Business Leadership Today

How To Turn Disengaged Employees Into Engaged Employees


Matt Tenney, Author of Inspire Greatness: How to Motivate Employees with a Simple, Repeatable, Scalable Process

Despite US companies pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into employee engagement annually, the needle on engagement has barely moved. Recently, it has moved in the wrong direction.

According to reporting from Gallup, the percentage of engaged employees in the US was highest in 2020, at 36%. In 2022, it fell to 33%.

“There’s a growing disconnect between employee [and] employer. You could almost equate it to employees becoming a little bit more like gig workers,” says Jim Harter, who is chief workplace scientist at Gallup. “In the context of high-performance customer service, retaining your best people, that’s a problem.”

It has become clear, with engagement declining for both on-site and remote workers, with the biggest decline impacting “remote-ready onsite workers” (workers whose jobs could be done from home but are required to work from the office), that the old methods of engagement aren’t going to get the needle moving in the right direction.

Tackling the disengagement challenge requires new and more employee-focused approaches. 

To turn disengaged employees into engaged employees, leaders can apply a simple, scalable, four-step process for consistently bringing out the best in employees and helping them thrive:

  1. Regularly remind leaders that their primary duty is to inspire greatness—to inspire employees to engage and consistently do quality work.
  2. Identify the 14 universal needs employees have for being engaged at work.
  3. Get regular feedback in small, digestible bits to determine how well direct supervisors are meeting the universal needs people have for being engaged at work.
  4. Synchronize feedback with training in bite-size bits to help managers quickly respond to feedback.

In this article, we’ll explore the differences between engaged and disengaged employees, what a disengaged employee looks like, and a simple, scalable, four-step process for turning disengaged employees into engaged employees.

Types of Engagement

Employee engagement can be measured by the extent to which employees feel passionate about their work and how committed they are cognitively, emotionally, and physically to the organization and its mission. 

At the beginning of the employee experience, engagement grows or an engagement gap develops—and grows. This gap lies between the best or maximum an employee can perform and their typical performance.

Engagement determines the frequency with which employees do their best. When employees are more engaged, they will regularly do their best. When they are disengaged, they will rarely do their best. 

Let’s look at the three levels of engagement to get a better understanding of how engagement gaps grow. 

Three Levels of Engagement

An employee will fit into one of three categories of engagement depending on their level of commitment to their job:


Due to their emotional commitment, engaged employees find meaning in the work they do, care about their work, their co-workers, and the organization, are aligned with the organization’s mission, vision, and values, are invested in the future of the organization, and recognize that the work they do is essential to its success. 

Engaged employees feel comfortable giving and receiving feedback and interacting with leadership. They also experience strong social relationships with their coworkers.

Indicators of high engagement in a workplace include less absenteeism, higher retention rates, increased productivity as a result of high performance, improved customer service, resulting in more client satisfaction and client retention, and better overall profitability for the organization.

Not Engaged 

Not engaged employees show up but work with little commitment or enthusiasm. They may give a typical performance regularly, but they rarely go above and beyond because they are not fully invested in the organization’s success or necessarily on board with its mission.

Employees who are not engaged will do their work but are disinterested in it. They may miss deadlines, communicate poorly (and rarely) with management and co-workers, don’t take ownership, and don’t demonstrate accountability. They may not participate when they are tasked with working on collaborative projects. 

Employees who are not engaged could have been engaged at one time but aren’t any longer. This lack of engagement can be due to changes in their work environment that they take issue with or because of issues in their personal lives that have affected their level of enthusiasm for their job. 

Most workers fall into the not engaged category.

Actively Disengaged

Disengaged employees lack the commitment of their engaged peers. These employees are typically unhappy in their roles, have no job satisfaction, and spread negativity within the organization. 

These employees are not interested in problem-solving, process improvement, collaboration, or innovation. They may be averse to change and express frustration when they are asked to do certain tasks or learn new processes.

They can also end up costing companies a lot of money. It is estimated that the total cost of disengaged employees in the U.S. is $450-500 billion annually. This makes disengagement a serious threat to the success of organizations.

What Does a Disengaged Employee Look Like, and How Does Their Disengagement Impact an Organization?

A disengaged employee looks just like their engaged co-workers on the surface, but, unlike engaged employees, they bring neither passion nor commitment to their jobs. They often exhibit toxic behaviors, underperform, and lack a strong belief in or enthusiasm for the organization’s mission, vision, or values.

