How to Spot a Disengaged Employee? Hint: Look for “Unsolvable Problems”

How to Spot a Disengaged Employee

In the last post, we talked about employee engagement surveys: how to do them right and how to interpret the results. Although surveys can be helpful, I wouldn’t go so far as to call them an employee engagement tool. They may give you a bird’s-eye view, but they’re too slow and impersonal to pinpoint the root of the problem. You’re always better off catching your employees in the act of disengaging than waiting for the survey results to come in. And I have one dead giveaway to help you do that.

Look for “unsolvable problems.”

A stereotype of a disengaged employee is one that doesn’t care. He comes to work late, leaves early, and doesn’t do much in between. That would be plenty of evidence that something’s wrong, but your employees are probably too smart to be that obvious. I know mine are.

Here’s a more likely scenario. Instead of flaunting their apathy, your employees might look for an excuse to throw up their hands. Once they find one, they carry it proudly, like a flag, everywhere they go. There’s no better excuse to do nothing than a problem you cannot solve. This problem can be real or hallucinated, relevant or irrelevant. Its purpose is to give your employee the moral authority to be unproductive.

For best results, unsolvable problems require social proof. What good is it to complain about a challenge someone else can easily overcome? You lose credibility and risk looking incompetent. That’s why a disengaged employee usually feels the need to “educate” his coworkers about how dire the situation is. It helps him kill two birds with one stone: deter others from working through the problem and avoid any suspicion of being disengaged. Indeed, pointing out the inconvenient truth in front of one’s colleagues is surefire proof that one cares.

Sound familiar? I’ve seen this behavior more times than I can count. If you dig deep enough, you’ll always find some grudge or personal problem at the root. Here are three examples.

The Non-Existent Catastrophe

I once watched a department head sit on an IT solution he purchased for his department for six months without taking any steps to install it. He complained that the new solution didn’t have enough memory to serve his needs. When IT asked him how much memory he thought he needed, he said he wasn’t sure. A nice unsolvable problem right there!

This individual did such a great job of spreading panic that for six months no one in his department dared to question him. Thankfully, an IT employee took matters into his own hands. To get started, IT needed an end user to define the specs. It turned out that one of the department’s project managers knew exactly what to do, but, given the boss’ attitude, was hesitant to act. IT convinced the department head to step aside and let the project manager lead the installation. The software was up and running in two months!

The Midlife Crisis

A mid-level executive always came to staff meetings with an armful of bad news. After a while, other executives started asking the CEO “tough questions.” Was it as bad as they’d heard? The CEO was tired of letting this employee hijack every meeting. One day he took the executive aside and talked to him one-on-one. During the conversation, the executive confessed that he was bored with his job and frustrated with life in general. What better way to blow off steam than to dig up a few unsolvable problems?

Taking Politics to Work

Politics offers a world of unsolvable problems to those looking for one. To be fair, few of us are indifferent to the future of our country and the world. On top of that, politicians and the media are skilled at tugging at our heartstrings. So, it’s understandable that your employees have deeply held political opinions that will preoccupy them from time to time. However, there is a difference in how engaged and disengaged employees typically handle the chronic problems of the world. To the first group, their work is an escape from the uncertainty of politics. To the second, politics is an excuse to disengage from their work.

Just the other day, a friend told me about a great employee whose performance flagged. When my friend asked her what was going on, she said she mistrusted the Trump administration so much that she couldn’t focus at work. My friend did not take her answer at face value and kept probing. Finally, it came out that she was upset that the company made strategic decisions without her. The truth was that she mistrusted her boss and felt uncertain about her future with the company. Now, that made a lot more sense! And, unlike the presidential politics, it was a problem my friend could solve.

Disengaged employees often hide their lack of motivation from management and even from themselves. They look for circumstances beyond their control to help them save face while they turn in a subpar performance. If you see this behavior among your people, do what my friend did. Have a talk with them, but don’t be too quick to buy into their stories. Dig a little deeper. Use active listening to prompt them to be more introspective. Make it safe for them to be honest and let them tell you why they are looking for problems rather than solutions.

Employee engagement starts with a sincere connection between you and your subordinates. To maintain such a connection, be prepared to call their bluff. Then get to the real issue and work with them to resolve it.


If you like calling people’s bluff, you might like my book, because it helps you see through all sorts of smoke and mirrors in the workplace.

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Written by

Tim Eisenhauer is a co-founder of Axero Solutions, a leading intranet software vendor. He's also a bestselling author of Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? Mastering Employee Engagement. Tim’s been featured in Fortune, Forbes, TIME, Inc Magazine, Entrepreneur, CNBC, Today, and other leading publications.


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