Working with a Disengaged Team

I have been watching a friend struggle recently as she tries to manage a team of people who were not engaged.  Read… ‘they really didn’t care’.  The result is demoralizing for everyone: infighting, poor quality work, absenteeism, poor customer service and more.

Admittedly, this is a very large corporation where the bottom line is far removed from this team.  If you asked them what drives them at work, the answer would inevitably be ‘my pay cheque’, and the weekend.

But big corporation or small business, this is not an uncommon hurdle that leaders or managers face today.  We have teams of people who somehow expect their pay cheque to arrive bi-weekly, can’t connect to the end goals and don’t hold any allegiance to the company, nor the cause.   They feel privileged and even entitled.

And in some cases, can you blame them?  The economy so strong, they could probably get a job elsewhere.  But the truth is that we have done a very poor job at making them feel otherwise.

So, what can we do about this?

I don’t think the answer is to try to provide a happier, healthier work environment, nor is it to pay them more money.  None of these things are driving these people.

They key here is to make a connection – between ‘the plan’ and the work they do. 

The plan.  What is the ultimate goal?  Profit?  Service?  A product launch? Or something less ‘corporate’ like the altruistic part of the company – time and resource donations to local causes or simply the power of employment within the community.

There are many ways to connect people to the cause.  We are recognizing that individuals most often are motivated in different ways and we might need to customize the connection.

So, connect the people, individually or as a group, to the plan or to the cause.

How?  It’s all about education.  Not just once a year, but on a regular basis.  What are we trying to do?  Why are we doing it and most importantly of all, how does it affect each one of us?  Everyone needs to be reminded regularly as to how it affects them – what’s in it for them. 

Again, there may well have to be multiple stories here to satisfy multiple constituents.  The profitability story is good for some as they are incented by the bonus at the end of the year.  The ‘good for mankind’ story will hit a portion of the audience, and we need a game plan to keep that card out in front on a regular basis.  And then there is the good ‘corporate citizen’ card that continually promotes donations, good deeds, employment and more to those that see this as the key to working for your company.

This is not an easy game, but a necessary one. Each of your team members needs to be engaged – connected to something that will give them a reason to get to work everyday with a smile.


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3 thoughts on “Working with a Disengaged Team”

  1. Hi Dave,

    I enjoy your blogs. Here’s a comment for this one as it hits home, since organizational change management is my passion and livelihood.

    You ask the question, “So, what can we do about this?” But rather than getting into actioning solutions directed at the staff right away, I think it’s important to first sit back and listen. You mention that in this environment people don’t really care. Nothing new here – we’ve both been there, done that, got the T-shirt. So hearing why they feel disengaged provides very valuable clues.

    Where I have been successful in turning these environments around is realizing that if people don’t care, it’s usually because they feel management doesn’t care about them, about the business, or about the customers. Or all of those. I imagine you had similar experiences.

    So problem becomes about leadership. Part of my change management strategy in these projects is to develop a set of Leader Change Activities that demonstrate genuine care. I don’t want to get into a whole lot of details about how and what kind of activities, but once I get this going, disengagement changes to engagement and adoption picks up.

    Leadership is where it’s at in this case. To paraphrase Thoreau, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of disengagement to one who is striking at the root.” I prefer to strike at the roots.


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