Warning Signs that Employee Engagement is Beginning to Fall


A hospital ICU has amazing patient monitoring systems. Machines beep and hum as numbers and graphs flash in multi-colors. Nurses patiently explain normal ranges as you closely watch for change—dips or spikes signaling ever-so-slight signs of trouble or improvement.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could pinpoint with such exactness the moment an employee started to lose momentum, enthusiasm and engagement? Because if you knew it was happening, you might be able to do something.

When an employee’s performance begins to fall is the ideal time to act.

Unfortunately many of the monitoring systems in business measure results. But by the time the results become obvious—sales quotas are missed, outstanding work becomes merely average and that fountain of bubbling ideas dries up—the damage is already done.

Managers must be vigilant and recognize clues, noticing early on when employee engagement begins to slip. Here are a few recognizable warning signs:

  • “I’m not sure I really need training on that.” Your employee has lost passion for the job and learning—isn’t interested in growth, has stopped being curious.
  • “Oh, was I supposed to do that?” Your employee is falling behind, not meeting goals or missing deadlines.
  • “It’s good enough.” Your employee’s work quality is dropping or not meeting expectations.
  • “Jim was going to take care of getting all that together.” Your employee begins relying heavily on co-workers to get the job done.
  • “I’m just so interested in keeping tabs on Hurricane Irma.” Your employee is spending more time on social media—not working.
  • “Oh, was that today?” Your normally involved worker begins self-isolating—skipping meetings, “forgetting” company gatherings and opting out of contests or celebrations.
  • “I won’t be in again today—not feeling well.” You notice longer breaks and more absenteeism.
  • “I’m bored.” Your employee used to challenge him or herself, but no more.

While these clues seem obvious—easy to spot—many managers are hesitant to react. Rather than investigate, we wait … justifying the shift as a one-time occurrence, avoiding an awkward confrontation or simply guessing on the reason and blaming it on something out of our control. And occasionally, that’s the right move. But more often, what we’re witnessing is the beginning of a downward trend in engagement. Not reacting allows the decline to gain momentum until the employee’s performance bottoms out or he or she quits.

So, rather than sitting back, start asking some questions, suggests 15five.com. “Communication is the antidote.” Begin an earnest one-on-one conversation with the worker you’re concerned about. Your goal is to find out if there’s a chance to get this employee re-engaged. In an article by Carol Kinsey Goman for forbes.com, she refers to this conversation as a “stay interview.”

Some questions she suggests asking include:

  • How satisfied are you with the amount of feedback you get?
  • What would you like to know that isn’t being discussed?
  • What skill do you wish we made more use of in your job?
  • What’s your wish list for an enhanced or new role for you in the future?
  • If you could change one thing about your job or the company, what would it be?
  • What about your job makes you want to come in to/stay home from work each day?
  • Do you feel like the work you do is meaningful? Why or why not?

Your goal is to create an open, honest dialogue where you’re doing most of the listening.

One other possible cause that few employees will tell you directly: You may be part of the problem. Think about how you could manage better. We’re all works in progress. Are you micromanaging? Are you providing enough direction, enough recognition, plenty of one-on-one time or the right incentives? Be sure to let the earlier honest conversation be a jumping-off point with your employee … and increase your contact, asking for thoughts or opinions whenever possible. “Shake up his or her daily routine,” suggests David Sturt and Todd Nordstrom for forbes.com. Boredom could be the culprit. Also, be sure you’re showing appreciation and recognition if/when the individual starts re-engaging. Even small steps in the right direction will help get things turned around.

When an employee begins to show signs of decreased engagement, don’t wait to react. You need the best version of every employee. Sure, we all go through normal high and low points at work, but helping a disengaged employee feel listened to, appreciated and supported can help them regain enthusiasm. A simple honest conversation may be all it takes to help you find the cause and begin to fix it before it grows or begins spreading to other employees.

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