Home > Products > Employee Survey > Articles > What Causes Employee Disengagement?

What Causes Employee Disengagement?

The drivers of employee disengagement are different from the drivers of employee engagement.

Companies spend a lot of time (and money) trying to figure out what motivates their employees and how to increase the level of engagement among their employees. (See our research on this topic, with answers to this question, drivers of engagement.)

But what about disengagement?

Most research studies find that anywhere from 20% to 50% of employees are disengaged. The problem is that most of those same studies are studying "employee engagement". They try to understand employee disengagement by examining employee engagement.

In our latest employee engagement research study, we decided to take a closer look at the differences between engaged and disengaged employees. What we found was fascinating. Our statistical analysis shows that there are some common drivers of engagement across the entire spectrum of employees - things that drive engagement as well as disengagement - but there are some important differences as well.

The two lists below show the survey questions that are most highly correlated with overall engagement for the bottom 10% (most disengaged) employees compared to all employees.

See if you can spot the key difference between the most disengaged employees and everybody else.

To receive periodic articles & research updates, sign up for our newsletter mailing list.
Email address
View latest research articles

Most Disengaged Employees
Top 10 Drivers of (Dis)engagement

  • Respect for Employees - This organization respects its employees.
  • Respect for Management - The senior leaders in this organization are highly ethical.
  • Respect for Employees - My manager values my talents and the contribution I make.
  • Personal Expression - My ideas and opinions count at work.
  • Purpose and Direction - My manager clearly defines goals and expectations.
  • Values - The actions of our senior leaders support this organization's mission and values.
  • Teamwork and Cooperation - My manager emphasizes cooperation and teamwork among members of my workgroup.
  • Personal Expression - People with different ideas are valued in this organization.
  • Empowerment/ Autonomy - My manager gives me the freedom I need to do my job effectively.
  • Feedback - I receive useful and constructive feedback from my manager.

All Employees
Top 10 Drivers of Engagement

  • Respect for Employees - This organization respects its employees.
  • Fairness - Everybody is treated fairly in this organization.
  • Trust - There is an atmosphere of trust in this organization.
  • Respect for Management - The leaders of this organization really know what they are doing.
  • Values - The actions of our senior leaders support this organization's mission and values.
  • Teamwork and Cooperation - It really feels like everybody is on the same team in this organization.
  • Respect for Management - Our senior leaders demonstrate strong leadership skills.
  • Respect for Management - The senior leaders in this organization are highly ethical.
  • Personal Expression - People with different ideas are valued in this organization.
  • Personal Expression - Our senior leaders are genuinely interested in the opinions of all employees.

Five of the top ten drivers of disengagement point to the manager, compared to zero of the top ten when we look across the entire spectrum of all employees!

What does this mean? When employees are disengaged, they also tend to have a poor relationship with their immediate supervisor. In other words, poor relationships between employees and their managers are a leading cause, probably the leading cause, of employee disengagement.

The remaining survey questions and associated themes are consistent for both groups - mutual respect, fairness, personal expression (psychological safety), values, and trust are issues that impact engagement levels for all employees, but the most disengaged employees have this additional theme that we don't see when we look at employees who are not disengaged.

(Research Note: We also looked at engagement drivers for the bottom 20%, the top 20%, and the top 10% of all employees. The statistics were consistent. The bottom 20% showed the same "my manager" pattern, with three out of the top ten correlates relating to "my manager". For the top 10% and the top 20%, none of the "my manager" items made it into the top twenty correlates.)

Thinking about employee disengagement - A shift in mindset

If you are used to thinking about employee engagement, your mind probably naturally thinks of things that motivate employees and cause them to be more engaged. When we look specifically at disengaged employees, we need to think a bit differently. We are not looking for what is needed to engage these employees. Rather, we need to think in terms of what is causing these employees to be disengaged.

To put it another way - we are not looking for ways to make people happy, but rather, we are looking for ways to stop them from being unhappy. Addressing the things that cause disengagement won't immediately lead to "engaged" employees, but it will make those disengaged employees less disengaged and get them pointed in a more positive and productive direction.

Employee disengagement and "my manager" - What to do?

You've probably heard the saying, "People don't quit their jobs; they quit their bosses." Our statistical research on employee engagement supports this. The employees who were surveyed had not yet quit their jobs or their bosses, but no doubt many have done so since the surveys were conducted. Those who remain are unhappy, and they are probably adding little if any value to the organizations they work for.

Not every disengaged employee is unhappy with his or her manager, but many are, and those employees have the potential to be more engaged and productive. Each employee-manager relationship will have its own unique problems, but there are some concrete steps that can be taken in order to address disengagement issues related to "my manager".

Step One: Diagnosis
The first step is to understand if there is a problem, where the problem lies, and what the nature of the problem is. If you have not done so already, start with an employee engagement survey. Make sure the engagement survey includes items related to employees' relationships with their managers, and that it allows you to segment results by manager, or by some other demographic that is a reasonably good proxy for manager (e.g. by department). Your goal here is to get answers to the following questions:
  • Are there company-wide issues related to employee disengagement with their managers?
  • Are there specific managers who are struggling to engage their employees?
  • What are the specific engagement issues that need to be addressed?

With answers to these questions in hand, you'll be ready for our next installment, where we expand on our employee disengagement research findings and outline the remaining steps to getting employee-manager relationships back on track.


Popular Employee Engagement Article Topics and Resources: