Lack of engagement is more long term than lack of excitement, and more likely to be a problem. People can be engaged without being super-excited, though lack of excitement can be an early warning sign of lack of engagement, so you need to be alert to it. Non-engagement can move from something that sounds passive to something quite disruptive. People who are not engaged are picking up the phone to a headhunter, they’re not turning up to things, they’re starting to think more negatively about the company.
You can sometimes spot non-engagement at town halls or group meetings, when people are looking out of the window, but you are more likely to get an early warning if you’re present in the office and chatting to people, noticing if anyone doesn’t seem to feel part of things. It’s not always about who doesn’t volunteer for something or doesn’t seem keen; that might be disengagement with the process rather than the company.
Listening is the key to spotting disengagement
If you talk to people regularly and ask good questions, you can find out what makes them happy and what might become a problem before they become disengaged. If you check that they are aware of their strengths and weaknesses, you can help them play to their strengths.
Listening is also a valuable tool. You can learn a huge amount from being in meetings and doing a lot more listening than talking. Notice who is quiet, who wants to say something but can’t, learn what excites and annoys individuals. Listening can be one of the best tools for improving your performance as a CEO.
Motivation differs between people
Some people are fully engaged as you grow because growth excites them, and they want to grow, too. Others might not like change, and might be less engaged five years in, and perhaps feel slightly less relevant as you scale. Is there a way you can make them feel part of things, perhaps by changing their role or title, if not keeping them in the seat they were in before?
If someone seems not to be working at full power, or perhaps a few people, it’s easy to get annoyed, but I usually found it helpful to reflect on whether I had found out what their driver was, what motivated them and what else might be going on in their life. Motivation is personal to the individual, so your employees are not going to automatically share your motivation. You have to do the work to understand each individual on a deeper level, or train your managers to do it so that they get beyond simply saying, ‘That person is not working hard today.’
Disengagement with the company can be related to someone’s concerns about the direction their career is going in, or fear that a manager who they don’t like will never leave. It might be a time in their life when all their friends are getting promotions and pay rises but they’re not. You won’t know any of this unless you spend the time and effort having those conversations.
People are won’t always speak out about feeling dissatisfied
Some people will tell you that they’re not engaged if you ask them directly (although women are less likely to do this), so they might reveal a reason that you can address, like a lack of career progression or feeling that they’re not in the loop, or you might learn something you didn’t know about them.
The more you and your managers can understand each individual and make them feel valued, the closer to the best version of themselves they will be, the less you will need to manage them in future, and the less likely it is that you will need to lose them. Try to work out the point at which the person became disengaged and whether you could have made a difference. If their lack of engagement is because they don’t like your business or your strategy, perhaps you can’t do anything about it, but the sooner you find out the better.
Tacking disengagement is worth the effort
You have to invest time and money in your end goal of making everyone feel valued and helping them maximise their potential, which includes training managers to be empathetic. You have to have many conversations, which are, of course, time-consuming for you as the leader and easy to put aside when you have a lot going on. Think, though, of the emotional cost of managing people out and the financial cost of recruiting to replace them, and a little effort starts to seem like a much better deal.
If you have an engaged team and you create a great place to work, they will give your growth journey their all and make it fun. Your holy grail is for everyone to be the best version of themselves. If you can achieve that, then you will be in a great place and you’re likely to grow fast.
Sam Smith is founder and former CEO of finnCap Group and author of “The Secret Sauce“. Under her leadership, finnCap became a leading advisory firm for the business of tomorrow. Sam is now an adviser to scale-up businesses and a non-executive director on the board of Sumer Group Ltd.