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When we think about moving the needle on employee engagement, we tend to start at a macro-level – what is the company telling us? What are the bigger themes that we’re seeing? What does our survey say are the most important areas to focus on?

But true employee engagement starts at the employee-level, and we’re often ignoring the early warning signs of disengagement at the beginning – before they turn into company-wide issues.True #employeeengagement starts at the employee-level, and we’re often ignoring the early warning signs of disengagement at the beginning. #HR Click To Tweet

It’s a bit more difficult of a task because to spot disengagement at the employee-level, we need to rely on our leaders to be aware of the signs, help them spot them when they occur and coach them on how to influence the situation.

It sounds like more work, and I know none of us have extra time hanging around to take on another thing. But, if our task is to improve overall engagement and buy-in at our company, this is a great tool you can add to not only support your more macro-focused efforts, but also help your leaders grow and develop so that you’re overall engagement will improve – with you doing less work in the long-run.

3 Signs that Your Top Talent is Disengaged

1. Their personal habits change

This one is tricky to talk about because it can look and feel different for each employee. However, when your employees start doing things slightly different and it’s sustained over a period of time (a month or longer), it is a huge flashing sign that they have stepped off of the engagement train.

When I was working in a corporate setting, I had a few habits that changed significantly each time – that indicated I was checked out (and on my way out the door). My indicators included wearing my hair up more frequently (I know, it sounds odd – but I gave up wanting to style it down each day…) and arriving and leaving on-time instead of my usual extra hours I used to always put in. These were personal to me, but they are the same indicators for a lot of your employees.

Some habit changes can include:

  • The hours they are putting in
  • Their accessibility during or after work hours
  • The clothes they wear (have they gotten less casual… or have you noticed a few random suits in there – hello, interview time!)
  • Being late to (or blowing off) meetings
  • Abnormal feedback and experiences

Now all of these things can also indicate that there’s something bigger going on in your employee’s personal life – so you want to look at these changes with concern, and provide support – before labeling them as disengagement.

How to Coach It:

If you see any of these changes, leaders should schedule some one-on-one time with the employee to check-in and see how things are going. You likely don’t want to probe too deep into their personal life, but do present it as:

“I’ve noticed a few of your habits have changed, and I want to check-in to see if everything is ok and if I can provide you with any support.”

From there, you’ve opened up the conversation for the employee to tell you what they need and want. Discussions tend to range from them sharing their discontent or frustration with something, indicating a bigger issue going on at home, or complete unawareness of their change.

Your role as a leader (and/or an HR partner), is to provide them with the resources they need and let them decide how to move forward. If it’s work-related, discuss possible solutions and ideas. If it’s personal, remind them of the various benefits/perks they have access to, such as your EAP.

2. They have stopped voicing their thoughts, ideas and opinions

Most people want to have a connection with the work they do each day and how they spend their time. That’s why, your top performers especially, tend to be a part of the conversation – often sharing their thoughts, ideas and opinions on various projects.

When your employee stops doing those things, they have checked out.

For your employees who are strongly opinionated, this may be more apparent (and sadly, sometimes very much welcomed). It can feel like your squeaky wheel has finally… shut up. So you may feel like sighing in relief!

But your employees caring about the direction, decisions, projects, future, and so on – is critical for them to be engaged with your company. Your employees caring about the direction, decisions, projects, future, and so on - is critical for them to be engaged with your company. #employeeengagement #HR Click To Tweet

For your employees who may not be as outspoken, this may not be as dramatic – but it will still feel like something is off. Perhaps they have stopped speaking up in meetings unless asked a direction question. Or your ideas seem to be implemented with a lot less friction or input.

Whether this is noticed in a big or small way, your employee is pulling away from investing in the work that they do – which is never a good sign.

How to Coach It:

First, you need to be sure you’re paying attention to these signs fully so you can catch them. These are a bit more sneaky than bigger habit changes. Once identified, you should engage the employee as frequently as possible – asking them for their insights, feedback, thoughts, opinions, ways forward.

Asking them to re-engage and participate. Sometimes being included is enough to reactivate engagement.

In addition, have a one-on-one conversation with them. Be a bit pointed in your observations without being accusatory. Present it as:

“I’ve noticed that you haven’t shared your feedback/opinion/insight on this (specific) project. I can usually count on you to ensure we’re seeing all sides of the project before moving forward. Is there a way I can better support you here?”

From there, you may need to push a little further, based on their response. Remember: the goal is to understand their disengagement reasons so you can get back on track. A follow-up response may be:

“It feels like you’re disengaged a bit (on this project, in your role, etc.) – let’s talk about what’s going on…”

A critical note: employees, in general, want to feel heard, included and important (hello – we are all people, that’s what most of us want in life!) – sometimes providing validation and visibility through conversation can active re-engagement.

3. They have down-shifted

Down-shifting is when a key talent employee has stopped working in fifth-gear and has down-shifted to work in second-gear. (For those of you who are too young to know how to drive an automatic car, you can learn more here). 😉

Basically, your employee has realized that they are putting in way too much effort with very little recognition. And with this realization, they stop working as hard and as much, to do just enough to get by.

Here’s the crazy thing – in the eight years that I have talked about this and coached employees through this practice, only one time has an employee’s down-shift been noticed.

Gasp, right?

And every single person that I know of, who has used this practice, has left their company due to disengagement.

So it’s a problem – and one that is somewhat easy to fix if you’re able to spot it.

Although some things to look for include your employee not raising their hands for projects; not volunteering to go the extra mile when they used to always do so; their work quality has declined slightly (or significantly); or they just feel a bit more aloof in general.

The cool thing is it’s likely a bigger issue that you can address in a slightly more-macro level, so you’re not waiting to tackle each down-shifter on a one-to-basis.

How to Coach It:

The simple answer – start recognizing your employees in ways that resonate and do it more frequently. Full stop.

If you are like me, and a bit less woo-woo about work, you may be rolling your eyes at this. But I want to share two things for you to consider. First, think about your own role – even if you’re more on the blunt-end of the spectrum, when you do great work, it doesn’t feel good if no one recognizes it and/or someone else takes credit for it. I bet you’re already thinking about a situation where that happened, and you’ve gotten annoyed all over again.

Second, according to Randstad, one of the top reasons employees leave a job, is a lack of recognition (27%). According to Randstad, one of the top reasons employees leave a job, is a lack of recognition (27%). Do you agree?? #employeeengagement #HR Click To Tweet

This is something you can absolutely influence – whether you implement recognition within your own team, department, organization or company. This is a low-hanging fruit in HR terms – so it’s worth exploring.

Bonus: recognition differs for each employee, so ask them what kind of recognition they are seeking – outside of monetary rewards, you’ll find a range of preferences including a shout-out during a team meeting, an email from the leader, peer recognition and so on.

Heeding the Signs

Employees usually tell us well in advance, that they are sliding into disengagement – whether they were previously engagement or neutral. We tend to mostly ignore these signs, even though combating disengagement on the individual level is not only easier, but more effective than relying on large-scale company-wide solutions.

Want to get your leaders on board and have them spot the early warning signs? Click here to get your disengagement warning signs checklist – complete with how to tackle each item.