Hidden Dangers Within

Warning Signs Ignored. The Silent Threat of Employee Disengagement

“The difficulties of life are intended to make us better, not bitter.”
– Unknown

Somewhere in Spain (fictional conversation)

CEO: “We’re a winery, not Fort Knox. Why overspend on security?”

Security Manager: “Imagine someone, say a disgruntled employee, decides to unplug our tanks. That’s our premium wine down the drain!”

CEO: “As likely as finding a wine bottle that doesn’t want to be opened. Let’s not pour money into ‘what-ifs’.”

Security Manager: “But—”

CEO: “No ‘buts’ unless it’s about wine barrels!”

Fast forward…

A vino vengeance unfolds as five tanks get unplugged in a blitz!

60,000 bottles of wine, valued at 90€ each, were lost.

The lesson of the day?

“Unlikely” doesn’t mean impossible.  What is the cost of ignoring risks? A whopping 5.4 million € in fine wine.

(Story source: https://www.decanter.com/wine-news/vandal-spills-60000-litres-of-wine-at-spanish-winery-cepa-21-523296/)

What Is Employee Engagement?

Employee engagement goes beyond just doing work. It includes how much employees care about their jobs and the company. Their emotions, dedication, and enthusiasm show their engagement in their work and workplace.

Employee engagement affects about every element within an organisation, including:

  • Productivity
  • Profitability
  • Customer experience
  • Morale
  • Employee turnover
  • Team dynamics

It’s been shown that employees who feel connected to their organisation work harder, stay longer, and motivate others to do the same.

Additionally, research from Harvard Business Review (sponsored by Quantum Workplace) shows that 92% of business executives believe that engaged employees perform better, excelling in the success of their teams and the outcomes of their organisations (source: https://www.quantumworkplace.com/future-of-work/what-is-employee-engagement-definition).

Employee engagement does not mean employee “happiness”.

Employee happiness is distinct from employee engagement. Happiness focuses on individual well-being and contentment, influenced by various factors. In contrast, engagement goes further, involving a deeper commitment to organisational goals and active contribution to its success.

While happy employees experience positive emotions, engaged employees align with the company’s mission and actively work towards shared objectives, emphasising the importance of recognising and fostering both aspects in the workplace.

Employee engagement doesn’t mean “satisfaction”.

Employee satisfaction reflects contentment with job aspects, while engagement involves a deeper connection to the organisation’s mission and active commitment to its success.

Satisfied employees may find their work enjoyable, but engaged employees go further, actively contributing and striving to make a meaningful impact on the company’s goals.

Whose job is it?

An organisation’s responsibility for caring about employee engagement typically falls on leadership and management.

Leaders, managers, and human resources professionals are crucial in creating a work environment that fosters engagement.

This involves providing clear communication, offering development opportunities, recognising achievements, and addressing concerns.

While individual employees also contribute to their engagement, organisational leaders are instrumental in shaping the overall culture and conditions that influence how engaged employees feel.

Why is it important?

Employees make decisions and take actions that impact their workforce and organisation daily. How your organisation treats its employees and how employees treat each other can either positively influence their actions or pose risks to your organisation.

Gallup’s extensive research on employee engagement, which spans decades, reveals that engaged employees consistently yield better business outcomes than their counterparts, irrespective of industry, company size, nationality, or economic conditions.

Worryingly, only 23% of employees worldwide feel engaged (source: https://www.gallup.com/394373/indicator-employee-engagement.aspx).

Understanding Employee Disengagement

Disengagement refers to the act of withdrawing or becoming detached from something. It can have several meanings depending on the context:

  1. Emotional disengagement: This refers to a psychological state where an individual emotionally disconnects or distances themselves from a situation, relationship, or activity. It can involve suppressing or avoiding feelings and emotional involvement.
  2. Social disengagement: This refers to the process of withdrawing from social interactions, relationships, or activities. It may involve isolating oneself or reducing involvement in social circles or communities.
  3. Military/political disengagement: This term is used in military or political contexts to describe the process of withdrawing troops or forces from a particular area or conflict zone.
  4. Cognitive disengagement: This refers to the process of mentally distancing oneself from a task, situation, or experience. It can involve distracting oneself or avoiding fully engaging with something mentally or intellectually.

