Why Managers Miss the Warning Signs of Employee Disengagement
And What to Do if That Manager is You
It started a few months ago… that nagging feeling that something wasn’t quite right on your team. It wasn’t just the weird uptick in sick days. It was the dreary, lifeless vibe you picked up during meetings, in the hallways, even on Donut Day.
You shrugged it off back then. After all, last quarter’s sales numbers were excellent. You thanked people for their efforts. And, of course, you brought donuts.
Then, a few weeks ago, you got wind of one of your top sales people interviewing with a competitor. Sure enough, she resigned shortly thereafter. You couldn’t help feeling a little betrayed, a little blindsided. Why didn’t she talk to you first? Again, though, you brushed it aside. People move around, right?
But today – seemingly out of the blue – one of your very best sales managers shuffled into your office and tendered his resignation, too. There was no drama. No real reason offered. He’d just gotten a better offer and felt it was time to move on.
So… maybe you should have paid more attention to that nagging feeling.
Yes, you should have. There were probably multiple early indicators of declining employee engagement. But somehow, you missed them.
Why do we miss them? I believe there are 3 Reasons.
We’re Human (and We Have Blind Spots)
As managers, we love knowing that our employees love being our employees. So when things start to fray at the edges of our team fabric, we often fail to notice. Little flaws are hard to see through rose-colored glasses. So we need to build a habit of looking with intention, routinely checking the threads of that fabric. Otherwise, we won’t see what (or who) is being stretched too thin or where there’s too much slack. We won’t mend the worn spots, the little rips or holes in that fabric. We won’t, until everything falls apart.
We “Manage” Employee Engagement like an Event
That’s a common mistake. We’re talking about engagement here, not entertainment. (Far too often, managers confuse the two.) Think of it this way: if you hired well, you brought in people who were highly competent, genuinely invested in your company’s success, and excited to join your team. But that was the easy part. Now, you need to maintain a work environment that continuously bolsters those attitudes. You need to be close enough your employees to recognize when something isn’t running as smoothly as it should. And you have to have the courage, compassion and curiosity to step in, ask what’s going on, and address it.
That environment – and your employees’ engagement in it – can be undermined by any number of factors. Often, it’s a small, fixable problem – that goes unfixed – that grows until it slowly erodes the whole team’s morale. Even a toxic relationship between two employees will eventually poison an entire department if it’s left unresolved. And no amount of donuts in the world is going to solve that problem. The only thing that will solve it is addressing the toxicity and doing whatever it takes to get it turned around. Do keep bringing the donuts, pastry trays, and other treats, by the way. But put more energy into asking more questions, listening closely to how it’s really going for each individual, and prove that you care by authentically addressing concerns.
Time Lags: It Takes a While for Employee Engagement to Impact Performance
But once it does, you’ve got enormous problems that will be painful, costly and slow to solve. High performing teams are like well-designed, meticulously maintained gardens. Master gardeners don’t just stick a bunch of strong, healthy plants in the ground and walk away. They monitor the soil to keep it healthy. They constantly note which areas need water and they provide it, walking the fine line between drought and drowning. And they prevent pests from taking over, giving every plant the space and opportunity to thrive.
Ask that gardener what would happen if they stopped doing any of those things and they’ll tell you this: for a while, everything will still look perfect. But beneath the surface, problems will form, spread, and overtake even the hardiest specimens. Ultimately, that once-beautiful garden will be a tangled mess that takes backbreaking effort to restore.
To sustain a healthy, thriving culture, where every employee is fully engaged in their job and the team’s success, each of us needs to be engaged. We need to remain highly observant, alert to small issues as they arise, and willing to address them as needed.
Watch for my next post, where I share the 5 Early Warning Signs of Employee Disengagement and what to do to fix them.