5 Warning Signs Your Workforce is Disengaged

By Heather Campbell

What are the early warning indicators that employees in your organisation are disengaged?

As a chief exec or HR leader, you probably don’t want to wait until absence and sickness rates become a problem or staff turnover increases. It takes a long time for such obvious signs to manifest. For example, research shows that 50% of disengaged workers don’t actually leave their organisation.

While you may feel you can rely on the results of your employee engagement survey, there’s a good chance that the picture it paints isn’t an accurate reflection of what’s really happening.

So, what can you do if you want to know if employees are disengaged before talented people finally head for the door?

In this blog, I’ll share with you the five indicators that I recommend chief executives and senior leaders pay attention to. These are strong indicators that people in your business are not as engaged as they could be and are a useful early warning. (For some ideas on how to improve enagagement, check out my blog 4 Sure-Fire Ways to Increase Employee Engagement.)

Here are the signs I recommend you look out for:

(1) People agreeing in public and ‘bad-mouthing’ in private

When it’s commonplace for people to agree with a proposal or decision publicly – say in a divisional meeting – and then to be critical in private, it’s likely are they’re already disengaged.

The underlying causes are most likely to be either fear of speaking up or feeling that their opinion won’t matter anyway. Both of these cause significant disengagement.

(2) Decisions are taken without involving those impacted

Chances are this happens far more often than you realise. Busy leaders have so many decisions to make that they simply forget to involve people or feel they haven’t the time to do so.

This is a big mistake when it comes to building employee engagement.

Even if just one important decision is taken without involving the people impacted, you will find significant disengagement follows. You see, this breaks the most important factor in terms of engaging people – the connection with their line manager.

If managers don’t involve people in decisions that impact them, it’s only natural these individuals feel disenfranchised and think, “if you can’t be bothered engaging with me, why should I be bothered engaging with you?”

(3) People are afraid

I’m not talking here about healthy fear of the competition – this is essential because it motivates people.

I’m talking about the unhealthy fear that disengages: fear of speaking up, fear of a bullying boss, fear of not being consulted. Our recent survey into the impact of fear in the workplace shows that it is present in all workplaces, with 49% of senior and middle managers saying that it has a significantly or excessively adverse impact on performance.

Quite frankly, unhealthy fear leads to a ‘hunker down and cover your back’ mentality – and that doesn’t result in engagement!

(4) Managers don’t give praise and positive feedback

In my work with leaders at all levels in business, time and again they tell me that they feel under-appreciated and don’t get the simple ‘thank you’ or ‘that’s a great job’ that would make them feel valued.

Precious one-to-one time with their boss is spent giving updates on progress with tasks rather than the boss giving positive feedback about what has been achieved.

Many of these people have direct reports too, and admit that they don’t give enough praise and feedback themselves. The primary reason? They don’t have enough time.

To this I say: get real. Find a digital clock right now and time how long it takes you to say, “Thank you. That’s a great job.” (I’ve just tried this – it took me less than three seconds!)

And giving meaningful, in-the-moment feedback can be done in three minutes or less.

Lack of recognition and positive feedback isn’t a time issue, it’s an ‘I don’t bother’ issue.

And this is undoubtedly causing disengagement across your workforce right now. Recent research shows that recognising contribution is one of the most effective ways to increase engagement.

(5) There’s a lack of energy to get things done

And finally, this is one that you may well be noticing yourself – it’s that sense of wading through treacle as you try to get things done. There’s a feeling of lethargy.

Somehow, no matter how many discussions you have, no matter how many times you clarify your expectations, nobody actually takes the lead in getting things moving.

It feels like you have to be the driving force for everything rather than anyone taking a weight off your shoulders.

Maybe people complain and leave the problem with you to ‘fix’.

This lack of energy to get things done is a sign that people just aren’t that engaged – they give obligatory effort but seem less willing to go that discretionary ‘extra mile’ and really take responsibility.


As a senior leader you may have the feeling that your workforce isn’t as engaged as you’d like it to be. You’re likely to be right in your evaluation of the situation – a 2014 survey showed that less than one-third of US workers felt engaged in their jobs.

In this blog I set out five indicators that you can use to assess whether your workforce is likely to be in that 70% of disengaged people. These are:

  • People agreeing in public and ‘bad-mouthing’ in private
  • Decisions are taken without involving the people they impact
  • People are afraid
  • Manager don’t give praise or positive feedback
  • There’s a lack of energy to get things done
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