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On Employee Disengagement

One fo the worrying trends in the past decade is the decline in employee engagement levels. Indeed, there is sufficient evidence to support Gallup's finding that engagement levels are getting worse. Setting aside definitional issues (with no single accepted definition for engagement or disengagement) I suggest that the varying conceptualisations in academic and practitioner literatures, share some common elements. That it entails some form of psychological investment on the part of the employee in the work they do and the organisations they work for and that there is an expectation of reciprocity in terms of support and resources (including opportunities for learning and development). This state largely points to the existence of positive energy (physical, emotional and cognitive), passion and involvement or, as per the popular Utrecht definition, is characterised by vigor, dedication and absorption while performing work tasks.

If we then look at the flip side of engagement, the notion of "burnout" (although arguably not the exact antipode) points to states that include exhaustion, cynicism and reduced efficacy.

It would be bad enough if disengagement just lead to lower levels of productivity, cooperation and absenteeism. But it usually does not stop there. Disengaged employees often "act out" their disillusionment in ways that can cause serious internal (team dynamics) as well as external (reputational) damage.

Indeed, beyond causing organizational dysfunction, apathy, complacency, absenteeism and cynicism are often the precursors of negative word of mouth. If a proportion of your own employees habitually bad-mouth your business, the negative reputational consequences can be grave, in addition to the obvious negative effect on organisational climate.

The possible culprits or catalysts for disengagement are usually multifaceted. Whilst they may include the external environment (instability, insecurity, uncertainty) there are individual/organizational factors (stress, anxiety, mismatch between job-personal aspirations; lack of resources; lack of fairness etc) that create negativity and cynicism.

Like with everything in management, there is no magic bullet, a one size fits all solution. Only solid management practices and good leadership can tackle the malady of disengagement. Leaders need to recognise that rhetoric about good intentions needs to be matched by tangible commitments towards employees on a range of factors that underpin their wellbeing and development.

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