Who Is Disengaged?

While disengagement is up across different age groups and industries, there are a few clusters of workers who seem to be disproportionately impacted: 

  • Women reported a greater decline in engagement than men in 2022, indicating that they felt less cared about and less likely to feel their development was being encouraged. 
  • Workers under 35 experienced a bigger drop in engagement than workers over 35.
  • Individual contributors and project managers not only saw the greatest decline in engagement levels of any other job type, but they also saw the biggest percentage increase in disengaged employees 
  • Remote-ready onsite workers experienced significant declines in engagement; fully remote employees experienced an increase in “quiet quitting” (not engaged in work or the workplace but not actively disengaged). 

Reasons for Disengagement

Employees can disengage for many reasons. While compensation and benefits remain important considerations for most workers, it is not one of the most common reasons employees disengage. 

  • Employees who lack a sense of purpose at work may struggle to engage with the mission and align with the organization’s values. 
  • A lack of growth and advancement opportunities may make them feel like they don’t have a future with an organization. 
  • A poor work-life balance, whether it’s caused by a heavy workload, a high-stress work environment, or personal problems outside work, can lead to burnout that causes employees to disengage. 
  • As leadership has a profound impact on employee engagement, bad leadership resulting in a toxic work culture, a lack of vision, or a failure to follow through can alienate even once-engaged employees. 
  • When employees aren’t empowered with flexibility and autonomy, micromanagement can erode their engagement and sink motivation and morale. 
  • Employees can also become disengaged if they don’t feel a sense of belonging at work due to a psychologically unsafe work environment, lack of inclusion, or few connections—an ongoing challenge in the remote work environment. 

Signs of Disengagement

While disengagement may seem obvious in some cases, it is often hard to spot, especially if the disengaged employee is still managing to complete their work. 

Disengaged employees will often display certain tell-tale behaviors that can clue you in to their disengagement:

  • Disengaged employees may display a lack of initiative and avoid volunteering for projects or opportunities.
  • Disengaged employees may be disinterested in participating in meetings or withdraw from social interactions they once engaged in and fail to provide feedback or other input to the team. 
  •  Disengaged employees may show poor time management skills, with “wasted weekends” and frequently missed deadlines.

The signs won’t just be apparent in employees’ behaviors. An organization with high disengagement will start to see the impact in increased turnover numbers, low productivity, low quality of work, high customer dissatisfaction, and lower profits

The profit loss doesn’t just result from the loss in productivity or the cost of replacing and onboarding another employee to fill that role. Disengagement can also hurt morale and have a “multiplier effect” that results in even higher turnover. The toxic culture that can arise from a high level of disengagement can also impact customer perceptions of the organization.

How To Turn Disengaged Employees Into Engaged Employees

There are four simple steps you can follow to quickly and dramatically improve employee engagement and turn disengaged employees into engaged employees.

Step 1: Implement a system for frequently reminding leaders that their primary job and top priority is to inspire greatness (engagement) in team members.

The first step is for leaders to shift their mindset away from seeing employee engagement as an “initiative” or “project” that is the responsibility of human resources. It should be the top priority for the organization, tied with an effective strategy for accomplishing its mission. 

Employee engagement is the best predictor of whether or not an organization will effectively execute the strategy. Organizations with high levels of employee engagement are roughly 20% more productive and 20% more profitable than organizations with low levels of employee engagement.

Employee engagement is something that everyone should be thinking about, all year long. Leaders at all levels need to be reminded regularly that their top priority is to inspire greatness in their team members, so that they prioritize activities that drive engagement, instead of over-focusing on tasks and short-term metrics.

They are more likely to create and sustain an environment that prioritizes removing obstacles to employee engagement, and that helps employees thrive, both professionally and personally.

A simple process for achieving this is to have all managers print up a document that reminds them of what their primary job is:

My primary job is to inspire greatness in my team by serving as a coach who helps people to be happy, great human beings, who do great work.

Once leaders have this printed up, they should create a calendar event that reminds them to read this document several times a day for at least 30 days. Every time leaders read this, they’ll be more likely to take some action that helps bring out the best in their team members, and team members will feel more cared for as a result. 

Step 2: Identify the needs people have for thriving—being happy, great human beings who do great work—focusing on the universal needs most strongly correlated with employee engagement.

The second step to creating and sustaining an environment that helps employees thrive both professionally and personally is to identify the universal needs that people have for thriving at work.

