The Dangerous Disease of Disengagement

“Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have.”
Margaret Mead, anthropologist

You work hard. You care about your company, your products, and services. You care about your coworkers and your customers. And you’re constantly trying to do your very best. But you wonder why everybody else in your organization doesn’t feel the same way.

The reason is simple. They’ve lost their PASSION. They’re no longer excited about their careers and their jobs … if indeed, they ever were. And without that passion, those coworkers will never give you and your customers the results you’d like to see. You’ll get sporadic, mediocre performance instead of consistent, soaring excellence.

Of course, in today’s world, the word “passion” might sound a bit soft or outdated. But it’s not. It’s simply another way of saying that too many workers are “disengaged.” As author Terri Kabachnick says in her book, “I Quit, But Forgot to Tell You,” disengagement is a common, fast-spreading, and dangerous disease that must be dealt with. I couldn’t agree more.

1. The cost of disengagement

In fact, disengagement may be killing your business … if you’re a business owner, leader, or manager. A recent Gallup poll said disengagement costs U.S. businesses more than $250 billion a year! And in many cases, that $250 billion loss is the difference between your profitability and your bankruptcy.

Plainly put, you cannot afford to keep a disengaged workforce or even a disengaged employee on the payroll.

Now you may be thinking, “I’m not a business owner. I’m not even a leader in my organization. I’m just a regular employee. So what’s the big deal if I’m not passionate about my job? So what if I’m disengaged?”

Let me tell you, it is a big deal. The human costs of disengagement may be even greater than the financial costs. After all, if you’re just putting in your time, waiting for the day to end, and getting little or no satisfaction out of your job, your whole life is going to suffer. Your outlook on life will begin to sour; your self-esteem will go down the tubes; your health will be challenged, and your relationships will suffer. No one can feel good about himself when he does just enough to get by, and no one likes to work or live with someone who is a slacker.

That being the case, you need to know how to spot disengagement in yourself and in those around you.

2. The look of disengagement

No one says it better than Kabachnick. When you’re disengaged, you stop caring about what you do. You stop caring about your work, your job, your team, your boss, and your customers. You do what you know you have to do, but you’ve lost the love of doing it. You’ve lost heart. It’s what I call “Stage One” of the disengagement disease. It’s a somewhat passive stage.

Stage 2 of the disengagement disease is more active and possibly more dangerous. You become negative and discontent, and you don’t mind letting other people know about it. If the disease is not stopped and cured at this stage, the negativity begins to spread like a virus throughout the workplace, even infecting some of the good, engaged employees.

Obviously, you can’t allow that to happen. More importantly, you’ve got to prevent it from happening in the first place. So what can you do … as a manager, as a supervisor, as a coworker, or even as a parent … to keep people engaged? Here are a few tips from my program on “Take This Job And Love It!”

To give you every engagement tip and every engagement strategy would take at least an hour … or even several hours … but you can start with these.

3. Spend more time “engaging” your people in conversation.

Don’t fool yourself into thinking you’re too busy for this. As author Michael Kardo says, “There is nothing small about small talk.” When you carry on an interesting and meaningful discussion with someone, you’re validating that person. And there isn’t a person in the world that doesn’t want more validation.

Unfortunately, some of the most disengaged departments are led by some of the most disengaged leaders. They’re unskilled or unwilling to engage in nonwork-related discussions. No problem. You can learn the art of “engaging” conversation.

Follow communication expert Marjorie Brody’s advice. Stay informed about current events and professional happenings. Read newspapers and magazines. Learn about the person with whom you plan to speak, especially those things you may have in common.

Learn what topics are safe and what topics to avoid. For example, the weather and the traffic are tried and true topics for starting conversations. Whether you’ve known someone for two minutes or 20 years, chances are one of the first things you’ll talk about is the weather or traffic. They may not be creative topics, but they break the ice and usually lead to more interesting discussions.

Generally speaking, you can then move on to other “safe” topics such as … current events, travel, hobbies, sports, cultural events, movies, children, food, restaurants, and possibly work. Avoid such topics as politics, religion, gossip, off-color jokes, your health, your personal misfortunes, and bad mouthing the competition or anyone else.

