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Employee Disengagement Is a Disease: Cure It With a Question


Employee disengagement is growing. In fact, a recent Gallup poll found that almost 20 percent of the workforce is actively disengaged. This is bad. Disengaged employees cost businesses money. According to Gallup, in the US alone, that’s a loss that amounts to about $500 billion a year.

In a recent article in Forbes, Ruth Ross—a former senior HR executive at Wells Fargo who has made it her mission to cure the disengagement malaise sweeping the nation—spoke about the first steps managers can take toward re-engaging disenchanted employees. 

According to Ross’ article, managers need to have a “stay conversation.” In other words, once a year, managers should have a proactive conversation with employees to gauge their engagement levels. You ask them what they do and don’t like about their jobs, things like:

  • What’s your wish list for an enhanced new role, beyond what you’re doing today?
  • If you could change one thing about your job or the company, what would it be?
  • Do you feel like the work you do is meaningful? Why or why not?

Then, you listen to their responses in order to determine if they’re engaged in their current positions. Sounds simple, right? 

Think again. Once you’ve identified these disengaged employees based upon their responses to your “stay conversation” questions—a process Ross clearly outlines in her Forbes article—what do you do? I caught up with Ross to see what advice she had for small business owners and managers to revive disengaged workers’ interest in their jobs. Our conversation is below, edited for clarity and brevity.

You said that once a manager has a “stay conversation” with an employee, they need to identify three steps to re-engage the disengaged employee. How should a manager approach this process, and what should he or she consider when creating these steps?

The most important thing to do when undertaking the “stay conversation” is, first and foremost, not to identify it as an “engagement exercise.” And you should definitely not slap the “disengagement” label on any employee. The best way to approach a “stay conversation” is to make it a regular part of a manager’s job—holding it at least once or twice a year. 

It’s extremely important to note that this is not a performance review, nor is it a feedback session. It’s intended to be a two-way conversation. It should allow the manager to get into their employee’s head so as to better understand how they’re feeling about their job, while at the same time letting the employee express their concerns freely and without fear. 

Based on the questions you ask as the manager, and your ability to listen both to what your employees say—as well as what they don’t say (non-verbal cues)—you would then identify one to three action steps to take with the employee. 

Can you provide an example of what these steps might look like?

One of the steps should tie back directly to an obstacle that the employee told you was impeding their ability to do their job more effectively. For example, if someone in a sales role tells you there are too many steps in the sales process—meaning it’s taking them too long to close—is there any action you, as a manager, can take to eliminate unnecessary work. That would be step one. 

Another example might be an employee working as a phone rep in a call center. When you talk to them about improving the client experience, their eyes light up. How about suggesting that they work on a task force to explore ways to change the client experience? 

Alternatively, if your employee expresses to you that they have a long-term desire to move into a marketing role, perhaps you can let them shadow someone that already works in that department for a day to learn more about the role. Or you might arrange an informational meeting for them with your marketing manager so they could ask questions and learn more about what the work actually involves on a day-to-day basis. 

Ok, what about some real world examples?

One of my clients had an employee who was extremely frustrated by the number of steps it took to enter a new customer into the company’s system. The entry process was just too time-consuming, both for the company’s clients, as well as for the employee involved. The manager asked the employee what they would do differently, then tasked them to pull together a group of peers to see how they could streamline the process. 

Being trusted to lead the task force on an issue they felt strongly about greatly raised that employee’s morale and increased their engagement levels. An added bonus: in the end, it also improved the company’s efficiency as a whole.

Another example was a call center manager who loved being a manager, but found she had no time to actually do any managing. Instead, she was constantly on the phones herself due to understaffing. 

Then the call center director did his semi-annual “stay conversation” with this employee. Her discontentment was a revelation to him. He’d had no idea she was spending all of her time taking calls and not doing what she loved: managing. 

During the conversation, the manager identified a glitch in the scheduling process that was causing the center to be understaffed at key times, which in turn forced her to be on the phones in order to cover the gap. Hearing this, the director was able to go back and make adjustments to the staffing plan and time schedules, thereby freeing up this manager to get off the phones and focus on supervising her team. Voilà, a disengaged, disenchanted employee returned to the joys of her job, and the company became more efficient.

Can you share a success story, when a manager identified a disengaged employee and “cured” their disengagement disease? What was the key in re-engaging the employee?

I have a personal example of someone I managed for a very long time. Given our experience together, I was very attuned to his moods and could tell something wasn’t right. 

I took him out to coffee, and opened up the dialogue to get at how he was feeling. He’s someone who always needs a challenge, and it was clear to me that he was bored with his role as it was currently configured. He was by far my best employee, and re-engaging him was crucial for the team’s success, so it was an issue that had to be addressed.

Having known him so long, I was certain that the key to get him excited about his job again was to ask him up-front what he thought should be changed. I brought a copy of our organizational chart and a list of each employee’s responsibilities with me to the meeting. I let him review these, then asked what he would change. 

Being the problem solver I knew he was, he immediately dove in and started to make suggestions. He recommended we move some tasks around to give people new challenges, allowing them to learn new skills and areas of the work. 

While his intent was to re-engage and develop others in the group, I knew that, in the process, it would do the same for him. We ended up shifting some responsibilities—including his—that in the long run allowed us to be more effective for our clients. It was a win-win for everyone and all it took was to ask for his input.

What key takeaways should other managers learn from this example?

Disengagement doesn’t discriminate. It affects people at all levels, in all industries and job roles. And for everyone, re-engagement can start with a simple “‘ask and listen.” Sometimes empowering your employees to speak up is the best thing you can possibly do to get them excited about their jobs again. 

The secret is being able to be an effective listener and observer. Your role as a manager is to be able to figure out how to tap into that excitement to benefit both them and the company. 

Thumbnail image created by raffaele sergi.

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About the Author

Erin Osterhaus joined Software Advice in 2012 after earning an M.A. in German and European Studies from Georgetown University. She focuses on the HR market, offering advice to industry professionals on the best recruiting, talent management, and leadership techniques.

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