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March - 2008 - issue > People Manager
Reengaging the Disengaged
C. Mahalingam
Friday, February 29, 2008
As managers most of us understand our commitments to clients and bosses. We respond to their mails in time, keep track of our deliverables and commitments, and go the extra mile to ensure that we keep them happy. However, a key segment of our internal clients - the people who report to us - looks up to us for their learning, development, and career growth. As managers our beliefs, values, and behavior become the ‘culture of the company’ for these people as they see the organization through us.

Made-to-order employees don’t exist anywhere
A key part of success in our role involves the ability to understand our people in totality - their values, aspirations, and strengths and weaknesses - so that we are able to engage them productively towards organizational objectives. Great mangers have always realized that there is nothing in reality called ‘made-to-order employees’ anywhere in the world. It does not exist even in books or in management theory. Perfect matches are unheard of in any field of human endeavor. Even in sports, the partners on one side try and understand how they can complement each others’ strengths to outperform and defeat the opposing team. In life too, there is nothing called a perfect, made-for-each-other couple; Successful marriages and lasting relationships are a function of give-and-take, some compromises, some sacrifices, and most importantly borne out of an intense willingness to understand each other and provide the mutually needed emotional support.

Emotional Support – the biggest need in the first few weeks for a new comer
Employees join a company with lots of hopes and expectations often generated by the so called ‘employer branding’ initiatives - public presentations and value propositions posted on the website - new employees come in very highly motivated and energized. The first few weeks are critical as any new surrounding is somewhat threatening or anxiety-producing. There are rules of the game or engagement that are openly articulated and communicated, and then there are rules of the game that are unwritten but even more powerful. New employees find out the ‘dos and don’ts’ over time and try and adjust to the environment to the extent they can. The basic need at this point of time is emotional support. Some companies assign a ‘buddy’ or ‘induction mentor’ as a go-to person for a few weeks. Managers have an incredible opportunity here to spend quality time and make themselves available to the new arrival into the team.

Some Companies require that the managers take the employees out for lunch on the first day or sometime during the first week so that the new comer gets some quality time. The emphasis here is not on lunch but on spending quality time with the new comer. In reality, the taking out for lunch is performed as a ritual performed without any visible impact on the employee.

This is when the first signs of disengagement begin. Managers who ignore this are bound to spend more time backfilling attrition!

Disengagement defined
Disengagement has very many definitions in the field of management. My simple definition is as follows: “Employees losing interest and enthusiasm and beginning to hate to come to work.” In my experience, I have seen that this disengagement has a cycle composed of some clearly discernible stages. Managers have an opportunity to address the symptoms of disengagement many times in the cycle. Continuously overlooking this cycle and its stages and the symptoms setting in during these stages will lead to the decision on the part of the employee to leave. This ‘enough is enough’ is not a sudden mindset change that comes to pervade the employee’s mind, but often results from a prolonged build-up of a sense of ‘I don’t belong here’, or ‘ my manager does not deserve me anymore’.

Cycle of disengagement
In the employee life cycle with any organization there are times of ups and downs and highs and lows that every employee goes through at some regular or periodic intervals. No matter how high one may be in the organizational hierarchy, or how powerful and mighty he or she is, there is no escape from this cycle. How each one of us reacts to these events and experiences, both real and perceived, show broad differences. Great managers are fully aware of this and so are watchful of ‘the hours and minutes of need’ when the employees expect to be reached out and supported. The reality again is that busy schedules, crazy calls, meaningless meetings, and many other distractions blind the mangers from seeing the ‘moments of support’ employees are looking for.

There are at least four such stages in the life cycle that a manager can notice and pay attention to. They are (a) Disengagement with the day-to-day work, (b) Disengagement with the role or job, (c) Disengagement with the function or department, and (d) disengagement with the organization. The symptoms at each of these stages vary. To illustrate this point,
* Symptoms at stage one (disengagement with work) include disinterest in project discussions, not planning the day’s work properly, and not responding to mails and other routines.
* Symptoms at stage two (disengagement with role or job) include not paying attention to delivering commitments to the colleagues, not willing to travel, not participating in project meetings, and the like.
* Symptoms at stage three (disengagement with department or business unit) include leaving the department frequently, criticizing how the business operates, frequent late coming to office, and the like.
* Symptoms at stage four (disengagement with the organization) include criticizing the organizational policies and programs frequently, complaining that senior managers have no vision, frequent comments on organization lacking focus and direction, and the like.

If managers are sensitive and insightful, they will take note of these symptoms and cues and address them in time. Managers, of course, also need to be trained to observe and act on these symptoms in time rather than ‘fighting fire’ when it is too late and the employees have reached the tipping point and have made up their mind to quit. Any attempt to address the issue at this stage will only be damage control and would not yield any fruitful result.

Agenda for senior managers and HR
Hiring and promoting managers who understand that the disengagement cycle is a normal phenomenon that organizations and employees go through and that action taken just-in-time will prove to be a ‘stitch-in-time’ for safety of the ship is an agenda that belongs to the senior managers and HR. After all, engagement of employees will remain a pipedream with managers who are disengaged themselves!

A proactive approach on the part of HR is to establish a process by which managers are periodically required to do a dip-stick at the engagement quotient of their employees and do some action planning to reengage the disengaged employees. Needless to say it is a job that is done one-at-a-time and so quite time-consuming. But then, losing people and finding replacements for them is no less time consuming and is perhaps more expensive too.

The author is Senior VP and Chief People officer with Symphony Services. He can be reached at mahalingam.c@symphonysv.com

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