It’s frustrating when a member of your team has mentally checked out. In some cases, this person does only the bare minimum. In other cases, they fail to meet important deadlines, or they drop the ball on critical projects. How can you determine what’s going on? What can you do to address the issue when it’s a temporary slump? How about when it’s a long-term problem? And what’s the best way to ensure this person’s lack of motivation doesn’t influence or annoy your other team members?
What the Experts Say
There are myriad factors that might cause an employee to check out, according to Alice Boyes, a former clinical psychologist and author of The Healthy Mind Toolkit, among other books. “It could be that they feel passed over and they’ve got a gripe. It could be that their job has changed, and they feel out of their depth. It could be a personal issue — maybe they’re going through a divorce or they’re a new parent and not getting any sleep — and it’s affecting their performance. It’s also possible that the person doesn’t even know how they’re acting.” Regardless of the reason, it’s your job to find a way to support them, says Allison Rimm, consultant, coach, and author of Joy of Strategy: A Business Plan for Life. Your goals, she says, are to figure out, “What’s at the bottom of this lack of engagement? And what can we do about it?” Here are some pointers.
For starters, says Boyes, you need to get clarification on how precisely this employee is falling short. Ask yourself, “What are the requirements of the job that this person is not meeting? In what specific ways is this person negatively impacting the organization?” It’s also important to consider how you know this information, says Rimm. “Have you observed directly that their performance is off? Are you hearing it from others? Are clients complaining?” Reflect, too, on the timeline. “Is this a recent problem? Or have you seen a steady slide in this person’s performance?”
The answers to these questions will help you determine how to approach the issue with your employee. “You need data,” Rimm adds. “Don’t confront anyone about their behavior unless you have good evidence of how it’s affecting others.” Think, too, about what might be triggering your employee’s lack of engagement. (There may be underlying personal issues that you’re not privy to, of course, but there also may be some organizational challenges you’re fully aware of.) Consider your company’s work culture and reflect on any difficult team dynamics that might be taking a toll on this individual.
Learn about resources.
Before broaching the subject with your employee, Boyes recommends educating yourself about your organization’s resources for dealing with situations like these. “There ought to be some processes and mechanisms in place,” she says. “It shouldn’t be up to an individual manager to deal with this ad hoc.” Learn about available support systems, including employee assistance plans and health networks, HR programs, and training courses. Arm yourself with information so that you’re prepared to brainstorm solutions with your employee.
When it’s time to have a frank and honest conversation with your employee, be kind. “Show up with genuine concern and interest for the other person as a human being,” says Rimm. Ask questions. “You’re not there to blame them or write them up; you’re there to understand what’s going on,” she says. “Make it clear that you have a legitimate and sincere desire to support them through whatever it is that ails them.” Listen and empathize. Establish trust by demonstrating that you have their best interests at heart.
Offer individualized support.
Once you have a better understanding of the underlying issue, you need to work together with the person to come up with a remedy, says Rimm. Ask them how you can help them. The solutions will be different depending on what’s behind your employee’s detachment. For instance:
If the cause is personal stress, offer flexibility. When an employee is “scaling back to deal with a personal issue,” you need to be delicate and discreet, says Boyes. If an employee is, say, having marital trouble or needs to tend to a sick parent, offer support and sympathy. Be gentle. Ask them what would be most helpful — remote work? condensed hours? reduced responsibilities? — and then devise a plan to make it happen for a fixed period. You also need to figure out a way to tell the rest of the team that “honors the person’s privacy and confidentiality,” says Rimm. Ask your employee, “Would you will be willing to share this information on a limited basis? If we let the team know you’re going through some personal pressure, they’ll cut you some slack.” Work together to craft a message that “addresses the matter appropriately.”
