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

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Many people think of employee engagement as a relatively new idea, but 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 tended to overlook the influence that everyday experiences have on people’s work motivation, focusing instead on their talents, 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.

For instance, two people with similar skills and backgrounds may be working for the same company, in the same team, and have very similar roles — yet one of them may be totally immersed, enthused, and fulfilled, while the other is fed up, bored, and alienated. As a consequence, the former will perform better, stay longer in the organization, and be a positive influence on other employees, while the latter will underperform, have a negative impact on others, and quit. The difference between these two states (and people) is caused by engagement.

In line, research shows that higher engagement in its various forms tends to predict a range of positive organizational outcomes, such as 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. Despite the organizational benefits of engagement, global estimates indicate that most employees are not fully engaged at work — particularly in developed economies, where employees’ expectations are highest. In the U.S. alone, this translates into a productivity loss of about $500 billion a year.

One of the main drivers of employee disengagement is bad leadership, which on its own can be expected to account for as much as 30% of the variability in engagement levels. However, leaders are often unaware of this, not least 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 uncomfortable conversation, yet the alternative — not saying anything — is arguably worse for everyone.

To address this issue, here are four ways you may want to communicate your dissatisfaction with work, in the hope that your manager may be able (and willing) to help:

  • “I need your help to reach my full potential.” This line highlights the known difference between maximum performance, what you can do, and typical performance, what you usually do. When people are highly motivated, both are very similar. But given the high disengagement base rate, for most people typical performance is merely a fraction of what they are capable of doing. Using 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 people’s potential with their 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. In contrast, having employees cruise in autopilot mode will turn their jobs into boring and meaningless routines and make them feel useless. Unfortunately, employees and managers are equally prone to optimizing work for efficiency and making everything as reliable and predictable as possible. For employees, this frees up mental resources and relieves anxieties; there are obviously practical benefits to having an easy job. For managers, it’s a way to de-risk employees’ performance, ensuring they do what is expected as efficiently 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 notion, people will be more satisfied and perform better when they are in roles that align with their values, interests, styles, and abilities. In that sense, talent is little more than personality in the right place. If this approach can enable a conversation with your manager about what your preferences and drivers are, it could help them rethink where you would fit — and perform — best. This conversation should also provide you with an opportunity to describe what aspects of your current job you enjoy more, in the hope that you can increase those activities and transition away from others you dislike. Accordingly, research shows that people who gain enough of their manager’s trust to craft a job in this way tend to 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. Furthermore, even when managers hire people who seem dispositionally driven and capable of pushing themselves, they cannot expect this drive to be maintained all the time. For instance, studies show there is a common “honeymoon effect” for engagement, where most people are quite excited about their jobs during the first year, only to disengage later on. Competent managers will try to understand what makes each employee tick and what turns them off in order to develop their role in a way that makes sense and provides meaning. And when meaning isn’t enough, there are always traditional incentives — including financial rewards, recognition, promotion, and flexibility.

To be clear, none of these approaches is guaranteed to work, for a few reasons. First, managers may dismiss them or blame employees for their own problems. Second, even when managers are interested in helping, they may be unable to; 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 unthreatening 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.

If you think your manager may have a negative reaction or may be unwilling or unable to help, don’t go into this conversation without a Plan B in place, whether that’s a job offer already in hand or the understanding that you may need to move on. While people are rarely fired for being disengaged (unless they also perform or behave badly), 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.