What To Do When Your Employee Starts Checking Out

One Utah manager made it a habit to offer basketball tickets to several of his team members. But he never explained why certain people received the tickets and others did not. This left employees who didn’t receive tickets wondering if they weren’t doing as good of a job. Did the manager see the tickets as a reward for a job well done? Were those employees being compensated for bringing something new to the table? And what did it mean when tickets went to the same person more than once?

Crystalee Beck, Founder and President of Professional Communication Consulting, says this is an example of ‘unfair selection’ in the workplace—and it’s one of many reasons an employee might start to disengage at work. Something that started off well-intentioned can end up impacting a team or employee in a negative way, and, unless a manager pays attention, that employee could motivation and disengage from their team. “Ultimately, no one takes a job thinking, ‘I’m going to do a crappy job with this,'” says Ms. Beck. “Everyone, when they take a job…want[s] to do a good job.”

Signs Your Employee Is Pulling Away

Favoritism is just one reason an employee might lose motivation at work. But whatever the cause, the end result is the same. The employee no longer contributes creative ideas. They feel apathetic about projects. Productivity comes to a standstill. They may miss work or take extra personal days. They may even speak badly about their managers or dabble in office gossip as a way to passively nurse their hurt or anger.

Elisa Garn, Vice President of Human Resources and Talent at Christopherson Business Travel, says disengagement also represents itself as sabotaging the work of others. “Really it’s anybody that is not participating in the company in a positive way,” she says. “That’s the easiest way to explain it.”

Gary Beckstrand, Vice President at O.C. Tanner, says disengaged employees usually only do the bare minimum of what is required of them. They’re often focused on their own wellbeing rather than the wellbeing of the team. “Depending on the level of disengagement, the employee may actually, over time, intentionally or unintentionally deliver suboptimal work that actually hurts productivity beyond just maintaining the status quo,” Mr. Beckstrand said in an email.

Why Your Management Style Might Be To Blame

So, where does it all start? Ms. Garn says the number one cause of employee disengagement is a manager. “It takes a real dose of humility [as a manager] to be aware of the signs of slacking off and feeling disgruntled,” Ms. Beck says, especially as the fix might be as easy as praising employees more often. And doing so in a sincere way.

However, it’s not quite as simple as that. After conducting focus groups with Utah-based employees, Ms. Beck and her team and discovered several ‘dark sides’ to managerial gratitude. Meaning that even if gratitude exists on the side of the manager, it might not be perceived as gratitude by the employee. This could be because the manger is withholding gratitude, overcommunicating gratitude (and thus it has lost all meaning), or do not come off as sincere.

“It really upsets people when managers are insincere,” Ms. Beck says. “When they received gratitude, it felt like a requirement to keep up with morale as a facade instead of a legitimate moment between you and your manager. People felt like the gratitude was the bullet point on an agenda.”

Criticism Doesn’t Always Feel “Constructive”

“A lot of disgruntled employees are that way because they don’t speak up. So instead they hold and harbor the resentment, and it becomes poison on the team,” she adds. People often fall into victimhood when they feel slighted. And this comes at a high cost. One disengaged employee can mean tens of thousands of dollars lost in productivity each month.

“The ripple effect is it’s disengaging other people as well,” she says. Not only is the company losing money on productivity and measurable outcomes, but disengaged employees may plant seeds with other individuals. “That could grow into a big cancer,” Ms. Garn says. “It is a huge cost and, if left untreated, it’s going to impact the work being done, and your clients, and your brand reputation. That’s the bigger cost to employers: brand reputation and attracting new employees.”

Mr. Beckstrand says research shows the most important thing a leader can do is acknowledge and communicate appreciation for each team member’s work—which sounds a lot like sincere gratitude. Negative team culture can be turned around when a manager helps employees improve their sense of wellbeing, or offers opportunities for growth and development, he says.

“Finding ways for the team to experience small successes that make a difference to others is also critical,” Mr. Beckstrand says. Listen to what excites them. Then, see how you can put it into their work. A sign someone is not engaged is a sign that they’re not growing. Provide an educational environment and your company will be better off.

If You Can’t Help Them In Your Company, Help Them Find Another One

What if you’ve done all you could as a manager, and the employee still appears to be checked out and unmotivated? It’s time to face the facts. “You’re not there to be their counselor or savior,” Ms. Beck says. “You’re not there to fix those things for them. As their manager, you’re not their friend. If you swing too far into the friend zone, you may not be pushing them enough. But if you’re too far in the manager zone, you might be missing an opportunity to be human.”

In this case, Ms. Garn recommends “coaching up or coaching out.” Coaching up means helping an employee find value in their role. When that doesn’t work, couching out means helping them transition to another job or company that better fits their interests or skillsets. If the employee and the manager aren’t getting what they want out of the relationship, the manager can help the employee have an honest chat with themselves about whether or not they want their particular job.

“It’s OK if they don’t, she says. “That takes courage. It might be time to move on.”