Diagnosing Disengagement in Employees

A successful practice grows from successfully building an engaged and productive team.

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As an equine veterinarian, you diagnose abnormalities in horses every day. You watch for subtle cues that can tip you off to larger underlying (and sometimes elusive) health issues. You walk horses around, observe their gait, listen to their breathing and monitor changes in their behavior. As you take temperatures and listen to heartbeats, you look for insights to make a sound diagnosis.

The same should be true for your employees. You need to look for the signs of a disengaged employee. Diagnose the people at your practice with the same level of focus you use with horses–observe, listen and monitor their behaviors.

How to Know if an Employee is Disengaged

Employees who are engaged are willing to go the extra mile. They ask or volunteer for work. They are walking testimonials for your practice, freely offering positive word-of-mouth inside and outside of the practice. This is the best form of advertising.

On the other hand, if you notice the following signs, they are warnings that employees are becoming disengaged–or might already be disengaged:

  • An increase in frustrated horse owners. Customers might share with you that they aren’t being treated properly. You might also observe visual signs from various employees, such as a growing impatience with customers in person and/or over the phone.
  • An upturn in mistakes. As team members begin to disengage, their eye for detail starts to falter. They become careless because they’re not emotionally invested in your practice.
  • An increase in absenteeism, tardiness or workers’ compensation claims.
  • An escalation in peer-to-peer conflict.
  • Blaming others for mistakes, challenges or problems versus working collaboratively to resolve issues as a team.
  • Not staying late, even if there is work to do. They become “clock watchers” and seem to always have an excuse for why they can’t put in the extra time.
  • Acting fearful, stressed out or overly emotional
  • A change in body language. Employees are looking down when you speak to them, have their arms crossed or shoulders hunched.

Causes for Disengagement

Now that you have ideas of what to look for, let’s consider what could be causing these behaviors. There could be many factors. Maybe it’s a lack of leadership or an undesirable work environment. Or it could be that you have the right employee in the wrong role. Whenever possible, it’s important to try to match employees to a role that maximizes their strengths, minimizes their weaknesses and complements their natural behavioral tendencies.

Another and all-too-common culprit for disengagement is a low level of trust among employees or a fear of the boss. This can create a disengaged environment. Fear blocks engagement and is often the result of an overly stressful or negative work environment. Ask yourself whether you are only engaging with employees when you deliver corrective or critical feedback. It’s important to recognize the signs of employees who lack trust. Typically they won’t speak up, contribute ideas or take healthy risks for fear of being reprimanded. When this happens, you lose the qualities that a collaborative environment fosters and end up with employees who are just there for the paycheck or ultimately leave your practice for another job.

Expanding Your Awareness

When I worked with large teams, I made a habit of leaving my office door open so I could hear what was going on in the front office. Even though I was busy working, I tuned in to interactions between employees and customers. Equine practice owners should do this, too.

Listen to those interactions. Listen to how your employees are communicating. Their tone of voice reveals so much. If you hear an employee or customer using a sharp or defensive tone, that should be a warning to you.

You might even hear people slamming doors and file cabinets. It is critically important to pay close attention to your employees’ body language and actions. Studies have shown that 55% of communication is nonverbal (through body language) and 38% is through tone of voice.1 Observe how employees greet your customers. Listen and monitor. What do you see and hear, and how would it make you feel if you were that customer?

It’s important for you, as a practice owner, to expand your awareness, be inquisitive and pay attention. It’s your practice, and your employees determine your customer experience and its success.

Taking the Next Step

A successful practice grows from successfully building an engaged and productive team. Next month, I’ll share tips to support your effort to build an engaged and high-performing team.

Michelle D. Reines is a leadership coach and consultant for PeopleFirst from Zoetis. She works with veterinarians, equine business owners, pork and cattle producers and ranch and farm retailers to meet their human resources, training, development and leadership needs. PeopleFirst is the industry’s first comprehensive human capital and business management solutions program. These services were created in direct response to challenges customers expressed with managing today’s complex agricultural businesses. For more ways to help develop your employees and veterinary practice contact Michelle or visit GrowPeopleFirst.com.

1 Mehrabian, A., Ferris, S.R. Inference of Attitudes from Nonverbal Communication in Two Channels. J Consult Psych 1967;31(3):248-252.

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