are handed their way, but savvy leaders are wise enough to know that by adding a few motivating elements or removing a few demotivating activities they can often reengage people. And as for their employees, who wouldn't want to work for a manager who really does want to help you achieve your specific career goals?

3. Root for them.

In our research, we've found that more than two thirds of managers believe they are above average at recognizing great work. The percent of employees who agree? Less than one quarter. Most of us aren't as good at appreciating our employees' contributions as we think we are, and that can be one reason why someone has become disengaged. Frequent complaints we hear in our qualitative research include, "I do work I don't get credit for," or "A simple thank you from my manager would mean a lot." To rebuild positive, productive relationships with checked-out team members, praise should outweigh criticism by a 5-to-1 margin. They've been beaten up long enough. And recognition is not only good for the disengaged, it's a good overall business practice says Rosabeth Moss Kanter of the Harvard Business School. "In the most innovative companies, there is a significantly higher volume of thank-yous than in companies of low innovation," Kanter said. In our studies, we have been thrilled to find higher levels of appreciation and celebration in not only the most innovative places, but also in cultures of high employee engagement. In the best workplaces, teams have much higher levels of camaraderie and managers spend much more time thanking their people for strategic behaviors that move the company forward. These seemingly soft skills create tangible esprit de corps and a single-mindedness about achieving the right behaviors.

That's our brief list. We always learn more from you. Do you believe it's hopeless--that once an employee is checked out they rarely if ever check back in--or do you know of other interesting ways in which leaders can reengage their employees?

Published on: Aug 13, 2015
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