To make your conversation even more engaging, use Brody’s 3-part communication system: observe, reveal, and question. With the “observe” method, you can make a positive comment about an event the two of you are attending, the venue, the cause, the food, or the view. For example, “This is a wonderful event. It looks like everyone is having a good time.” You can “reveal” a positive opinion you might have, such as, “That’s a unique tie. I really like it.” And you can get the other person involved with a “question,” such as “What brought you to this meeting?”

They’re simple techniques, but they work. They start to engage other people.

But if you REALLY want to engage people on a deeper level, if you really want to show your interest in and respect of someone else, you need to move to what I call “Brave Questions.” That’s what Lynda Jost found out.

She wrote to me recently, saying, “Thank you so much for your book, ‘Brave Questions: Building Stronger Relationships By Asking All The Right Questions.’ I’m sooooo enjoying it!!! It’s wonderful.”

“I had to sit with a friend in court this morning, and while we were waiting for his case to be called I read the first couple chapters of the book. Afterwards we went to breakfast and asked him a Brave Question: ‘What is one of your happiest memories?’ He shared for an hour about MANY happy memories. Then I asked him what one of the saddest things was in his life. He shared another hour. He never even realized how much he was talking. He is one of the loneliest, proudest people I know and today – he began to pour out his heart.”

“That friend is my brother. He’s never been married, has no children, and has many hurts that run very deep. But with your book, we’ve started a new season for the two of us. Thanks very much.”

To further engage the folks around you…

4. Keep on teaching your people.

It will make them feel better about themselves, and it will make them more valuable to your organization. According to the research, almost everyone craves some rewards and recognition. And one of the best, most desired rewards, is EXCELLENT training that not only educates but motivates the attendees.

You see … if you invest in HIGH QUALITY training, you’re telling your people they’re worth the investment you are making. You are affirming their worth. And that always increases their engagement at work.

Of course, I know there are some skeptics out there who will ask me, “What if I invest all this money in training my people and they leave?” I answer them by asking, “What if you don’t train your people and they stay?”

And then, with their newly gained information and skills, if you want to elicit even more engagement…

5. Give them a chance to make a difference.

You simply cannot have an engaged workforce or an engaged employee if they don’t think their work makes any difference. Indeed, if that’s what they think, you’ll soon notice that they do just enough work to get by.

You’ve got to give them a chance to make a difference somehow somewhere. It’s one of the basic laws of motivation that applies to animals as well as people.

Take Molly, for example. She’s a grey speckled pony who was abandoned by her owners when Hurricane Katrina hit southern Louisiana . She spent weeks on her own before finally being rescued and taken to a farm where abandoned animals were stockpiled. While there, she was attacked by a pit bull terrier and almost died. Her gnawed right front leg became infected and needed to be removed below the knee … or be put down.

The vet, Rustin Moore decided on the surgical option and outfitted Molly with an artificial limb, when it would have been so much easier to put her down. But Moore noticed a special quality in Molly, that she was sweet and allowed people to handle her, even though she had to cope with a great deal of pain. Somehow Molly sensed that other people had their problems, just like she did, and perhaps she could help them.

These days, Molly has a job. Her owner takes her to shelters, nursing homes, and rehabilitation centers …anywhere people need some hope. Wherever Molly goes, she shows her pluck. She’s inspiring people and having a good time doing it.

“It’s obvious to me that Molly had a bigger role to play in life,” Moore said. “She survived the hurricane; she survived a horrible injury, and now she is giving hope to others. She’s not back to normal, but she’s going to be better. To me, she could be a symbol for New Orleans itself.”

Personally, I think she’s the perfect example of what happens when you give people a chance to make a difference. They keep on giving their best. So ask yourself, “What are you doing today that helps other people make a meaningful and noticeable difference?”

The more engaged your people, the better your workplace. And the better your workplace, the better your business. So go out there and “engage” everyone you can.

Action:  On a scale of 1 to 100, where 100 is perfectly and fully engaged, what score would you give your company, department, or family? And what are you going to do about it?