Employee engagement

5 Simple Strategies to Inspire Disengaged Employees

Johnny Duncan
April 19, 2017
Table of Contents
Free Trial! No credit card required.
Get started with a Free Trial to see how effective & engaging our platform is. You'll get the full Bonusly experience like any paid user would. Invite teammates, & start recognizing & rewarding today!

With all the talk, hype, suggestions, practices, and training that goes into keeping employees engaged, it’s troubling that disengagement is still an issue in so many organizations — especially considering the significant bottom line impact it can have.

The Bureau of National Affairs found that $11 billion is lost annually due to employee turnover, and according to a Gallup study, companies with engaged employees outperform the competition by as much as 147% in earnings per share.

Engaged employees strive to do everything in their power to move their team forward. They understand their role, how it contributes to the overall success of the company, and are inspired to find better, efficient, and effective ways to contribute more.

We all want employees who are engaged, but what does it take to support that engagement and how do you turn it back around when it starts to wane? How do you improve employee engagement?

The following strategies can be implemented immediately to help achieve high-focused engagement, without launching a massive initiative or a costly campaign.

Understanding employee engagement as a spectrum


One of the most common misconceptions is that employee engagement exists as a binary, on-or-off switch. The truth is, engagement exists on a spectrum. Typically, organizations will have some combination of employees who are fully engaged, a neutral group, a disengaged group, and an actively disengaged group.

By getting a grasp on the full spectrum of employee engagement, leaders will be able to recognize patterns of disengagement and provide the support necessary to bring employees back to a state of active engagement.

Actively engaged

An actively engaged employee enthusiastically desires the best for their organization and their peers. Their positive attitude is downright contagious, and they can’t see any other way to perform than giving their all to the task at hand. These folks are constantly learning, taking risks, and get their gratification from the quality of their work.

To keep actively engaged employees on your team, listen to them.

They will give even more when they feel that they are heard and appreciated. This group needs more empowerment, so support them, earn their trust, give them what they need to succeed, and then let them work.


The neutral, or generally engaged, is the group considered to be the “Steady Eddies.” They are engaged, but not to the extent of the actively engaged. Neutral employees stay on point day in and day out, but don't do much more than what is expected of them.

They always meet performance goals, do what they know well, don’t take many risks, and make up the bulk of your workforce.

Provide the neutral group with opportunities to grow. Encourage them to be mentors to others and allow them to take risks and achieve.


The disengaged group are usually the most volatile. They are waiting for someone or something to get them engaged. They are not self-starters and will probably leave if left too long in their disengaged state. Group members are difficult to identify, seldom speak up, and feel underutilized.

The disengaged group is ripe for being swayed to a higher level of engagement.

Recognize and reward their contributions. Help them see success stories of their fully engaged colleagues, and provide them with the support it takes to enter that realm.

Actively disengaged

The actively or fully disengaged are more than just checked out — they're actively working counter to the goals and values of your organization. This group can be toxic to your organization, use up a lot of company leadership resources, and are often the most vocal and negative. They may even resort to sabotage and take actions that pull other, more engaged employees down along with them. 

An actively disengaged employee is usually the most challenging to reach, though it's still worth the effort. Afford them the same opportunities for growth, recognize their contributions, and encourage their development, but be aware that you may encounter cases of active disengagement that aren't always curable.

Even disengaged employees can help move your team forward by teaching you which areas need to be sharpened in your organization's screening, interviewing, onboarding, and other hiring processes.

Identifying engaged and disengaged employees

There are specific, noticeable traits of both engaged and disengaged employees.

Kate Taylor points out in an Entrepreneur Magazine article, "13 Signs of a Disengaged Employee," those traits include:

  • Complaining
  • Gossiping
  • Making excuses
  • Lying or making up stories
  • Lacking enthusiasm
  • Employees who think they know it all
  • Lacking initiative
  • No desire to grow as an employee
  • Unwilling to learn new things
  • Irresponsibility: missing deadlines, showing up late, etc.
  • Frequently distracted
  • Unwilling to help others

Identifying traits of disengagement will also help you spot the fully engaged and the neutral employees.

