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This article was published on March 2, 2014

Disengaged employees: What are they really thinking?

Disengaged employees: What are they really thinking?
David Hassell
Story by

David Hassell

David Hassell is the founder and CEO of 15Five, lightweight performance management software that delivers a full suite of integrated tools - David Hassell is the founder and CEO of 15Five, lightweight performance management software that delivers a full suite of integrated tools - including continuous employee feedback, objective tracking (OKRs), pulse surveys, and peer recognition. Named "The Most Connected Man You Don't Know in Silicon Valley" by Forbes Magazine, David has also been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Inc., Wired, Fast Company, and the Financial Post. You can learn more about 15Five and David Hassell at

David Hassell is the CEO of 15Five. This post originally appeared on the 15five blog.

You can’t crack your employees’ heads open and look inside (well you can, but legal will probably advise against it) so how do you uncover what drives individual employees to work hard, stay focused and be more creative? Are they seeking more money, stock options, a pat on the back?

Keeping employees engaged means that they will stay longer, be more productive, and increase your base of satisfied customers. To get there, start from the ground up by understanding how employees think and how to meet their most fundamental needs.

On the same page

The etymology of the word “engaged” comes from the French, gage – to pledge one’s self or enter a contract. Dr. Nicole Lipkin suggests that engagement is created through a psychological contract, an employee’s belief about the mutual obligations that exist between her and the employer.

This understanding can be an express agreement like fulfilling certain duties for agreed upon compensation. Or it can be implied, like when employees and management tacitly agree to both embrace the company values and culture.

One reason employees become disengaged is when leadership breaks the psychological contract. This reaction is usually not about something tangible. It is a result of dishonesty, lack of integrity, or a difficult work environment, and it generally comes down to unclear and uncommunicated assumptions and expectations.

Even an isolated breach can have a dramatic impact, since trust develops over time yet can shatter in a moment. These breaches of trust must be corrected immediately.

Your co-workers talk, gossip can grow, and discontent can become contagious. Dr. Lipkin refers to this holistic impact as Emotional Contagion — the way that positive or negative energy influences others. If the entire work environment does not live up to express or implied expectations, you may lose your best talent permanently.

Check in regularly with your team and provide an opportunity for them to discuss how they feel. This allows you to address problems as they arise, but it is also a proactive gesture. It tells the employee that she is valued and actually fortifies the terms of the psychological contract.

Putting the WE in TEAM

Engagement isn’t completely based on employer/employee relationships. It is a community issue, and leaders must build a culture where all employee’s needs are met. Company culture is basically a set of beliefs and shared values that the community holds and honors.

Implement ways for your team to communicate openly and effectively with each other. This will establish more transparency which then leads to greater trust.

Trust forms the foundation of a strong community because when someone holds our trust, we can’t possibly let them down. Engagement depends on this since, most people show up more for others than they do for themselves.

Struttin’ around like you own the place

Last year behavioral economist Dan Ariely gave a TED talk entitled, What makes us feel good about work. Ariely explains that motivation is not just based on satisfaction or financial gain. People are driven by challenge and are focused on the results. We like to feel connected to a greater purpose, and have ownership and pride in our work.

The link between a person’s ownership over a task and their engagement is a fundamental human need that goes beyond workplace dynamics.

l-t0z9cseec6ge8lFor example, when cake mixes first came out in the 1940s, they didn’t sell. Why? It was too easy. People did not feel right baking a cake from a “just add water” mix, and presenting it as their own.

It turns out that if you have to beat an egg, measure some milk and melt some butter, you feel enough ownership in the finished product to buy the Betty Crocker cake mix from the supermarket.

The lesson for managers and executives is that employee engagement is fueled by both challenge and ownership. We imprint ourselves on a project when we spend time absorbing it, considering our options, and finally implementing a solution. When a task is too easy, we don’t feel like it is ours and we don’t fully engage with it.

Lend a hand

While challenging employees sustains engagement, be careful of challenges that the employee finds too overwhelming. Staying engaged in a project that frustrates us is not healthy. Stress begins building and we soon disengage as a coping mechanism.

This process is actually a healthy response. It is like a fever, rendering you incapacitated but cleansing the system of any undesirable elements.

Discover the sweet spot where your team can rise to the occasion without causing anxiety. The level of challenge varies between team members, so managers must be aware of where employee’s get stuck and offer them support.

If asking for help is met with disdain, employees will just keep working through the frustration, and their performance and satisfaction will suffer. Be available to lend a hand so that employees can obtain results that respond to organizational need and feel personally fulfilling.

Engagement is about communication of expectations between employer and employee, and the shared maintenance of a culture of trust by your entire team.

Being offered a challenge and knowing that you can ask for help (and get it), alleviates the stress that eventually takes its toll and sends valuable employees looking elsewhere for a better work environment.

Gallup reports that only 13 percent of US employees are actively engaged. Where does your organization land on that spectrum? Leave us a question or comment below.

Top image: Shutterstock/Ammentorp Photography