Good news—we’ve already completed this step for you!

We have identified 14 needs for thriving that are very strongly correlated with employee engagement and retention, supported by decades of research. And these needs are essentially universal: Almost everyone shares these needs for thriving at work and being engaged.

By focusing on the 14 most important drivers of employee engagement instead of things like perks and benefits, the effectiveness of engagement initiatives is dramatically improved.

1. Clarity of Expectations

When employees are unsure about what is expected of them in their roles, it creates a situation where they experience daily conflict about their duties and responsibilities, which can raise stress levels, erode confidence, and decrease motivation. In situations where job responsibilities and duties may shift regularly, clarity becomes even more important.

To stay motivated and engaged, and for leadership to effectively measure an employee’s performance, employees need to have clear goals to work toward. They also need to know what is expected of them as they work to achieve their goals so that they can hold themselves accountable.  

Providing clarity on goals and expectations makes it easier to increase alignment between an employee’s goals and the larger goals of the organization, helps employees focus more energy on achievement, and allows leaders to better manage an employee’s performance without micromanaging it. 

2. Having the Tools Required to Do One’s Job

Lacking the tools to do one’s job is a significant source of anxiety and frustration and can prevent employees from doing their best work.

Equipping your employees with the tools they need to work with autonomy is just as important as giving them autonomy. This means not only trusting employees to work autonomously but also providing them with the technology and support they need to work autonomously and empowering them in ways that build confidence. 

To produce high-quality work, avoid delays that can cause setbacks, and avoid unnecessary stress, all workers need access to the right technological tools to do their jobs. This one may seem like a no-brainer, but when it is overlooked, it can cause serious productivity issues for remote workers and create confusion around expectations. 

3. Doing Work That Leverages One’s Strengths

The more time people spend doing work they enjoy and are good at, the more likely they are to be engaged. Leveraging strengths and supporting employees by helping them do the work they are good at and want to do can help them reach their full potential.

According to research from the Gallup organization, only one in three employees strongly agree that they have the opportunity to do what they do best every day. And, by doubling that ratio, organizations could realize a 6% increase in customer engagement scores, an 11% increase in profitability, a 30% reduction in turnover, and a 36% reduction in safety incidents.

After you have identified the areas where an employee is naturally strong, spend less time working on fixing weaknesses and more time finding ways to help them do more of what they are naturally good at. Leveraging employee strengths by putting team members with diverse strengths on the same team, for example, can supercharge collaboration and boost individual team member engagement. 

4. Appreciation / Recognition

There is strong evidence that suggests recognition is a great way to engage employees because it boosts self-esteem and personal competency. Appreciation should always be part of the feedback leaders provide to employees because it meets a core human need for both the employee and the leader and can profoundly impact motivation.  

One of the best ways to set clear goals and expectations to motivate employees is to recognize them when they achieve their goals and meet (or exceed) these expectations. Whether you utilize monetary or non-monetary rewards to recognize achievements, it can profoundly impact engagement. 

For recognition to be most effective, it should be genuine, and it should be specific and single out an employee’s efforts so employees know the work they do in their roles is seen and appreciated. 

5. Growth

People need to be continuously growing to be engaged with their work and happy in the workplace.

To keep employees motivated to perform well and committed enough to the organization to stay, you have to demonstrate that you are committed enough to them to invest in them. Creating a clear path to growth, development, and advancement for employees shows employees that you want them to succeed. 

In-person and online training, cross-training, tuition reimbursement, professional organization participation, and career pathing are just a few ways leaders can help their team members grow and support a positive employee experience.

6. Feeling Like Opinion Matters / Is Heard

According to a global study conducted by The Workforce Institute at UKG and Workplace Intelligence, highly engaged employees are three times more likely to say they feel heard at their workplace (92%) than highly disengaged employees (just 30%). 

The researchers also found that 74% of employees report they are more effective at their job when they feel heard, and 88% of employees whose companies financially outperform others in their industry feel heard, compared to 62% of employees at financially underperforming companies. 

People need to feel like they’re contributing ideas that are at least considered. Taking the time to explain why an idea doesn’t fit with the current strategic plan or our values also helps team members offer better ideas going forward. Leaders should be skilled at receiving input from employees and responding to them promptly and in a way that makes them feel truly heard. 

