Over the next four weeks, we will be talking about the four types of employees that exist in (almost) every organization. 

When we measure engagement in an organization, the results look like a bell curve. Actively Disengaged employees are on the far left, Somewhat Disengaged employees and Engaged employees make up the vast majority of a typical organization, and the positive outliers on the far right are the Actively Engaged:

 

Each week we will explore one category of employees – moving from the Actively Disengaged (today) to the Actively Engaged in four weeks. Each group of employees has distinctive characteristics and requires something different of leaders and managers to become, or stay, engaged.

As you read through this series of posts, consider which of your team members might fall into each category, based on how we describe the traits of these groups. Jot down some key takeaways and action steps you’d like to tackle for the employees that fall into these different groupings. Your intentionality as a leader to support your team members where they are, and work to move them further to the right of the bell curve, will make an immense difference – not only in your company or team culture – but also in the lives of the employees you are leading.

The Actively Disengaged

How many Actively Disengaged employees do I probably have in my organization? 

Actively Disengaged employees are the negative outliers in workplace cultures, typically representing five to 15 percent of an organization’s workforce. We think of them as being detached — from their work, their team, or the mission and vision of the company.

The first year we survey engagement levels in an organization, the actively disengaged are usually closer to 15 percent of the workforce, although we have seen it much higher in some organizations. Our global data, which includes all companies in all years of their survey, averages 14 percent actively disengaged.

What does an Actively Disengaged team member look like? 

These are the employees who have checked out. They quit, but just never mentioned it to you and they’re still showing up and collecting a paycheck. When we ask all our clients the question “What does disengagement look like?” the number one response, across the board, is negative.

Of all your team members, this group is the least likely to have bought into the mission and vision of the organization. They’re the least likely to be proactive, caring and supportive of the team, although at times they may do so with specific individuals.

They are the most likely to miss deadlines, to be contrarian, and full of drama. They tend to be problem-focused rather than solution-focused. They’re prone to being cynical and disparaging of the company and the intent of leaders. Leaders at all levels often struggle to understand their behavior.

Perhaps the biggest challenge with the actively disengaged is how their negativity spreads throughout the culture. They’re toxic and contagious. It’s that contagion that we worry about — the narrative they spew almost always undercuts the company, the leaders, and even other members of the team. Their poisonous narrative spreads via lunch break chatter or in the way they sprinkle gossip everywhere they go.  

What’s the impact on people on their team? 

Engaged employees (those on the right side of the bell curve) are the lifeblood of every organization and leaders need to do everything they can to eliminate sources of friction and frustration that might slow them down.

The actively disengaged are a major source of friction for top line players. In this current labor environment of talent scarcity, the last thing leaders need are corrosive employees. Having your workflow kinked because toxic employees are involved increases the metabolic load to get things done. Engaged employees have to push harder to get the work done, which is a major source of workplace frustration.

Another key impact of actively disengaged employees remaining on the payroll is what they do to the street cred of you as a leader. When you have an actively disengaged person on a team for an extended time, the signal to other employees is either “my leader doesn’t know about it”, which means the leader is clueless, or “my leader does know about it and they either: 1) don’t care, or 2) don’t have the mettle to actually do something about it.” Either way, it erodes the stature of leaders and it makes the workplace feel less safe.

These negative outliers create a destructive vortex that often pulls staff down from where they otherwise would perform. One of the most frequent responses we get to our survey question, “What is one thing your manager could do to improve workplace performance?” is “to hold slackers accountable.” Included in this open-end question response we often see, “Why should I continue to work so hard when my manager doesn’t hold everyone to the same standard?

When we look at our year-over-year data we can see the clear progressive movement of a shifting bell curve: the actively disengaged category shrinks and somewhat disengaged employees become engaged employees. Reduce and eliminate these bottom dwellers and the conditions that may have dragged them down — and other employees will improve their game.

A Clear Caveat

Now I want to be careful here because I don’t advocate simply going in and firing these people.

Why not?