However, Employee disengagement in the workplace refers to an employee’s lack of motivation, commitment, or emotional connection to their job or organisation.

Disengaged employees typically lack enthusiasm and commitment to their jobs, showing a deficiency in motivation and inspiration. Although they may adequately fulfil their job responsibilities, they are likely to avoid putting in additional effort to contribute to the organisation’s objectives.

Disengaged employees tend to exhibit the following characteristics:

  1. Lack of motivation: They feel unmotivated and uninspired to put in extra effort or go beyond their bare minimum.
  2. Low productivity: Disengaged employees often have lower productivity levels as they are not fully invested in their work.
  3. Lack of enthusiasm: They display little enthusiasm or passion for their job and the company’s mission and goals.
  4. Detachment: Disengaged employees feel emotionally detached from their work, colleagues, and the organisation as a whole.
  5. Absenteeism: They may have higher absenteeism rates or a tendency to miss work frequently.
  6. Negative attitudes: They may exhibit negative attitudes towards their work, colleagues, or the organisation and frequently complain or criticise.
  7. Low commitment: Disengaged employees are less committed to their jobs and the company and may be more likely to seek other job opportunities.

They are all a symptom of a “check-out” mentality.

According to the State of the Global Workplace 2023 Report by Gallup, actively disengaged employees make up 77% of the workforce (source: https://www.gallup.com/workplace/349484/state-of-the-global-workplace.aspx).

As reported by Gallup, a 77% employee disengagement rate is alarmingly high and points to widespread and systemic issues in the workplace.

One of the primary reasons for disengagement is stress. Around 44% of employees worldwide said they experienced a lot of stress the previous day (source: https://www.gallup.com/workplace/349484/state-of-the-global-workplace.aspx).

Employee stress rose in 2020, likely due to the pandemic. However, employee stress has been rising for over a decade.

There are many reasons why work might make those feel stressed, such as:

  • Extended hours or a heavy workload
  • Inflexible deadlines
  • Conflict, bullying or sexual harassment in your workplace
  • Lack of support from your co-workers or manager
  • Lack of appreciation for your efforts
  • An environment that is too noisy, hot, cold, dusty or uncomfortable

Apart from stress, several other reasons can contribute to employee disengagement. Here are some key factors:

  1. Lack of recognition and appreciation: Employees who feel their efforts and contributions are not recognised or appreciated are more likely to disengage.
  2. Poor communication and feedback: Ineffective communication from management, lack of clear goals and expectations, and inadequate feedback on performance can leave employees feeling disconnected and disengaged.
  3. Limited career growth opportunities: Employees may become disengaged if they perceive limited opportunities for career advancement, skill development, or personal growth within the organisation.
  4. Inadequate compensation and benefits: Employees who feel underpaid or receive inadequate benefits compared to their peers or industry standards may become disengaged and seek better opportunities elsewhere.
  5. Lack of autonomy and empowerment: Micromanagement and a lack of trust from supervisors can lead to disengagement, as employees feel they have little control or autonomy over their work.
  6. Unfair treatment and discrimination: Perceived discrimination, favouritism, or unfair treatment based on gender, race, age, or personal beliefs can contribute to disengagement and resentment towards the organisation.
  7. Poor leadership and management: Incompetent, unsupportive, or unethical leadership can erode trust and respect, causing employees to become disengaged and unmotivated.
  8. Toxic work culture: A hostile work environment characterised by office politics, conflicts, or a lack of collaboration and teamwork can foster disengagement as employees become dissatisfied with the organisational culture.
  9. Organisational changes and uncertainty: Major organisational changes, restructuring, or mergers can create uncertainty and disrupt the work environment, leading to disengagement as employees feel insecure about their roles and future.

A cause for more significant concern is that among the 77% disengaged workforce, 18% are categorised as highly disengaged.

Highly disengaged employees have become completely detached and unmotivated in their roles and towards the organisation they work for.

These employees exhibit various behaviours and attitudes that can harm productivity, morale, and overall organisational success.

At some point, the trust between employee and employer was severely broken, or the employee was woefully mismatched to the role.