7. Meaningful Work

According to a recent study, almost 70% of employees say they would not work for an organization without a strong purpose, 60% would take a pay cut to work at a purpose-driven company, and 90% of employees who work at organizations with a strong sense of purpose say they’re more inspired, motivated, and loyal.

An engaged employee is a purpose-driven employee who is aligned with the core values and purpose of the organization and motivated to work toward that purpose. Employees who feel their work is meaningful will feel a stronger sense of purpose, helping them realize the impact their work can have beyond daily job tasks. 

Employees need to connect to the organization’s mission and share its vision to engage; reinforcing both the mission and vision by regularly communicating impact to employees can help them find a greater sense of purpose at work. 

8. Excellence

People inherently want to do a great job. They also struggle at times to break the habits that impede excellence. 

Because bad habits are easy to form and hard to break, and good habits are hard to form and easy to break, most people struggle to break bad habits and form and maintain good habits on their own. But breaking bad habits is essential to achieving excellence. 

If leaders can make the shift to more consistently serving as a coach whose primary job is to inspire greatness, they can help their team members overcome bad habits and thus meet a very important human need (the need to be excellent) that is very difficult to meet on their own.

9. Belonging

According to research from Gallup, teams with people who truly care about each other collaborate better, are more innovative, and are better at avoiding burnout. Their research also found that when 60% of employees in a company have a work best friend, safety incidents decreased by 36%, customer engagement increased by 7%, and profits increased by 12%. 

Having a good friend at work is one of the strongest predictors of retention, and an inclusive workplace is a must for team cohesion and team member engagement. It also prevents work environments from becoming toxic because it supports open, honest communication and a psychologically safe work environment.

It’s a leader’s job to ensure their team members have the time and space to forge these meaningful connections by giving them regular time to socialize and connect as humans. Virtual water cooler conversations, for example, can be a great way for remote workers to get to know each other and have conversations that aren’t focused on work. 

10. Feedback

People need regular, helpful feedback to grow, improve, and build confidence.

Establishing a system of feedback in your organization can increase employee engagement because it provides clarity on goals and expectations that employees need to perform well, and it invites employees into the goal-setting process, which can help leaders ensure they are setting attainable goals. 

In organizations that emphasize feedback as an important part of their culture, employees receive regular, helpful feedback from direct supervisors and are empowered and encouraged to provide meaningful feedback to co-workers and leadership. 

11. Autonomy

People need to feel that they have as much control as possible over their lives. Research has shown that motivated employees are more oriented towards autonomy and independence and are more self-driven than less motivated employees.

Flexibility has many benefits in the workplace, including a good work-life balance, more creativity, better customer service, improved loyalty, and greater accountability and ownership. For many of today’s workers, flexibility is a must-have for a positive employee experience. 

As commutes have grown longer and remote and hybrid work options have become not only more popular but more doable, offering your employees more flexibility in their work schedules, like providing a remote option and giving your employees the tools to work with more autonomy, are great ways to help employees meet their needs and improve their well-being. 

12. Trust

People need to trust their coworkers, and, most importantly, their leaders.

Trust improves communication, which, in turn, improves transparency, clarity of expectations, and performance, all of which help to reduce the anxiety that workers develop (and that can cause them to leave) when communication breaks down or during difficult times when they need to be reassured about where the company is headed and reminded of the vision.

Compared with people at low-trust companies, people at high-trust companies experience the following:

  • 74% less stress
  • 106% more energy at work
  • 50% higher productivity
  • 13% fewer sick days
  • 76% more engagement
  • 29% more satisfaction with their lives
  • 40% less burnout

One of the main ways to build trust is to ensure the work environment, whether it is virtual or an on-site office, is psychologically safe for all employees. Psychological safety is necessary for building a sense of belonging at work, and it helps team members trust each other and forge meaningful relationships that supercharge collaborative efforts. 

13. Well-Being

Negatively impacting well-being is strongly negatively correlated with engagement and retention. Supporting well-being can improve work-life balance, which is correlated with improvements in performance, retention, and employee health.

One of the leading drivers of employee engagement is whether or not employees feel their leaders care about them and are invested in their well-being. When leaders provide a positive work environment where employees are engaged in their work, it boosts employees’ mental and physical well-being.

By caring about employees and investing in their health and well-being, leaders are building a sustainable work environment that offers the flexibility employees need to perform well. 

14. Feeling Cared for by Supervisor

This is, perhaps, the most powerful driver of engagement and the foundation for meeting all other needs.