Let me give you an example. Let’s say we have a company of 100 people who take a survey and we discover that 18 of them fall into the actively disengaged category. You say, “Let’s find out who they are, and we’ll fire them right away.” The problem with this common knee-jerk reaction is clear in the data. We measure engagement by teams and when you look at those 18 actively disengaged employees, you discover that 12 of them work for three managers. Now you could go in and fire those 12 employees (if you can guess who they are), but in another year when you measure again you’re probably going to have the same results. Why? When substandard performance is clustered under specific leaders, it’s usually the result of workplace conditions and/or poor leadership, not lesser employees.

You could take an engaged or actively engaged employee and put them on a team of primarily actively disengaged or put them underneath a toxic supervisor, and one of two things are going to happen. One well-researched option shows that the high performing employees’ conduct will decline in this new environment. You won’t get the same level of effort, the same all-in mentality, or the same high-quality work when a normally engaged team member has to shift their metabolic capacity from thriving (in supportive conditions) to surviving (in a team where they are not safe and don’t feel connection).

Another option, one that we see play out among our client companies, is that your best employees – those highly engaged team members – will most likely quit because as a result of having to work with employees or a leader with inferior standards.

This retention issue is precisely why most of our clients are trying to reduce this category of actively disengaged to zero, and some have succeeded (we’ll talk more about how below).

How do I protect others from the impact of the Actively Disengaged?

I’ll be straightforward: It’s really hard to do this.

You can try to create healthy boundaries by simply keeping them apart and separate from other members of the team. Provide opportunities for your more difficult employees to take on individual contributor roles, rather than collaborative projects when possible.  

If it’s out of your direct control to make shifts, then validate and empathize with your team members that have to work with someone who is struggling to be a positive member of the team. Acknowledge how hard and challenging it is. Help them develop workarounds.

But the best thing to do is start with the actively disengaged employees themselves. Help them become self-aware of their impact on the other team members and hopefully they will respond to that knowledge. Find out what’s driving their behavior. Is it something in their work environment? Is it the way you are leading them? Is it something out of your control? This is not a conversation for excuses, but for understanding.

Once you’ve identified the core issues driving their disengagement, it is time to start making some shifts. While there are likely things that do need to change in their workplace environment and/or in your leadership to foster greater levels of engagement, an actively disengaged employee still must be responsible for their own behavior, attitude, and output when they show up each day.

To help guide them in this, hold an accountability conversation with employees who are bringing your team down. Develop an accountability action plan of what they need to do differently, by when, and check in with them frequently to assess their progress.

Holding someone accountable without being negative is a learned skill for many leaders. There are a number of other approaches we lay out in our Accountability workshop, in the accountability chapter in Thrive By Design, and in the accountability section of our Manager Resource Center online platform.

If, as you go through these intentional conversations, it becomes clear they don’t care truly about their impact on others or are unwilling to make changes, then the conversation should shift towards consequences. This isn’t where we like to start the conversation – and it should never be the first approach – but for some of these toxic employees, the only consequence they may respond to is the threat of termination.

With some clear intentionality and effort to foster a safe and secure environment for each of your actively disengaged employees, you will see powerful shifts in the way these team members show up and contribute every day.

Key Takeaways

  • When employee engagement is measured the results look like a bell curve. The first category are the Actively Engaged, the second category are the Engaged, followed by the Somewhat Disengaged, and then the fourth category, the Actively Disengaged.
  • The actively disengaged are detached from their work, their team, or the company’s mission and vision.
  • Their negativity spreads throughout the culture. They’re toxic and contagious with a negative narrative that undercuts the company and its leaders.
  • The actively disengaged are a major source of friction for top line players as they increase the metabolic load for top line players to get things done — a major source of workplace frustration
  • When they remain over time these employees erode the stature of leaders and it makes the workplace feel less predictable and principled.
  • There are some important steps leaders can take when dealing with these detached staff.
    • Start with the actively disengaged employees themselves by helping them become more self-aware of their impact on the other team members. Be curious (not judgemental) about what’s driving their behavior. This is not a conversation for excuses, but for understanding.
    • Create healthy boundaries by keeping them apart and separate from other members of the team.
    • Validate and empathize with employees that have to work with the actively disengaged. Help them develop workarounds.