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Engaging Team Members That Check Out

Is checking out a common phenomenon?

A startling statistic to ground this topic: one-third of employees will check out within 5-years of joining a company (see figure 1)! The cost of this issue is estimated by Gallup to be between 30-35% of an employee’s annual salary. This phenomenon shows no signs of abating, however, can be countered with good leadership (and by extension good organizations). 

Leadership IQ graph showing employee check out rates over 5-years.

What does it mean to check out, exactly?

The term used by our human resource (HR) friends for a person that checks out is disengagement. It’s defined as an employee no longer committed, loyal, or willing to go above and beyond at work. It is often a by-product of dissatisfaction with work or disruptive events in their personal lives, for example. These moments can have negative effects on their work and can quietly spread to other team members.

In fact, some studies show that upwards of 85% of employees are disengaged on some level. It’s a problem that cannot be ignored. Furthermore, we are all going to encounter leaders, peers, or team members that check out. So, we need to know how to work with and bring out the best in such an individual.

The tell-tale signs of a disengaged employee

There are several tell-tale signs that an individual has chosen to check out. Look for these red flags:

  • Uncharacteristically withdrawn
  • Breaks from routine
  • Atypically quiet
  • An indifferent attitude
  • Absenteeism from work
  • Poor communicator
  • Increasingly missing deliverable timelines
  • Exhaustion or an inability to manage time
  • Cynicism and rudeness

The list is not exhaustive; however, they are the most common signs of disengagement. 

So, what can we do to be effective ourselves when we work with, or for, individuals that have checked out?

Steps to manage ourselves in the face of a “check out”

Three concrete actions we can take ourselves are:

  1. To motivate them in a way that matters to them
  2. Connect and align with them based on their values
  3. Give them some breathing room

Motivation

For instance, when we think of motivation, we know there are two types. Intrinsic (or self-motivation) and extrinsic (or motivation from others). Engaged employees are more naturally motivated, whereas disengaged employees are not. They need to be directly motivated in a way they understand, such as some help realizing what they need to do and why it matters. A common technique here is the carrot and stick approach – a combination of incentives (recognition programs) and compliance (job ratings or perhaps career prospects). 

Values 

Values are interesting as they drive almost everything we do as individuals, in all facets of our life. For instance, I coached an individual a few years who was significantly disengaged from her team. It compounded when her approach disrupted the group dynamic. We spent time on a values exercise that allowed her to identify her top values and recognize what was missing or misaligned within the role she held. By knowing what was misaligned, she was able to have an open and specific conversation with the team Director about her need to feel more engaged with the team. It is important not to fall into the trap of thinking “they must know what I need…how could they not know?”. How can anyone know what we need or think if we don’t tell them? 

Breathing Room

In all of this, it is extremely important to give individuals breathing room. By this I mean, we all have multiple facets to our lives and sometimes, despite our best intentions, an event in our personal lives can creep into our workplace performance. In these moments giving people time and space to work through it is the best way to prevent disengagement!

There is also the concept of balance – work-life balance to be precise. It’s important to respect that some individuals value the space and privacy between their work life and private life. Connecting with our team members requires this boundary to be respected if we hope to develop rapport with them. 

The three concrete steps we can take require people skills, however, the good news is they are all within our reach and control.

Final Thoughts

Where does this bring us? We need to do more than simply boost employee engagement. We need to figure out how to work with and manage individuals that disengage. For the simple fact, and if for no other reason, that it is what people deliver that matters. When we inspire the heart and mind of employees by aligning to their values, respecting their space, and motivating them in ways that matter to them individually – then we will tap into a high-performing team.

Your turn

Sign in to the Community Member Area or comment below to share your views on disengaged employees and how you re-engage them in the team. 

Give it a try!

Cartoon credit: Nina Paley

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