If the disengagement is due to a lack of skills, offer training. “As workloads change and employees come and go, it can be demoralizing even for people who are ordinarily hardworking and motivated,” says Rimm. “They struggle and feel they’ve been set up for failure, and so they check out.” Ask your employee how changes to the work environment have impacted their capacity to do their job. “It might be that their skills, interests, and abilities are no longer aligned with their responsibilities,” she says. In this case, you could offer support in the form of continuing education courses or one-on-one coaching. You might also think about “reallocating responsibilities so that they better play to people’s strengths.”
If the employee is bored, get creative. Find out what their goals are, says Boyes. “Find out why they’re not feeling fulfilled. Ask, how can I help you meet your expectations?” Then, you need to be resourceful in coming up with a solution to reignite their interest. “Maybe they need ongoing skill development or a new project to sink their teeth into,” she says. Think about ways to challenge your employee and expand their professional horizons.
If the employee is burnt out, consider whether the requirements of the job are reasonable. “There’s often a lot of murkiness around a job’s official expectations and its actual ones,” says Boyes. “If the person is technically fulfilling the basic requirements, but they used to go above and beyond,” it could be that the employee is burnt out from working in a way that was unsustainable. Perhaps you need to rethink expectations or come up with a way to more fully recognize the employee’s contributions. “Maybe they need a new title or a mechanism to ensure they’re getting credit for what they’re doing.”
If the employee is checked out because they’re upset about a work-related grievance, be sympathetic. It’s common for employees to temporarily check out because of “tough interpersonal team dynamics,” says Boyes. But while you must take your employees’ complaint seriously, you must also make the impact of their disengagement clear. Rimm suggests saying, “I hear you. That stinks. But let me tell you how this looks. Your team feels like you’ve pulled away and you’re not contributing. It’s having an effect on morale and productivity.” The gist of your message is, “I care about you, but I also care about everyone else on this team, and your behavior is having a negative impact.”
If the person is clueless about their behavior, tread carefully. The person might not realize they’re acting differently, notes Boyes. This can be tricky. On one hand, due to “the limits of self-awareness,” the employee could just be oblivious. Drawing attention to the change in their behavior could be a wake-up call. On the other hand, adds Boyes, their lack of recognition could signal a deeper, more complex personal issue, such as depression. Since “there are not a lot of scenarios where it’s appropriate for a manager to dig around in an employee’s personal life,” you don’t have a lot of options. Lend a supportive ear and offer to help your employee find the assistance needed.
Be open with your team — to a point.
In addition to speaking with the employee in question, you need to address the team. “Acknowledge the elephant in the room,” says Rimm. And yet, don’t single anyone out. Be respectful and professional. Boyes recommends “figuring out what’s most annoying — wasted time, missed deadlines, or grumpy attitudes” — and then addressing those things broadly within your team. Set expectations. Explain requirements. But whatever you do, “don’t stigmatize.” This is not about one person; it’s about the team.
Be patient — to a point.
Lighting a spark under a disengaged employee won’t happen overnight, says Boyes. And unfortunately, it may not happen at all. “Just because you’ve talked to your employee who’s checked out, there’s no guarantee you will check them back in,” she says. If the possible remedies you’ve implemented don’t seem to work, it might be a sign that the role isn’t right for them. Candor is necessary. Explain the priorities of the organization and be straightforward about your concerns about their performance. Hopefully, “you can come to the conclusion together that it’s not a fit.” As a gesture of good will, you might offer to help them look for a new job.
Principles to Remember
Think about how this employee is falling short by asking yourself: What are the requirements of the job that this person is not meeting?
Have empathy. Speak with your employee with genuine concern and interest. Make it clear you have a sincere desire to support them.
Learn about available support systems, including employee assistance plans and health networks, that could help reengage your employee.
Confront your employee about their behavior without solid evidence that it’s having a negative impact.
Fail to consider whether the requirements of the job are reasonable. It could be that your employee is burnt out from working in a way that’s unsustainable.
Be too tolerant of a bad situation. When an employee is checked out, it could mean that the role isn’t right for them. It might be time to let the person go.
Advice in Practice
Case Study #1: Be straightforward with your employee — and be creative in coming up with a plan to spark reengagement.
