Employee disengagement is often poorly understood and difficult to recognize. For most leaders, it starts with a gut feeling that something just isn’t right – morale isn’t what it was, for example, or there’s been an uptick in grumbling.

It’s important to pay attention to those gut feelings because it’s a lot easier to shore up morale before disengagement really sets in and does its damage.

Our advice: take a minute and look around your organization for signs of disengagement. It can show up in many different ways, and the signs can be subtle, often only evident to a manager who’s really paying attention. Here are a few to keep in mind:

Lack of initiative

Initiative (or the lack of it) is a good litmus test for employee engagement because it’s not uncommon to find disengagement among employees (and even teams) that are performing well. Engaged employees enjoy finding ways to improve the business, and readily take initiative to resolve issues and improve processes. Employees who are disengaged, on the other hand, don’t exhibit initiative. Pay attention to the initiative shown by individuals and teams. If it’s missing, that’s a red flag.

Struggling projects 

Projects that start to veer off course or miss timelines can be warning signs of growing disengagement. Underpinning these issues one can usually find a leadership perception gap, issues with alignment, and/or poor communication (it’s often a combination of factors.) Projects can also go awry when one of the project’s leaders becomes disengaged and fails to take the initiative and ownership necessary to deliver excellence.

Withdrawing and silence 

Failure to participate in meetings, take part in discussions, or offer feedback when solicited can be indicators that an employee is withdrawing, which is another red flag for leaders. The fact that many more people are working from home due to the pandemic can make withdrawal harder to spot. Watch for reduced interaction among teams and individuals.

Above-average time away

Increased requests for time off and sick days, when above average for the rest of the company, are a common sign of disengagement, especially when the trend is true for a team. At the beginning, an employee may be trying to alleviate their stress with some extra time. However, if their disengagement grows unimpeded, those breaks may turn into a more serious absenteeism problem, or signal a job hunt.

Increasing frustration of good performers 

Performance isn’t always the indicator of engagement – it’s entirely possible for high performers to continue good execution – even if their engagement is waning. True professionals to the end, they take pride in their work and won’t compromise their high standards. They will, however, judge others against those standards, and will become disengaged easily if they feel others aren’t performing similarly well, or they don’t feel their performance is valued. If you see signs of frustration from a high performer, pay some attention to that person, and try to understand the underlying issues.

As we noted above, it’s important for leaders to observe their teams in action, and listen to their instincts when assessing team interactions and outcomes. If you get the feeling that something’s not quite right, pay attention to it.

“Engaged employees are reliable, with recognizable routines. When patterns change — a vocal person in meetings is now quiet, or a star performer’s deadlines slip — it’s worth taking a closer look,” said Stacey Browning in a Forbes article titled,  12 Signs Your Employee is Disengaged (and How to Respond).

As you’ll see in the next section, one disengaged employee can have an outsize negative impact on the organization.

The Effects of Disengagement: A Mini-Case 

A striking example of disengagement witnessed by your writer several years ago offers a classic example, and also illustrates the negative impact (and cost!) an individual’s disengagement can have upon the business. 

The employee in question was the business owner on an agile software team. The business owner in this context was a senior role that had primary business and technical responsibility for governance, compliance, and return on investment for a project. The employee in question had been with the company for more than ten years and had a thorough knowledge of the business and the technology. 

At the end of a major e-commerce development project led by this business owner, it was discovered that an expected customer behavior hadn’t been accounted for: if a customer changed their mind and wanted a different product midway through the sign-up process, they would need to begin the enrollment process over, creating redundant and frustrating work for the new customer. 

In addition to creating a poor experience for new customers, this second enrollment created another customer record, playing havoc with reporting and requiring more work on the part of the staff who would need to audit, deactivate and remove duplicate records.

These issues surfaced at the product demo for the executive team several days before launch, and the business owner’s demeanor was noteworthy- it was clear that he didn’t care. The pre-launch demo should have been a victory lap for him. Instead, it was a disaster. 

As it turned out, there was no quick fix. The process had to be rebuilt to accommodate the high likelihood that the customer would change their mind during the onboarding process, which was a well-known fact within the business: historically, it happened 35% of the time, and the sales team were incentivized to upsell new clients to a different level of service. 

The costs of this one employee’s disengagement were staggering – reaching well into the six figures on development costs alone. The company also suffered a setback going into its busiest selling season, delaying the e-commerce launch by months while the issue was fixed. 

One of the most difficult challenges employee disengagement poses is the fact that it can readily spread, leading to a decline in morale and loss of alignment across a team that can measurably damage productivity and performance. As disengagement takes hold, its effects become more pronounced – increased absenteeism, more employees taking leave, and ultimately, unwanted employee turnover. If disengagement motivates employees to leave, its effects can quickly snowball as remaining employees, saddled with extra work due to the departures, can quickly become disengaged themselves.

We know many businesses are starting to struggle with erosion in company culture and team cohesion at this moment. Our founder’s recommendation to leaders: Act now to assess disengagement within your organization. Find out which employees or teams are becoming less engaged, identify the factors contributing to those declines, and take action to put the team back on track.

“It’s never been more important to truly understand how your employees feel – after all, knowledge is power. More importantly, knowledge is power when applied.”

— Stefan Wissenbach, founder and CEO, Engagement Multiplier

To preserve and strengthen your employees’ engagement and the company’s culture, don’t delay your next quarterly benchmark assessment (if you’re an Engagement Multiplier client) and take some time to compare the data to prior surveys.

If you’re not a current Engagement Multiplier client, we’re making access to our Benchmark Assessment – including bespoke client support and guidance on actions you can take based upon your survey data – available to you at no charge. There are no strings attached and the data and feedback are yours to download and keep. Here are the details.