Studies show that a caring organizational culture can make a profound difference in how announcements about layoffs, financial instability, and crises of internal or external origin are received in the workplace and act as a buffer for “bad news.” 

It can be a challenge to unite employees with a shared mission and sense of purpose and create an environment where employees work together to produce a positive impact on people’s lives. This is why it is important for leaders to focus on developing a culture of care and to consistently demonstrate to employees that they are valuable members of the team.

A caring culture is an organizational culture in which leaders consistently act in ways that help team members thrive, and team members consistently act in ways that help other team members thrive. As a result, the organization can care very well for customers.

Step 3: Get regular feedback, in small digestible bits, on how well direct supervisors are meeting the needs people have for thriving, focusing on the universal needs most strongly correlated with employee engagement.

The focus of this step is to figure out where your team is on the engagement spectrum and where it needs to go. This can be done by measuring how well you are meeting employees’ needs. This will give you an accurate and current assessment of how engaged the team is.

Once you’ve identified the universal needs of employees for thriving at work, managers need to get regular feedback from their direct reports on how well they’re meeting those universal needs.

While large, broad surveys have their place in engagement strategies, they are generally a terrible way to start your efforts to consistently drive high levels of employee engagement. 

To successfully help employees thrive and thereby drive high levels of engagement, you should start with one, small survey, with just one or two questions, focused on meeting just one element of the 14 universal needs people have for thriving at work.

To make the most impact the fastest, spend the first six months to a year only asking how well supervisors are meeting the needs of their direct reports.

Because 70% of employee engagement is driven by direct supervisors, this helps make the biggest impact the fastest. We can get feedback on organization-wide issues later; by getting feedback in small, digestible bits, it’s easier for employees to provide feedback.

This allows employees to see action taken on their feedback within days of completing the survey. Surveys should only be open for two to three days. You may not get responses from every employee on every survey, but the speed with which you take action on the feedback is much more important.

When leaders focus on universal needs first, engagement efforts are most highly leveraged. After addressing the universal needs with sound engagement strategies, you can then uncover and meet unique needs.

There are several survey and non-survey approaches you can utilize:

Survey Approaches: Annual employee engagement surveys, pulse surveys, and employee Net Promoter Score (eNPS) surveys.

Non-Survey Approaches: 1:1 meetings, stay interviews, exit interviews, retention rates

One of the most important rules of thumb to keep in mind when measuring employee engagement is to use the right tools, depending on what you are measuring—whether you are measuring employee engagement across an organization, a business line, or a team.

Step 4: Accompany feedback to managers with brief training (ideally either live or via videos) that helps them immediately act on employee feedback and develop simple habits for meeting the needs people have for thriving.

Surveys won’t solve an organization’s engagement issues if actions aren’t taken to improve engagement. Employees need to see meaningful action being taken on their feedback as fast as possible.

Ideally, direct supervisors should take at least some action to improve their ability to meet the need addressed within three to five business days of the survey closing. Although this may sound impossible, there’s a simple hack that will allow you to easily respond to feedback almost immediately.

Instead of getting feedback from employees and then taking time to come up with a plan for addressing deficiencies after the feedback comes in, you need to have a brief video training ready to go that helps managers more consistently meet the needs of their employees before a survey even goes out.

For instance, if you know you’re going to send out a survey on appreciation, you should have a brief video training already created, focused on a simple habit for better showing appreciation, so that managers can watch and take action on the training as soon as they get the feedback from their direct reports.

This approach is critical for several reasons. By offering training in small, digestible bits with lots of time for implementation in between training sessions, it’s much more likely that leadership training will result in ideas turning into new behaviors that are repeated and become lasting habits.

By synchronizing training with employee feedback, employees see meaningful action being taken on their feedback in a matter of days. This alone can nearly triple employee engagement compared to organizations that don’t respond well to feedback.

Matt Tenney has been working to help organizations develop leaders who improve employee engagement and performance since 2012. He is the author of three leadership books, including the groundbreaking, highly acclaimed book Inspire Greatness: How to Motivate Employees with a Simple, Repeatable, Scalable Process.

Matt’s ideas have been featured in major media outlets and his clients include numerous national associations and Fortune 500 companies.

He is often invited to deliver keynote speeches at conferences and leadership meetings, and is known for delivering valuable, actionable insights in a way that is memorable and deeply inspiring.

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