Turning Negative Back to Positive


Engaged team members make a valuable contribution.

“Excuse me, I’m the new program office administrator, and I need to book a hotel for a meeting. Could you help me with that?” you ask another administrator.

“Uh, just go on the intranet,” replies your colleague, who then turns back to the person sitting next to her and resumes her conversation about her weekend plans.

“Okay…” you might reply uncomfortably, even though you’ve already spent half an hour trying to find the right web page.

Sound familiar? You’ve just encountered a “disengaged” employee. If you had a workforce full of disengaged employees, how devastating would that be to your business?

Disengaged people exist in all types of businesses, across all industries. You can spot them by their indifferent, blasé attitudes. They don’t care about the company, they probably don’t like their jobs, and they send negative signals everywhere they go.

Disengaged people are like poison – they don’t perform their own jobs well, they drive customers away, and they have a bad influence on your other staff. Yet few people start off disengaged. It’s typically a process that happens over time, as employee and employer expectations grow further and further apart.

What Is an Engaged Team Member?

Fortunately, you can re-engage members of your team and build back their pride and commitment. But you’ll need to make a continuous effort and a strong investment in positive human capital management techniques.

The first step is to understand what an engaged team member looks like: Engaged people go above and beyond their job descriptions to get things done. They’re committed to the organization’s success, and they’re willing to do what’s necessary to reach goals.

It’s important to understand that while many “average” employees are not quite fully engaged, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re completely disengaged. However, these average employees need re-engagement as well.

To reach a level of full engagement, you must build a people-focused workplace – one that recognizes that your people genuinely are your most important resource.

Re-engaging People

To achieve this, you need to meet people’s expectations and provide a great work environment. There are several key management practices that are fundamental to this process. By providing these workplace conditions and continuously reinforcing their practice throughout the company, you can re-engage people who have fallen out of step with your purpose and vision.

We can divide re-engagement approaches into four areas:

  1. Fact-Finding – Activities that help you (a) understand disengagement and your current situation and (b) monitor your situation on an ongoing basis.

  2. Establishing an Environment for Engagement – Activities that help engagement flourish.
  3. Hygiene Factors – Activities that help avoid de-motivation by managing people’s stress, putting people in the right jobs, and providing feedback.

  4. Motivators – Practices that help increase motivation and engagement.

Not all ideas will apply to all situations however, as a whole, these are the conditions and practices that will help you build people’s engagement. We’ll now look at each of these in detail.

1. Fact-finding

  • Ask yourself when you ever felt unenthused and unengaged. This is a good place to start your re-engagement process. When you understand the sorts of things that caused you to disconnect with your company in the past, you may gain some insight into what members of your team are feeling right now.

  • Talk to your people about their expectations and issues. Having clear expectations is a fundamental factor in re-engaging people. If people feel that they’ve been treated unfairly or have not been provided with the employment conditions they expected, you need to know. Once discrepancies are found, work toward a resolution as soon as possible. This lets people know that you care and you take their needs seriously.

    And ask them about the situations and issues that may be upsetting them. Push beyond the issues that are immediately obvious – the problem may lie with issues that are entrenched and systematic, and that the person thinks are just part of the way things are.

    This step is particularly important when you become the new manager of a group of people who are already disengaged. Resist the temptation to blame the former manager – instead, focus on moving forward from where you are now, based on what you find out from talking to your new people.

  • Schedule regular “one-on-ones” with members of your team. Talk with individual team members about what they believe is expected of them, and then clarify and make modifications as necessary. When you keep communication open, you can often avoid potential conflicts and misunderstandings that can grow worse and lead to major problems.

  • Survey employee engagement on a regular basis. With any kind of change process, it’s usually a good idea to regularly ask your people questions related to their dedication and commitment to the company. Use the issues you’ve identified as a starting point, and construct a questionnaire to discover what you’re doing well and where there’s room for improvement. Use the results to begin a re-engagement plan that will help you build a stronger and more devoted workforce.

