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How to Engage a Disengaged Employee

As published in Farm Equipment Magazine's May 2024 Issue

Nothing is more frustrating than when an employee quits, and a team member tells you they could sense the employee was about to leave. You probably ask yourself if they could have been saved. 

Before an employee quits, there is typically a phase of disengagement. In today’s tight labor market, it’s more important than ever to quickly identify that stage, get to the root of the cause and, ultimately, develop a resolution. 

Disengagement Does Not Equal Under Performance 

A disengaged team member is not necessarily an underperformer, though their performance slipping can be an indicator. Often, they are employees who were once advocates for the company. You may notice they no longer like or share company social media posts. They start using vacation days. 

They begin to lack initiative, their attitude turns negative, and you may find them as the source of the latest gossip. Their team members may complain about their lack of cooperation and communication. 

When items like this happen, the disengaged employee may silently feel they don’t see a future in the company. A shift has occurred from them wanting to be at work to being required to be there. 

Acknowledge, Don’t Ignore

If you ignore the change in the employee, the assumption is you know but don’t care. That goes for their fellow team members, too, who are dealing with the repercussions of their behavior change. In today’s work environment, people seem more apt to avoid confrontation than deal with it head-on. 

Schedule a time with the employee directly and in solitude. Discussions that happen at the moment are generally less effective than ones that have been prepared for. Give the employee time to reflect on what is happening by giving them a few items you want to discuss. 

If you can get them to acknowledge that they are not as passionate or engaged as they once were, you can begin the re-engagement process. When you’re trying to keep an employee, you must check in early and often in the process. 

Don’t Make Assumptions

It’s essential to consider team members’ concerns and complaints, but do not make assumptions or judgments about the cause of the employee’s behaviors. The key to getting to the root cause is more complicated than it sounds. 

You usually cannot get to the bottom quickly or with just a few questions. It takes patience, showing genuine empathy (not sympathy) for the employee’s concerns, and asking detailed follow-up questions. 

The first step is determining whether the concerns are personal or work-related. Many times, situations outside of work can be the cause and bleed into the workplace. 

In these conversations, the key is to help the employee separate the two. If not work related, identify if the company has means or resources to help, ensuring the employee knows what they are and how to obtain them. 

If it’s work-related, identify whether the concerns are permanent or short-term. Are their concerns credible, and can they be remedied if they are? Are their expectations aligned with your expectations? 

Be sure to find out what is going well with the employee, too. Understanding what is going well is as important as developing potential solutions keeps the conversation from being entirely negative. 

It is essential to take notes during the conversations and to document them, reference them in future discussions, and show that you are taking their concerns seriously. 

Get a Commitment & Keep Yours

The meeting should end with commitments from both sides. Tell them what you’re willing to commit to. In return, ask for their commitment to what they plan to work on. 

The manager should send an email recap documenting what both parties committed to, along with an agreed-upon timeline that includes a date for a follow-up meeting. That gives both sides time to work on their commitments and discover whether the situation is improving or worsening. 

You can keep the employee if both sides are committed and aligned. However, you may find that the employee’s concerns cannot be overcome. If that is the case, conveying that to the employee is crucial. 

Both sides must accept that you cannot manage around them, and it may be in the best interest of both parties to part ways. The harsh reality is you cannot save everyone. 

Are your managers equipped to acknowledge, address and facilitate conversations with disengaged employees? I challenge you to make it an agenda item in your next management meeting. 

Zach Hetterick began his career at the parts counter of a John Deere dealership and was a territory account manager for a Caterpillar ag dealer. He went on to work for AGCO, served in several territory and senior leadership positions at Case IH and was CEO of a 11-location farm equipment dealership. He offers programs in leadership development along with individual coaching tailored to the agriculture industry via Harvesting Potential. His passion is to elevate an organization’s performance, especially in their people to turn their potential into performance. An alumni of dealer best practice groups, he leads dealer groups.

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