Originally published by Forbes
By, Dana Brownlee Senior Contributor
I help professionals navigate workplace challenges
While “quiet quitting” may be a new term, the reality of employee disengagement is not a new concept. Arguably the global pandemic and racial reckoning of the past two-plus years have created a new level of stress and shifted expectations around what work should look like and how much of ourselves we should be investing in our jobs. While many have chosen to leave the workforce (pegged the Great Resignation), others have seemingly disengaged or retired in place for a range of reasons.
The Harvard Business Review article “Quiet Quitting Is About Bad Bosses, Not Bad Employees” rejects the suggestion that the “trend” is an indictment of those who might consciously choose to scale back their time, effort and energy. “It’s easy to place the blame for quiet quitting on lazy or unmotivated workers, but instead, this research is telling us to look within and recognize that individuals want to give their energy, creativity, time, and enthusiasm to the organizations and leaders that deserve it,” the article concludes. Organizational psychologist and founder and CEO of Ellavate Solutions, Dr. Ella F. Washington adds in an email interview, “Both quiet quitting and quiet firing are reflective of something missing from an organization’s culture and are an indication that either employees, managers or both are not getting what they need from the workplace experience.”
While team members may disengage for a range of reasons, conspicuous disengagement is certainly cause for concern and should trigger leadership intervention—stat. So here are a few specific strategies leaders can use to address a team member whose engagement has clearly plummeted.
Try to Find Out Why
One of the worst mistakes a leader can make is making assumptions when they perceive that a team member is unmotivated or has disengaged. Avoid the temptation to try to fix the “problem” before you really understand it. Perhaps there really isn’t a problem at all, and instead the team member is simply recommitting to a more balanced work life (which might necessitate a drastic scale back of work focused time and attention if they were in fact over-working previously.) Obviously, this inquiry process is easier if there is a strong pre-existing relationship so take the time to cultivate those relationships early and often—before you need them.
Reset Your Own Expectations
Perhaps what might seem like unhealthy disengagement at first is really healthy realignment that should serve as a role model for others in the organization as well. Has the team regularly been responding to late evening or early morning emails? Do some team members have months of accumulated PTO because they’ve not taken it consistently? Does your team have a “yes” culture or do they overdose on unnecessary meetings? Perhaps some people have been pushed past their limit and are burned out, and the real solution lies in leadership resetting expectations. If leaders are regularly asking one person to do the work of two, assigning unrealistic workloads or disregarding work-life boundaries, then the disengagement should serve as a warning to leadership reminding them to reset their own expectations.
Ask Where They See Themselves in Five Years
Critiquing someone’s work or effort level (while necessary at times) may not be the best way to tap into sources of disengagement so a more effective tactic might be asking them where they see themselves in five years. This resets the conversation context enough for many to feel more comfortable sharing their true goals and priorities. Leaders can use this new information to focus on how they can help them get there. Obviously, it’s also helpful to note whether the preferred future role relates at all to their current one. If their goal is to be running their own vegan catering business full time, and today they’re working as a junior project manager in the telecommunications industry, they may not be motivated to make director in the next 2-3 years (and that’s ok). Learning more about their real goals equips you as a leader to be able to find ways to tap into authentic sources of motivation. Perhaps there are some skills related to their current role (e.g. learning basic project management software) that might be helpful in their future endeavor. Or perhaps you can recommend a different role that might be more aligned with their longer-term goals.
Simply Check In And Offer Support
It should go without saying that the most obvious first step a leader should take if they detect a sense of disengagement or lacking motivation with a team member is to simply check in with them and offer support if appropriate. Again, this underscores the importance of building relationships and developing rapport proactively, not waiting until there’s a perceived problem. Without any real trust or relationship cultivated over time, chances are small that a team member will be particularly revealing or vulnerable. In fact, they could perceive the “check in” as punitive and become quite defensive or even further disengaged so it’s important to avoid an accusatory or critical tone and instead truly check in with a supportive spirit. For example, instead of saying, “Jill, you haven’t seemed as focused these past few weeks. Is something wrong?” consider something like, “Jill, we missed you at the last couple team meetings, and I just wanted to check in to be sure you have the support you need in this new role.” Avoid labels and instead describe observable facts.
Washington also reminds us that feedback should be a two-way street. “Managers must create safe spaces for employees to share when they are not getting what they need to thrive at work,” she explains. “Ongoing coaching should exist for employees so that there is always alignment on expectations and support for change.” Future of SEL founder and CEO and workplace wellness expert, Future Cain insists that leaders should in fact be zealous about everyone’s wellness. “Taking the time to sit with and acknowledge how the employees are doing, personally and professionally, will pay dividends in the long run,” Cain explains in an email interview. “If employers are not prioritizing social emotional intelligence, support, positivity, and empathy for all, I fear they will not be future proofing the workplace.”
When employees become disengaged, management must lean in to better understand why. What appears to be disengagement may not necessarily be “bad”…or it could be really bad. The first step is moving away from generic terms like “employee disengagement” or “quiet quitting” and reaching out to team members one on one to connect and better understand their reality.