2. Establishing an Environment for Engagement

  • Be honest and forthright about your own role in people’s disengagement. A little humility goes a long way toward re-engaging someone. What if your management practices have contradicted any of the above points? What if you’ve been weaker in your commitment recently, and you’ve contributed to the current situation? Admit it, apologize for your actions, and construct a solid plan to move forward. This is a great way to start rebuilding your team’s trust and show how supporting one another can make huge differences for everyone. By demonstrating your commitment to your people, they will likely respond with a renewed commitment to you and the business.

  • Practice participative management. People usually want to participate and be involved. They want and need to feel that they matter and that their contributions are valued. To engage them, provide lots of opportunities for them to be involved with decisions. It’s also important that people feel able to voice their ideas and raise issues – without judgment or fear of punishment. To re-engage people, help them feel confident that you’ll welcome their contributions and that you’ll really listen to what they say.

  • Be a model for commitment to the organization. When employees believe their boss and senior management are committed to the company, that can provide proof that the company is indeed worth committing to. If you have doubts or express negativity toward the business, you can’t expect members of your team to be totally dedicated and engaged. They take their cues from you, and they’ll react to your opinions and actions.

3. Hygiene Factors

  • Identify and manage stress and burnout. Overworked employees can have a difficult time engaging. They simply have too many competing needs, the greatest of which is their own survival. If you want engaged people, develop a genuine concern for their health and welfare. By using regular one-on-ones and staying connected to members of your team, you should be able to keep on top of their workload and stress factors. Do what you can to alleviate their stress by using the tools on Stress Management pages, and refer your people for assistance as necessary.

  • Put people in the right jobs. As you get to know members of your team through regular contact and feedback, think about ways to capitalize on their unique strengths and talents. Rather than focusing on a specific smaller problem or disciplining someone, look at the bigger picture: Does the person fit the job? You may need to regroup which tasks go with which jobs, or allow people to rotate jobs in order to enrich their learning opportunities. Work with members of your team to meet your company’s needs. When people know you’re dedicated to their success, they will, in turn, dedicate themselves to your success.

  • Provide fair and regular feedback. Most people respond incredibly well to praise and recognition. For effective employee engagement, this can be difficult if you restrict yourself to a formal program or yearly performance appraisals. Make a conscious effort to observe when people are doing things right, and show them every day that they’re appreciated. When you need to provide corrective feedback, make sure it’s timely, and centered on a specific task.

For more on hygiene factors and motivators, see article on Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory.

4. Motivators

  • Provide growth opportunities. A big factor in employee engagement is building long-term commitment. This is important because it retains knowledge within the company and reduces turnover. Provide incentive for people to stay long term by discovering their talents and figuring out ways to use those talents within the organization.

This can be a powerful method of re-engagement. However, be careful that you don’t try to re-engage someone by promising too much. Be genuine in your offers – otherwise, you can do much more damage to your reputation and to the person’s welfare in the long run.

  • Help people understand the big picture. Too often, people don’t understand what’s going on in the organization outside of the small world around their own jobs. When that happens, it’s easy for them to become disconnected and disillusioned. Make sure that members of your team know the company’s vision and strategy. They need to recognize the roles they play in the organization’s success. To do this, keep people well informed, and make sure they stay focused on the big picture.

  • Align personal and organizational goals. Make sure that people’s goals are tied to departmental and company goals (this is related to understanding the big picture). A key part of engaging people is ensuring that the company’s success matters to them. If you can link personal success and accomplishment to overall company goals, then you provide the basis for an engaged workplace.

If you’ve done all you can to engage someone, and they are still not engaged, you may need to take disciplinary action, either to emphasize the need for change or to remove someone who is blocking the team’s progress. If you don’t, you risk jeopardizing your whole team’s progress. This is not an option to take lightly, so talk to your HR department as a first step.

Key Points

Employee engagement is a critical factor in a company’s success. When you have people who are committed to your business, they’ll stay with you long term and they’ll work very hard to make the organization a success. It’s extremely important, therefore, that you actively re-engage people who are disconnected with the company and that you work to build and maintain an engaged team. The keys to employee engagement are great management practices, including strong teams and a firm sense that what your people do on a daily basis matters to their boss and to the business as a whole.

The bottom line is that people need to feel wanted. Show them how much they’re needed and why. Be honest and trustworthy – and acknowledge, with everything you do, that your people truly are the company’s most valuable resource.

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