Risk Potential

Looking at the big picture, disengaged employees pose several risks to an organisation, namely:

  • Poor customer service: Disengaged employees are more likely to perform poorly, abruptly, and without empathy, resulting in poor customer service, dissatisfaction, and potential loss of reputation and business.
  • Negative impact on workplace culture: Disengaged employees can spread negativity and toxicity throughout the workplace, affecting team morale, collaboration, and overall organisational culture.
  • Increased turnover: Disengaged employees are more likely to seek employment elsewhere, leading to higher turnover rates, which can be costly for organisations regarding recruitment, training, and knowledge loss.
  • Negative impact on morale: Disengaged employees can have a detrimental effect on team morale and workplace culture. Their lack of enthusiasm or commitment may spread to others, leading to low morale and motivation among colleagues.
  • Security risks: Employees who are disengaged might pay less attention to cybersecurity protocols, policies, and procedures, consequently raising the risk of compromising sensitive information, experiencing cyber breaches, and encountering data breaches.
  • Safety risks: Disengaged employees may be less attentive to safety protocols and procedures, increasing the risk of accidents and injuries in the workplace.
  • Reputational damage: If disengaged employees express their dissatisfaction publicly or provide poor customer service, it can damage the organisation’s reputation and brand image.
  • Increased absenteeism and presenteeism: Disengaged employees may have higher rates of absenteeism or presenteeism (physically present but mentally disengaged), further impacting productivity and overall performance.
  • Increased workplace conflicts: Disengaged employees may be more prone to conflicts with colleagues or managers, creating a hostile work environment and disrupting team dynamics.
  • Increased employee turnover: Low morale can exacerbate disengagement and create a toxic work environment. Employees are more likely to seek opportunities elsewhere, leading to higher turnover rates.

The good news is that a few changes to how they are managed could turn them into productive team members.

The bad news is that highly disengaged employees can significantly harm the organisation if left untreated.

  1. Active spread of negativity: Rather than just being indifferent, highly disengaged employees can become “amenity negators” – Actively trying to discourage others and spread their negative sentiments about the job and the organisation.
  2. Interpersonal conflicts: Highly disengaged workers are more likely to argue, be insubordinate to managers, or create hostile situations with colleagues, disrupting teamwork and morale.
  3. Toxic and hostile: Actively and highly disengaged employees will likely create a toxic and hostile work environment. They may engage in verbal abuse, harassment, bullying or other forms of disruptive behaviour, causing emotional distress and dissatisfaction among their peers. This toxicity can spread rapidly, eroding trust and collaboration within the team.
  4. Public defamation: In the age of social media, highly disengaged staff may vent their frustrations publicly and defame the organisation online, damaging its reputation significantly.
  5. Outright sabotage or theft: Extremely disengaged employees who feel resentful or vengeful toward the company may intentionally undermine operations, sabotage projects, share confidential information, or even steal property or funds.
  6. Severe safety risks: One of the significant risks posed by highly disengaged employees is the potential for threats and violence, directly impacting personal safety within the organisation. These individuals may exhibit hostile behaviour, aggression, or even deliberate acts of violence towards their colleagues, supervisors, or the organisation. Such instances can create a climate of fear and intimidation.
  7. Legal/compliance risks: Apathy toward rules, negligence, or even malicious intent from the highly disengaged can lead to costly regulatory penalties or lawsuits against the company.

Identification of Warning Signs

Interestingly, the journey at a new workplace begins with enthusiasm and energy.

Employees are excited and eager to showcase their capabilities, deliver their utmost, and cultivate a favourable perception among their colleagues.

However, forecasting which individuals might eventually disengage from their roles or pinpointing the precise moment of this shift remains difficult.

Gradually, an intangible chasm emerges, proving challenging to identify and bridge.

The following visual demonstrates the roadmap to highly disengaged employees.

Identifying Behaviour Signs

As employees progress through the stages of disengagement, some visible behavioural cues and patterns can serve as warning signs for managers and HR professionals to take notice.

