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How to handle the disengaged employee

Leadership starts with self, and in my experience, self-aware managers tend to look inwards before addressing the issue with a disengaged employee, with positive results coming from this approach. What if it is you that has created an environment where employees have become disengaged? The first step for any manager is to hold that mirror up and ask yourself this challenging question – “What’s my part in the mess?”

Managers tend to view interactions with the disengaged as difficult and at times can then use one or two poorly chosen words. This turns a conversation into a conflict.

A manager who practices curiosity and asks questions that start with “I wonder if …” rather than starting with statements like “I think this …” will make great inroads to getting to the bottom of the issue. My advice is don’t get caught in the game of rightness or be triggered emotionally here or you might end up with a protracted HR investigation.

A manager’s ability to practice empathy, while at the same time not letting an employee invite you in their “pity party”, is a critical part of getting to a resolution here. Managers who can successfully distinguish empathy and sympathy will resolve issues not just related to disengaged employees.

It’s a highly sought after skill by most businesses. Feeling sorry for someone is the easy way out. You can acknowledge their feelings but don’t own them. Gallup have also found that 96 per cent of employees believe showing empathy is an important way to advance employee retention. It’s a no-brainer.

One of the greatest challenges for managers is that we like to be liked, but leadership is not a popularity contest. This is when practising the skilful art of management duality comes in. I describe it as the ability to hug someone and kick them in the backside in one go.

You can support them and deliver a strong message at the same time. Remember others are watching you and how you handle these at times tricky situations. This sets the standard for what is acceptable.

Managers must also stand firm and have the employee address their issue. The disengaged employee may be very skilled at making their issues yours, and you already have enough water in your bucket with budgets to plan, reviews to write, other employees to manage and meetings to attend.

Remind the employee that it is time they acknowledge their part in the mess, and that we all have a choice to make in being engaged and productive, or disengaged and destructive.

Employee engagement has never been so important to business success, and as a manager you have a huge responsibility to navigate your way to creating a highly engaged team and reaping the rewards. This may mean you have to move on a bad apple or two before they spoil the barrel.

Mark LeBusque is a management consultant and author of Being Human.

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