Re-engaging the disengaged team member

Ken Warren

Is there someone at your work who has mentally quit, but physically stayed? Are they lacking motivation, not really contributing to their team or organisation overall? Do they tick boxes just enough to avoid being performance-managed out of the workplace?

If you have someone like this in your team, it can be extremely frustrating - not only for the team leader, but also for the team members who know that someone is putting in minimal effort. Of course, the very best way to have engaged team members is to hire people who are self-motivated, whose values are already aligned with the values of the workplace, and who are already engaged with the importance of the work being done. But, alas, we don’t live in a perfect world. Often, we have to make the best out of the team we have. So, what can you do to re-engage disengaged team members?

Address any disappointment or hurt if it is there. If they performed well for much of their early employment with your workplace, consider if something has happened along the way to contribute to their disengagement. Perhaps they missed out on a promotion, had a serious altercation with someone in their team, or they might feel like what they have to say doesn’t make a difference. If you can have an honest conversation about any unresolved issues or at least guess how they might be feeling about what has occurred, this can give you an opportunity to give them some empathy for their situation and mend the relationship.

Tell them what you have noticed and ask them if they are OK. At the very least, this will help them to realize that you have noticed they are not performing well and create an awareness of the need for change. You might also elicit some challenges they are going through at home or work that will partly explain their behaviour. It is my experience that the great majority of people who are not performing well are unhappy about something at home or at work. While many of us don’t let our own personal challenges affect our performance at work, for others, their unhappiness at home or work does come out through in their behaviour.

Ask what you can do to support and encourage them with their work. This needs to be done from a position of genuine care and concern. It is also important you are open to what they have to say and can respond non-defensively. Pay very close attention to what is motivating for this individual – perhaps emotional support, a new challenge, or some control or say over decisions that affect them. Everyone is motivated for something. Our job is to find out what they value and see if we can link this to improved performance. When team members don’t know what they need or are not speaking up, you might give them some time to think about this or offer some suggestions to see if any are a good fit. You can also try some experiments and notice anything you do that helps.

Offer what you can. You might, for example, offer a team member who is not finding their work particularly enjoyable, more of the work that plays to their strengths or a particular interest. Engagement is not so much of a problem when they are doing work they want to do. For a team member who is frustrated at decisions taken by management, you might offer genuine collaboration or a greater say over decisions that affect their work. It should be no surprise that people tend to be more engaged when they are empowered to make decisions for themselves. For individuals going through personal challenges, good workplaces tend to offer a lot of support and flexibility. However, there are some individuals who take advantage of this goodwill, never reciprocating in regards to the needs of the workplace. For these individuals, trades often need to be made such as, “We're happy to give you support and time to address those concerns. While you are here, though, there are some things we need from you …”.

Communicate very clear expectations of their role. Giving empathy to a team member does not mean you can’t be very clear about the reasonable expectations for their role. These might relate to the time frames, the quality of the work being done, the amount of work generated, or the way they work in with their colleagues. A nice way to start this part of the conversation could be, “Perhaps it wasn’t clear about what is expected of your role …” Or “Has this been explained to you?” Remember to be very specific about the behaviours you want to see or the standard that needs to be achieved.

Catch people doing the right thing. Even problem-performers have times they are performing better. Be curious about what is working during those times and make a point of reinforcing the improvement. We should not be surprised that in high-performing teams, there is a higher than normal recognition for people’s efforts. Keep in mind that people like recognition in different ways. Some value a simple and genuine thanks given privately. Others value a written note. Some value the time that you give them. You can also take advantage of better performance, by having team members, particularly those who are disengaged, share stories about what they do that is working, what is best practice, and ways to improve the work they are doing.

Encourage a positive and supportive workplace culture. Great leaders do this by communicating a clear and compelling vision, speaking about the values and behaviours they want to see (e.g. positive relationships, helping each other out, always looking for ways to improve, and achieving best practices). Positive workplace cultures tend to be achieved when the right behaviours are modelled over time by senior and middle managers. Some workplaces also spend time with their team in developing an agreed list of values and corresponding behaviours that they wish to see in their team. When these are agreed upon and written down, they become a road map, which makes it easier to reinforce progress and hold team members accountable for their performance, when needed.

Being engaged at work is all about people bringing their best self and energy to work with a desire to excel at what they do. Ideally, people are internally motivated with their values and strengths being a good fit for the role they are in. There are, of course, some who refuse to be engaged - they are determined to hold onto hurts and disappointments, have made the decision to change jobs or retire, or are simply a bad fit for the organisation. However, on many occasions, there are actions we can take to reignite a flame that is barely flickering. We do this through genuine care, an honest conversation about solutions, and holding people accountable for their behaviour.


Ken Warren BA, M Soc Sc, CSP is a Relationships Specialist who helps teams to perform at their very best. Through his enjoyable and interactive training programs, Ken will help you to:

  • Build even stronger, more positive and effective teams
  • Handle difficult conversations in more confident and positive ways
  • Enhance your resilience and well-being at work

Check out all of his free resources through www.positivepeoplesolutions.com.au http://positivepeoplesolutions.com.au/disengaged_team_member.html

For in-depth articles on talent management, get your FREE subscription to the Drake Business Review Online. Our global publication focuses on your talent management issues and provides solutions from thought leaders and industry experts around the world. Click here 

Any time person-to-person or person-to-job fit is an issue, Drake P3 can help. Drake P3 is an online assessment solution that reveals a person’s natural tendencies, communication styles, emotional intelligence, conflict handling styles, and more. To find out how Drake P3 can help you, click HERE.


Management tips: how to build positive relationshi...

Joel Garfinkle

Building positive workplace relationships is vital for career success...

Read More


Q & A from the webinar "managing your personal bra...

Drake Editorial Team

Question: What do you think of a candidate who sets up a profile under her maiden name so that her current employer will not know she is trying to change careers?

Read More


How to hire the right talent

Marsha Lindquist

You probably think good talent is hard to find these days. You may even be frustrated with, and tired of, the process you have to go through every time you need to add help...

Read More