In my experience the genesis for disengaged, disgruntled employees often begins with a psychological state known as learned helplessness. Learned helplessness happens when people stop trying to avoid punishment or to receive pleasure because they believe that NO MATTER WHAT THEY DO, THEY HAVE NO CONTROL OVER THE OUTCOME.
Imagine walking down a long, flat country road, miles from any shelter, when a rain storm kicks up. You have no umbrella, and off to either side of the road is flat, open field. What are your options? You can stand still. You can keep walking. Or you can run. Does it really matter which option you choose? No. Stop, run, or just keep on walking, you’re still going to have squishy shoes and skivvies. Learned helplessness is the feeling that sets in when you believe there is no escape from the deluge, that the outcome is sealed. It makes you feel kind of helpless. And hopeless.
What does that have to do with disgruntled, disengaged employees? When employees feel that no matter what they do, the outcome will be the same, (i.e., they will fall short, they will be criticized, or their good efforts and attempts will be ignored), they stop caring and stop trying.
Then they say Whatever. Do you know what Whatever means in disengaged employee-eese?
It doesn’t matter what I do, it’s not going to be good enough. So you know what? I’m going to do just enough to get by. And when I get home, I’m going to tell the world that my boss is a jerk and my company sucks.
When people feel powerless over their circumstances, they stop trying, and sometimes they get ugly, posting things on Facebook and Twitter like these employees did–
- Hate my job!! I want to tell my bosses how dumb they are and how meaningless this job is, then quit, and be happy!
- Talk to anyone who works here. They’ll tell you how much it sucks.
- Friends don’t let friends work for [insert what might be your company name here].
If you have disgruntled, disengaged employees, what can you do? Before giving up (which would be you succumbing to learned helplessness!), try these two tips:
1. Clarify what you expect. When I worked as a residential counselor in a home for juvenile delinquents, the children were required to do basic chores. Some of these kids had never made their own beds, folded laundry, or washed dishes. How did I help them be successful in these tasks? I made simple cheat sheets and check lists for each chore that clarified the expectations.
When an employee falls short of the mark, make sure that your expectations have been clear. If you want to prevent your employees from becoming frustrated and eventually quit trying, give them a road map of what you expect. If the employee improves after you provide clear, patient feedback on your expectations, you will have created an employee who knows how to succeed, cutting off learned helplessness at its root! If the employee does not improve, it’s not likely a matter of CAN’T DO, but more a matter of WON’T DO. Either way, it’s time to apply Tip #2—
2. Provide consequences. If you’re a parent, you know that there are times that you’ve said to your kids “CLEAN YOUR ROOM!” for what seems like a hundred times before they take action. Obviously, giving an instruction doesn’t always work. Tip #1 points the way. But Tip #2–like “You’re grounded until your room is clean”–cements the change.
The employees who heard your feedback and made improvement needs a positive consequence. Use a WHIP—What you Have In your Possession! Try praise, appreciation, a smile, or a pat on the back (of the non sexual harassment variety). Applying a positive consequence breaks the cycle of learned helplessness by showing an employee that “It DOES matter what I do, and I CAN BE good enough. And my boss DOES care!”
And the employee who heard your feedback and changed nothing needs a negative consequence. Use a WHIP—verbal warning, written warning, suspension, docked pay, or anything in the category of “up to and including termination.” You can’t save everyone. Not everyone wishes to be saved. Employees who are in the terminal stages of being disgruntled and disengaged may need to hear a final message from you: “You can be disgruntled, or you can be an employee. But you can’t be both.”
Employees need to know what’s expected, and they need consequences based on what they do with that information. Allow no helpless victims on your team. Employees with great performance need to know that they are responsible for their own awesomeness, their own greatness. Let them know that you notice and appreciate it when you see them taking ownership. Give every employee the benefit of your clear expectations, and apply consequences consistently by either rewarding desired behavior or punishing undesired behavior.