Charlie Marchant, COO at Exposure Ninja, a digital marketing agency, says that otherwise strong employees check out for any number of reasons.
“Oftentimes, I find the performance change is related to other challenging events happening in a person’s life,” she says. “On occasion, however, I have found that lack of engagement is a reaction to a change in work system, change in management, lack of progression or development at work, or the job simply doesn’t play to their strengths or interests.”
Recently, she dealt with a checked-out employee — we’ll call him Bob — who’d been a solid member of her team for two years.
Bob had always been one of her most competent and driven employees. Suddenly, though, things changed. He seemed disengaged: He missed deadlines, and colleagues began to complain about his sharp attitude. “Before, Bob was driven and focused on his goals,” says Charlie. “But out of the blue, things started to slip.”
Charlie decided she needed to talk to Bob about what was causing his change in behavior and performance. She was candid and direct. “I reassured him that I’d always been pleased with his work and that I wanted to support him,” she says. “But I also let him know that I’d noticed he was not as engaged, and I wanted to know why.”
Bob explained that he was frustrated with his lack of progression. He’d been working in the same role for a while, yet he couldn’t see the next step in his career path.
Charlie needed to be honest with Bob. Unfortunately, there were not any senior positions available within her department for which Bob was qualified. However, she did have a solution. “In our company, we offer our employees roles within other departments,” she says. “Bob could move into a more senior role and a higher pay bracket if he was interested in getting more training.”
She and Bob talked about his skills and objectives. She also sought input from another department manager. Together they agreed that Bob would complete a training and development plan that included a part-time secondment to a different department. If he excelled at the program and did well in his interview with the other department manager, he would receive a promotion.
During the program, Charlie continued to check in with Bob to review his progress and to figure out whether he enjoyed this new type of work. “I noticed that Bob was more focused on his work again now that he had a new direction.”
Bob got the promotion, and he is more engaged in his current job.
Case Study #2: Be kind and empathetic as you empower your team members to help themselves.
Jonathan Tam, vice president of marketing at Liferay, a software company, says that fortunately, he hasn’t had to deal with too many checked-out employees over the course of his career. However, he says, when he does encounter a disengaged employee, he tries to solve the problem through empowerment.
“It’s not only, what can I do for the employee, but what can the employee do for themselves?” he says.
A few years ago, at a previous company, Jonathan helped hire a new member of the events team he supervised. This new employee — we’ll call her Erin — had previous experience in events and was immediately a productive member of the team. “She was smart and competent,” says Jonathan.
But a few months into her tenure, Jonathan’s and Erin’s direct manager noticed a change in her behavior. “Erin was starting to work less and not work as hard,” he says. “In meetings, she’d sit by herself and rarely speak. Her face always looked down.”
Jonathan couldn’t think of a reason why Erin was acting this way, so he scheduled a one-on-one with her. He told her what he’d observed.
Erin admitted that she was checked out. The reason surprised him. “She told me that she just didn’t fit in with the team,” he recalls. She said, “‘They don’t include me. And I am not making friends here.’”
Jonathan empathized. He told her that he understood why she was frustrated. Erin had joined a close-knit team that had already been together for three years. Everyone was around the same age. “But she didn’t feel like she was ‘in.’”
Jonathan helped Erin brainstorm ways to fix the situation. “I wanted her to know that she could control her own destiny.”
So, he made suggestions. “I said: ‘Erin, put yourself out there. Don’t sit back and wait to be invited to lunch or happy hour. Don’t wait for someone to ask you about your weekend. Ask: Can I be involved?’”
Jonathan continued to coach Erin on how to volunteer her opinion and make contributions to the team. “In an open office plan, it’s a lot about the environment in which you work,” he says. “You are likely to stay [at your company] longer and work harder if you enjoy the people you work with. Team culture is really important.”
It wasn’t automatic, but over time, Erin changed her disposition and reengaged with her job.
By Rebecca Knight