How to Tell Your Boss That You’re Not Engaged at Work

Many people think of employee engagement as a relatively new idea, though scientists have been studying it for years. William Kahn first introduced the term in 1990, defining it as “the degree of psychological identification employees experience with their job role or work persona.” He noticed that organizations tend to overlook the influence that everyday experiences have on people’s work motivation, and instead focus on their talent, skills, and expertise. Although such qualities are no doubt critical, they are not sufficient to account for the wide range of subjective experiences employees have at work.

Research shows that higher engagement, in its various forms, tends to predict a range of positive organizational outcomes, such as higher individual job performance, team effectiveness, and customer satisfaction ratings. Meanwhile, lower engagement has been linked to a range of problematic outcomes, such as increased turnover, absenteeism, and stress.

One of the main drivers of employee disengagement is bad leadership; this alone can be expected to account for as much as 30% of the variability in engagement levels. However, leaders are often unaware of this, and because upward negative feedback is rare. Indeed, it is very unusual for employees to feel that they can honestly and openly criticize their bosses without paying the consequences. Even telling your boss that you are not engaged makes for an uncomfortable conversation, yet the alternative — not saying anything — is arguably worse for everyone.

For addressing this issue and to give your employer a chance before considering other jobs, you need to try and communicate your dissatisfaction, in the hope that your manager may be able, and willing, to help. Here are a few suggestions / ways:

  • “I need your help to reach my full potential.” This line highlights the difference between maximum performance – what you can do, and typical performance – what you usually do. This line will remind your boss that employee engagement is not a philosophical or metaphysical notion. On the contrary, there is a clear ROI on engagement, which is to align an employee’s potential with his/her actual performance.
  • “I need a new challenge.” This line captures the importance of learning as a driver of engagement. When people are put in roles that enable them to master new skills and solve challenging problems, they will feel more valuable and fulfilled. Unfortunately, employees and managers are equally prone to optimizing work for efficiency in turn making everything as reliable and predictable as possible – making Frederick Taylor, the father of management consulting and work efficiency, proud. This is also why finding a role that leverages only your strengths is unlikely to work in the longer term. When everything is easy, where will you find motivating challenges and learning opportunities to grow?
  • “I’m not sure if this role is the right fit for me.” This line focuses on a critical determinant of engagement, and in turn job performance, namely person-job fit. According to this idea, people will perform better and be more satisfied, when they are in roles that align with their values, interests, styles, and abilities. In this sense, talent is little more than personality in the right place. If this approach enables a conversation with your manager about what your preferences and drivers are, it could help leaders rethink where you would fit, and perform, best.  Research shows that people who gain enough of their manager’s trust to craft a job in this way, find work more meaningful and engaging.
  • “I find my work exhausting — can you help me?” This final line is a gentle reminder that managers are largely responsible for the motivation levels of their employees and teams. All motivation is ultimately self-motivation, but it is a manager’s job to help employees avoid draining and demotivating work situations — where exhausting barriers outweigh exciting challenges. Competent managers will try to understand what makes each employee tick and what turns them off, in order to develop employee role in a way that makes sense for them and in turn provides meaning. And when meaning isn’t enough, there are always traditional incentives — including financial rewards, recognitions, promotions, and flexibility.

To be clear, none of these approaches is guaranteed to work. Reasons? First, managers may dismiss or blame employees for their own problems. Second, even when managers are interested in helping, they may be unable to as some jobs are hard to sell, alternative options may be limited, and the wider organizational context may be toxic or problematic. Third, even if these approaches seem nonthreatening and subtle, not least because they acknowledge that engagement is also the employee’s responsibility, some managers may get offended and interpret them as criticism or negative feedback.

The team at Actuate Business Consulting, a knowledge based management consulting firm in India, believes, these approaches are not guaranteed to work, so it’s always better to have a Plan B in mind before you address the issue head-on. It could be a job offer already in hand or the understanding that you may need to move on. While people are rarely fired for being disengaged, raising this issue could harm your reputation with your manager. But the risks of staying in a job where you’re disengaged could ultimately be even worse.

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