HomeSpecial ReportDiscussing Disengagement Can Be Part of the Fix

Discussing Disengagement Can Be Part of the Fix

Lack of motivation becomes a bigger problem when employees feel they can’t talk about it

Happy workers are the most productive workers. Research published by the Journal of Happiness Studies (and covered in MIT Sloan Management Review) reported that Army soldiers who were in the highest quartile regarding happiness and optimism earned four times as many awards as those who were unhappiest initially.

“Happiness — and, to a somewhat lesser extent, optimism — were better predictors of awards than any demographic factor we examined,” the authors stated. “Our military research, along with other behavioral science research spanning the past 40 years, highlights the competitive advantage that employee happiness offers businesses. There are some things about employee happiness that every business leader should know and be able to apply.”

This means that gauging worker happiness is one of the most important aspects of managing teams. Yet too often, managers check in quickly and even insincerely on their employees’ level of job satisfaction.

Talk About Work Disengagement

Allison Gabriel, Professor of management and organizations at Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona, says too many managers underestimate how important it is to meet people’s three main needs at work: “They want to feel autonomous; they want to feel competent at what they do; and they want to feel socially connected to other people,” Gabriel recently told Tess Vigeland, host of The Wall Street Journal  podcast “As We Work.”

“The first solution people think of is, ‘Let’s just throw money at the problem.’ That’s usually not what the issue is. If we do that, it puts a Band-Aid on the situation,” Gabriel said. “People are looking for the intrinsic motivators.”

On the same podcast episode, Marissa Dacay, who held a senior marketing position at Adobe, explained that she assessed her career last year and realized that, as she approached her 10-year anniversary at the computer software company, she no longer enjoyed her job responsibilities. Dacay said she felt her options were to continue along her current

career path at Adobe, look for similar work at another company or make a career shift. She chose the latter, and because she liked working at Adobe, she had a frank conversation with Mark Lipscomb, vice president of employee experience at Adobe.

“When I was thinking about the work I was doing, I had reached a place where I had the most broad and complex scope I had ever had, but I was also in a place where I’d never felt less connected to the work. It wasn’t really exciting to me anymore or motivating to me anymore,” Dacay said.

That’s not something many workers would feel comfortable sharing with a supervisor, but Lipscomb was glad she did and wishes more conversations like the ones he had with Dacay would occur between managers and their team members.

“At the beginning it was just listening and asking probing questions back. ‘You’re so good at what you do. What’s missing?’ ” Lipscomb said.

When Dacay made a list of what she liked about her current role, she realized that most of it involved developing future leaders and assisting with people development. That allowed Lipscomb to look at other openings within the company and recommend that Dacay apply for a more people-focused position that was being filled. Her title now is director of Business Partnering.

Lipscomb said Adobe encourages managers to regularly have conversations about career paths and how [employees] are truly feeling. One-on-ones can’t only be about business topics.

Adobe retained a valuable employee and that employee became engaged once again with her job.

In her new role, Dacay said she was “waking up reinvigorated by the feeling that I may have challenges that day that I won’t know how to solve. That was exciting,” Dacay said. “I was scared again in my job in a good way.”

The big takeaway, Dacay and Lipscomb said, is that she trusted her employer enough that she could be candid about losing interest in her current role. She recognized that she had transferable skills that could help her not get locked into an undesired progression in her marketing role.

“Knowing that you can continue a career that isn’t anything like the one you were dreaming of or the path that you’re supposed to be following — it’s a scary thing to do, but when you open yourself up in that completely different way, lots of doors can open.”

Come With Solutions

If you can identify the problem and at least part of the solution, like Dacay was able to do, it makes good sense to have the talk with a supervisor, said journalist Nell McShane Wulfhart in an article written for The Muse. If you don’t bring solutions to the discussion, it’s just a complaint.

Companies should arm managers with the power to resolve this type of issue whenever possible while recognizing that a solution that allows for retaining every employee will not be possible. Lipscomb said it was fortunate that Dacay’s likes in terms of job responsibilities matched an opening that was being filled at the company. In some situations, a person may have to find work at another company to resolve the problem.

Creating a personal development plan for an employee shows that you are invested in their success. Identify growth potential and new skills they would like to acquire. Ask them to recommend training or other development steps they would like to complete.

Taking a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to employee disengagement hurts both the employee and the employer. Better to have candid conversations that address the issues and determine if a win-win solution can be reached.


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Paul Nolan
Paul Nolan
Paul Nolan is the editor of Sales & Marketing Management magazine.

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