What Makes a Great Employee Disengage? 5 Enemies of Engagement to Avoid

On day one, your new hire’s eagerness is palpable, and their energy downright contagious. A couple months in, they’ve smoothed out the kinks that come with settling into a new position and seem to be hitting their stride. They have all the makings of what makes a great employee, and you’re delighted with your decision to bring them on board.

Leaders everywhere are asking, what makes a great employee disengage?
Leaders everywhere are asking, what makes a great employee disengage?

Somewhere along the way, things quietly start to change. Their once-inspired attitude dims. Their work ethic wilts. They seem checked out, and you start to worry — understandably — that they might be seeking opportunities elsewhere.

This disheartening narrative plays out every day in companies all over the world, with two-thirds of employees admitting they don’t feel engaged at work. Well-meaning managers reeling in the wake of yet another two-weeks notice are left scratching their heads and wondering, what makes a great employee disengage?

The Disengagement Epidemic

When it comes to the workforce’s problem with disengagement, there’s good news and bad news.

The bad news? It’s a really big problem. So big that some leaders regard it as the single biggest challenge facing businesses today. This assessment seems valid considering employee engagement has a direct impact on turnover, productivity, and profitability. Which leads us to the good news …

The good news is that, since employee engagement is such a high-stakes problem to solve, experts have poured effort into understanding what makes a great employee disengage. Their research has uncovered some interesting results.

A growing body of research has addressed the question of what makes a great employee check out.
A growing body of research has addressed the question of what makes a great employee check out.

It’s not that managers are hiring apathetic, checked-out team members from the beginning. Quite the opposite: hiring managers have a fairly good grasp on what makes a great employee and know to look out for qualities like positivity, professionalism, flexibility, and a healthy sense of ownership.

The plague of disengagement builds gradually, gathering momentum until it becomes painfully clear that your once-shining star has stopped caring, checked out, and moved on. But how does it happen? Below we discuss five of the most common culprits of what makes a great employee disengage.

What Makes a Great Employee Disengage

The points listed below tell the story of how a bright-eyed new hire becomes a disengaged cog in the machine. Sadly, it happens all the time — but many leaders still struggle to understand why. These are the five biggest enemies of employee engagement:

1. Employees Don’t Share a Sense of Camaraderie

The average employee spends 90,000 hours at work over the course of their lives. That’s about one third of their life. In an average work week, it’s also more time than a  person spends with their family.

A big part of what makes a great employee is the employees who surround them.
A big part of what makes a great employee is the employees who surround them.

Given that humans are ceaselessly social creatures, it makes sense that the value of peer-to-peer relationships is so high. People with strong peer-to-peer relationships are happier, more creative, and more successful overall. Many people even cite workplace relationships as one of their biggest professional motivators. It seems a big part of what makes a great employee is the other employees who surround them and the quality of the relationships they share.

When those vital relationships weaken (or never form in the first place), disengagement sets in. With no connection to the people you work with, accountability diminishes. Loyalty shrivels up right alongside it, and employees feel like they’re operating in a lonely void with goals that are theirs alone. Like happiness, work loses meaning when not shared.

Managers can’t force their team members to become best friends, but they can take action to support healthy working relationships. Establishing a peer-to-peer recognition program is a great way to start. It gives team members an easy way to call each other out for positive contributions, valiant shows of company spirit, and other praiseworthy accomplishments. Beyond that, supporting the occasional team outing or company-sponsored happy hour can give your team members the chance to connect off the clock and build bonds that water cooler small talk can’t facilitate.

When employees feel like they belong to a team rather than a random cohort of coworkers, it’s a lot more likely they will stay engaged at work.

2. Employee Accomplishments Go Unrecognized

The problem begins when your employee is doing an amazing job but doesn’t feel like their work is acknowledged or recognized by peers and leadership. If a member of your team constantly exemplifies what makes a great employee, tell them. Employees aren’t mind readers, and even the most confident team members will start to question their performance in the absence of recognition.

What makes a great employee disengage? In part, a lack of recognition.
What makes a great employee disengage? In part, a lack of recognition.

Employees who feel appreciated are 80% more likely to be motivated at work which, of course, leads to superior performance. On the flip side, employees who are never highlighted for meaningful contributions progress blindly, resorting to guesswork about whether their performance has been superb or subpar. Unsurprisingly, a workplace devoid of recognition smothers engagement too.

Although most managers realize that they should recognize their employees, many claim they just don’t have time. To be fair, lots of team leaders boast packed schedules and covet time like a precious resource. But the right employee recognition programs are streamlined and straightforward, making the minute or less it takes to send a note of gratitude well worth it. 

Lack of recognition is a major part of what makes a great employee disengage. Companies that invest in solutions to keep recognition simple, frequent, and meaningful have taken a proactive step towards ensuring that when an employee joins their team, the person’s  potential grows — not diminishes.

3. Employees’ Sense of Purpose Has Vanished

Another big part of the answer to what makes a great employee disengage is a missing sense of purpose.

Particularly in today’s millennial-dominant workforce, people often seek positions at companies that provide them a platform to drive progress in the world at large. Millennials are famous for their desire to contribute to something bigger than themselves, but to some extent this craving for a higher-level purpose is alive within us all. It’s part of what makes us human.

A healthy sense of purpose is key to engagement.
A healthy sense of purpose is key to engagement.

Right next to relationships, mission is one of the most frequently cited major workplace motivators. More likely than not, your most enthused employees joined the team at least in part because they were excited to contribute to your company’s mission.

