Employee engagement

by Hayley Oats and Vandy Massey

How to engage a disengaged team

Working with a disengaged team is hard; it makes the life of the manager much busier and more complex than it needs to be. Often, disengaged employees make more complaints, whinge and moan more, and struggle to deliver productivity at the expected levels, let alone strive to exceed them. They will often be apathetic and make little contribution in meetings; when they do, it’s a negative and invariably cynical one.

In turn, these teams and individuals leave the manager constantly checking up on their progress, tied up in meetings that don’t involve delivering the core business, dealing with unnecessary people administration and feeling like they are over whelmed with management.

To turn around a disengaged team or team member, you first need to ascertain ‘what’s wrong’. You can do this in many different ways, but often the most effective way is to ask the team or department to complete a staff survey, which they can do anonymously. (Ideally, get an outside agency to conduct the survey, as recommended by the CIPD.) Why anonymously? Because this allows them to be more honest. Remember that if they are disengaged, chances are they are mistrusting too!

As a guide, the survey should cover

  • Relationships in the team and at work
  • Communication with their manager
  • Organisational communication
  • Whether they understand their role and its effect on the organisational goals
  • Rewards – whether they feel these reflect their contribution. It’s not just financial rewards that matter, by the way: other recognition mechanisms count as well.

Once you have the survey results, no matter how bad they are, you need to share them with the team – and promptly. Plan this when you start the survey, so staff can see you are serious about sharing and addressing the results. You’ll need to discuss the results with staff, encourage them to provide further clarity where necessary and be part of the solution.

Some other pointers:

  • Explain why you are doing this; be honest!
  • Avoid promises you can’t keep
  • Be realistic about what can be changed and the time frame
  • Acknowledge that it’s going to take time and work from all parties
  • Keep working at it and, if it’s not working, try something else; it’s an evolving process and it make take some tweaks to get it just right.

Redundancies can turn an engaged team into a disengaged one. If this applies to your situation, you may find the topic on Redundancy Survivors helpful.


Bob is a busy junior manager. He is all too often eager to please but doesn’t follow this through. In the past, he has promised faithfully that he will attend team meetings, but failed. He has also set ridiculously short delivery targets and then shouted at the team when they have failed to deliver. In his constant state of haste, he has ignored ideas from the team that would help them improve delivery times and reduce costs.

Bob’s manager has a chat with Bob about how he has been managing the team, as the team have spoken to her.

Bob agrees that things need to change as he isn’t happy either. He feels that he is constantly battling a million things that no one else can help him with, customer service is suffering and he is constantly having to recruit new staff, as members of his team keep leaving.

Bob calls a team meeting and, after discussion with the team, they agree the following:

  • They will have a weekly team meeting, chaired by a different member of the team each time, to talk about the objectives in the team, progress on projects and any problems.
  • All ideas will be discussed as a team and those they agree are best will be taken forward by Bob to the senior management team.
  • Bob will talk to the team about short deadlines and they will agree what they can realistically deliver.
  • They agree to review the success of the weekly meetings once a month and tweak the format, if required.

Six months on, Bob has not had one employee leave. The team meeting is a resounding success, and because it is chaired by a different member of the team each week, this has allowed everyone to feel empowered and know that they are making a valuable contribution. Best of all, the section has won the quarterly company prize for best customer feedback.

Bob feels less stressed; he knows he has a team that will support him and deliver their best every time.