While it's important to work hard even for those who are already actively disengaged, it is the actively engaged and neutral groups who will often show the most return on the resources you invest.

That's why it's important to identify signs of disengagement early on, and work to support those employees before they reach the stage of active disengagement.

Understanding the root organizational causes of disengagement

Don’t shoot the messenger, but unfortunately, organizational leadership is the root cause of having and keeping disengaged employees.

During the seeking, screening, and interviewing phase of the hiring process is typically where you would like to find candidates that will remain fully engaged during their employment with your company. That is not an easy task, but with proper vetting, (e.g., multiple interviews, screening procedures, etc.), it is possible to get close.

Changes in the job market doesn’t necessarily have a negative affect on the engagement of employees, but when the job market is good, disengaged employees consider jumping ship.

Our recent Employee Engagement and Modern Workplace Report found that 71% of workers are “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” and are emotionally disconnected from their workplaces, less likely to be productive.

Roughly 66% of Actively Disengaged employees surveyed said they are actively looking for a new job, with only 29% of Disengaged Workers workers seeing themselves at the same organization in two years.

These statistics reveal that work must be done to identify root causes of disengagement and to do all that is necessary to eliminate them.

According to Gerard Seijts and Dan Crim, from the Organizational Behavior Department at the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario, as published in the National Business Research Institute, there are several elements that when ignored contribute to employee disengagement.

They include:

  • Clarity — Leaders not communicating a clear vision of the organization
  • Contribution — Leaders not letting employees know that their work matters
  • Control — Leaders not allowing employees to have some sense of control over their work pace and flow
  • Credibility — Leaders not setting an example of high ethical standards
  • Conveyance — Leaders not establishing processes and procedures to help employees reach their goals

Recognizing and focusing on these elements serves to increase engagement and decrease employee turnover.

Giving recognition

Recognition programs are used frequently in many organizations where employee disengagement is still prevalent.

Creating a recognition program to improve employee engagement doesn’t work unless it is done with heart. If not, it is akin to sharing a piece of birthday cake with someone you don’t like — it is just empty calories.

Recognizing an employee for a job well done must be done sincerely.

A recent Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) article states, “Employees must understand the rationale for a recognition program and should be convinced that the awards are in line with the achievement and the degree of effort they represent.” In other words, give recognition where it is warranted.

Some examples of good, unique examples of employee recognition can be found in “17 Unique Examples of Employee Recognition in Action.” The best way to give recognition is to:

  • Act quickly — Don't delay in giving recognition.
  • Be sincere — Employees know when it is fake. Do it from the heart.
  • Be proactive — You don’t have to wait for perfect performance.
  • Keep it personal — A handwritten note or a lunch invite.
  • Be specific — Recognize a specific action rather than, “Good job on that project.”

Providing the tools for success

The final strategy for inspiring disengaged employees is to give them the tools to succeed. Create clear pathways for them to follow to be able to reach their goals, both professionally and personally.

Providing the proper tools for success includes defining what success is within the workplace setting. A recent Gallup article says it best when it discusses defining engagement goals in realistic terms:

Describing what success looks like using powerful descriptions and emotive language helps give meaning to goals and builds commitment within a team. Make sure that managers discuss employee engagement at weekly meetings, in action-planning sessions, and in one-on-one meetings with employees to weave engagement into daily interactions and activities and to make it part of the workplace's DNA.

In their book, The Power of Full Engagement, Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz list over 20 common performance barriers that include:

  • Low energy
  • Poor communication skills
  • Lack of passion
  • High anxiety
  • Poor time management
  • Lack of empathy
  • Indecisive
  • Unfocused
  • Low self-confidence
  • Poor work-life balance

These can be overcome, reversed or eliminated by providing support systems. Offering training courses, providing in-house exercise programs, making EAP information available, or creating after-hours life management classes can all support your workforce in meaningful ways.

Better understanding employee engagement as a whole, and implementing these simple strategies can help keep your team engaged, moving forward, and make a significant positive impact on your organization.

If you're ready to take the next steps toward building a stronger organizational culture, and a motivated, engaged workforce, check out our latest guide:

Emoji art supplied by EmojiOne

Share this article