Especially at a larger organization, not everyone is going to get to make direct contributions to the company’s highest-level goals everyday. Big changes are accomplished piece by piece, and each employee is a tiny component of a large and complicated puzzle. That said, lack of clarity about where they fit in can be part of what makes a great employee disengage.

Managers can foster a sense of purpose in employees through transparency about how smaller projects fit into larger company initiatives, and how those initiatives fuel high-level progress. Furthermore, allowing some degree of autonomy around which tasks different team members take on will help ensure employees work on projects they personally deem meaningful. Finally, publicizing your company core values — and publicly recognizing those who live up to them — is an excellent way to infuse your culture with purpose and stop disengagement in its tracks.

4. Employees’ Growth Feels Stunted

If you have nowhere to go, why keep going?

Key to what makes a great employee is chances to continually get even better.
Key to what makes a great employee is chances to continually get even better.

Employees who feel like their careers have hit a dead end (at least as long as they remain in their current roles) will check out faster than you can ask, “what makes a great employee disengage?” That’s because the brain is a future-oriented organ, constantly hungry for  progress. When employees don’t anticipate meaningful steps forward in their current role, they’ll reflexively grasp for opportunities elsewhere.

Make space for dialogue around employees’ professional goals. Work with team members to ensure the tasks they do in support of the company also contribute to their personal development. At its best, the relationship between employee growth and company growth can be symbiotic. Lastly, check in to see whether employees feel sufficiently challenged. There is a sweet spot somewhere between mastery and incompetence that allows employees to stretch the boundaries of their capabilities, but also deliver quality work. Employees who operate there, with just the right degree of challenge, are the most engaged of all.

When you support employee growth, you enable employees to realize their full potential, push its boundaries, and then realize it again. Not only does this cycle of professional evolution promote engagement, it strengthens the talent embedded in your existing team. Companies that support employee growth exemplify the ideal win-win situation: growth is a huge part of what makes a great employee, and great employees are a vital part of what makes a successful company.

Managers are extremely related to what makes a great employee — or doesn't.
Managers are extremely related to what makes a great employee — or doesn’t.

5. Management Has No Idea

This is, without a doubt, the biggest detriment to employee engagement of all. Managers account for 70% of the variance in employee engagement. Seventy. Percent. This massive influence suggests that in large part, the manager is what makes a great employee.


Think back to the other four factors that contribute to (or detract from) employee engagement.

1. Lack of Camaraderie

Team camaraderie is built through collaboration and peer-to-peer connection—both of which are well within a manager’s ability to support, as long as they know they need supporting.

2. Lack of Recognition

Recognition requires buy-in from senior leadership, and managers must lead by example for recognition to become an integrated cultural norm.

3. Lack of Purpose

Managers can also explain how team members’ job functions tie back to high-level company goals to foster the sense of purpose essential to employee engagement.

4. Lack of Growth

Finally, good managers work with direct reports to ensure they feel appropriately challenged, with plenty of opportunities for career growth and professional development.

In short, although employee engagement isn’t definitively the responsibility of a manager, it is certainly within their control. 

If you can identify what makes a great employee disengage, there are all kinds of solutions available.
If you can identify what makes a great employee disengage, there are all kinds of solutions available.

At companies safeguarded against disengagement, communication flows freely between managers and employees. This ensures that, should any of the forces of disengagement arise, they will be caught early and addressed promptly. It’s recommended that managers meet with team members a minimum of once a week. Successful managers use these check-ins as an opportunity to keep a pulse on engagement. Visibility is key when it comes to fighting disengagement since even the best manager is helpless in the face of an invisible problem. If a manager is able to swiftly identify when engagement starts to slip, half the battle is already won — better still if they are able to identify why.

If you notice that an employee has begun to disengage, don’t panic — act. Disengaged employees are not bad employees. On the contrary, they’re almost always good employees worn down by circumstances that, for any number of reasons, aren’t conducive to success. If the precise circumstances driving disengagement are less than clear to you, don’t be afraid to ask the employee directly. They might not have the answer either, but it will at least spark a conversation about the problem. Together, you can pin down what needs to change. 

Once you’ve identified the issue, you can leverage resources like this article and other literature on boosting workplace morale to take action against disengagement. Measures like thoughtful recognition programs, team outings, and active core value reinforcement are great places to start. The benefit of initiatives like these extends beyond any single struggling employee — it serves the entire team.

Building Great Employees

All things considered, it seems the question we should really be asking is, what makes a great employee in the first place? The answer is more complicated (and more involved) than you may have originally guessed. Great employees are not born, they are built. They’re the product of an effortful collaboration between employee and manager, and thoughtfully designed work environments that enable success and feed engagement.

What makes a great employee disengage matters less than what makes a great employee in the first place.
What makes a great employee disengage matters less than what makes a great employee in the first place.

Although it’s ultimately up to an employee to realize their own potential, it’s the manager’s responsibility to create an engaging work environment that enables them to do so. Engaged workforces are no accident. So rather than asking yourself what makes a great employee disengage, consider the many factors that contribute to keeping an employee challenged, appreciated, and connected at work.

Katerina Mery is a Marketing Specialist at Fond with a background in cognitive psychology and a passion for improving the way people live and work. She especially enjoys learning about how to accomplish this through rewards and recognition. In her spare time, you can find Katerina running outside, admiring art, and exploring the latest and greatest local restaurants.

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