Being attuned to these behaviours is crucial for early intervention before disengagement becomes entrenched. Some key behaviours to look out for include:

  1. Early signs of disengagement
    • Reduced motivation and effort
    • Withdrawn from activities
    • More frequent absent and tardiness
    • Decreased productivity
  2. Emotional disconnection
    • General apathy towards work
    • Negative attitude spreading to others
    • Neglecting responsibilities
  3. Psychological detachment
    • Feeling undervalued and unappreciated
    • Loss of trust in management and leadership
    • Questioning organisation values and direction
    • Actively looking for other jobs
  4. Counterproductive behaviours
    • Missing deadlines intentionally
    • Doing the bare minimum required
    • Discouraging participation and contribution
    • Increased conflicts with co-workers
  5. Open defiance
    • Insubordination towards managers
    • Sabotaging projects and initiatives
    • Spreading negativity about the company
    • Encouraging the resignation of others
    • Stealing business assets and time
  6. Actively disengaged
    • Undermining organisation reputation
    • Sharing confidential information
    • Intentionally policy violations
  7. Malicious and revenge
    • Leaking trade secrets
    • Property damage and theft
    • Hacking and data breaches
    • Inciting violence or walkouts
    • Sabotaging business operations

The Role of Organisation Culture

Organisational culture plays a pivotal role in influencing employee engagement and disengagement levels.

An organisation’s culture, encompassing its values, norms, practices, goals, mission and working environment, can foster engagement or fuel employee disengagement.

When an organisation’s culture aligns with its employees’ values and beliefs, it fosters a sense of belonging and purpose, leading to higher engagement.

However, the same can be said on the contrary. If the culture contradicts employees’ values, it can create cognitive dissonance and disengagement.

The leadership style and behaviour of managers and executives significantly shape organisational culture. Supportive, transparent, and empowering leaders tend to cultivate a culture of trust, respect, and engagement, while authoritarian, micromanaging, or unethical leadership can breed a toxic culture that disengages employees.

Open and transparent communication from leadership and opportunities for employee feedback and input contribute to an engaging culture. In contrast, a lack of transparency and top-down communication can create a culture of distrust and disengagement.

Cultures that prioritise recognising and appreciating employee contributions foster a sense of value and motivation. Conversely, a culture that overlooks or undervalues employee efforts can lead to disengagement.

Organisations prioritising employee development, training, and career growth opportunities cultivate a culture of continuous learning and engagement, while stagnant cultures lacking growth prospects can disengage ambitious employees.

A culture that respects work-life balance and provides flexibility can enhance engagement. In contrast, a culture that demands excessive overtime or neglects personal well-being can lead to burnout and disengagement.

Cultures that encourage collaboration, teamwork, and open communication tend to be more engaging, while siloed, competitive, or political environments can breed disengagement.

Key Takeaway

“Hidden Dangers Within” reflects the unseen, unaddressed issues and risks that can plague beneath an organisation’ before manifesting outwardly in damaging ways.

Employee disengagement is such a perfect example of the hidden danger that an organisation misses.

Employee disengagement often begins quietly and invisibly before any outward signs are evident. It germinates underneath the surface through internal feelings and attitudes that can initially go unnoticed by management. Dissatisfaction, resentment, and apathy are all emotional disconnects from one’s work that start private and hidden away.

As disengagement takes root within employees, it perpetuates in subtle, insidious ways that are difficult to detect from the outside. Negative emotions fester, productivity wanes slightly, and enthusiasm dips, but these creeping effects can be excused or obscured amidst daily operations.

All the while, this unseen disengagement poses an increasingly dangerous threat from within. It chips away at morale and performance standards while providing fertile ground for policies, practices or management decisions that enable it to spread silently further through the workforce.

By the time obvious signs like insubordination, sabotage or turnover rates spike, the disengagement has already inflicted unseen damage. The once-hidden danger has invisibly infiltrated operations and metastasized across teams and departments unchecked.

Worse still, highly disengaged employees can become covert “agents” actively working against engagement and driving those dangers, intentionally negating productivity, drowning optimism, and withholding effort in unseen ways that exacerbate the problem.

Battling a widespread, advanced disengagement requires painful, drastic measures because the danger could hide in plain sight, fuelling itself from within until it blossomed into an existential cultural threat.

This ability for disengagement to clandestinely take root and do unseen damage from the inside-out, sitting dormant until ubiquitous, is why it epitomises the idea of an organisation’s potentially most lethal “hidden danger within.

Ultimately, organisations must cultivate a positive, supportive, and inclusive culture that aligns with their workforce’s values and needs. Addressing cultural issues that fuel disengagement and actively nurturing an engaging culture should be a strategic priority for organisations to retain and maximise the potential of their talent.