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6 Ways to Eliminate Disengagement at Work or School

The consequences of boredom, frustration, or anxiety can be avoided.

Key points

  • Cognitive, behavioral, and emotional engagement boosts performance, learning, and subjective well-being.
  • Promoting engagement requires knowledge of how self-beliefs develop and perpetuate.
  • Fostering autonomy in others is a foundational engagement strategy that propels task interest.
  • Giving explanations and having patience are critical to create an emotional connection.
Bruce Matsunaga/Creative Commons
Source: Bruce Matsunaga/Creative Commons

If you are like most people, your success rests in part on the performance of others. Whether you are a parent raising a child, a teacher educating students, or a manager at work, if your people are unmotivated, their performance will suffer, and you will probably feel somewhat responsible for the deficit. Disengagement is rampant. According to recent Gallup surveys, 69 percent of the workforce is disengaged, while 53 percent of K-12 school children report low interest and apathy toward their daily activities. The psychological cost of disengagement is tremendous and blamed for productivity lags, minimal employee commitment, and reduced company profits (Crabtree, 2013). Academically, disengaged students earn lower grades, have higher dropout rates, and report greater mental health concerns than their engaged peers (Fredericks et al., 2019).

Engagement has three components. First, behavior must be focused on completing a task. Despite the popular notion that 90 percent of success in life is just showing up, optimal learning and performance take more than physical presence. Cognitive engagement signifies an unwavering focus on the task at hand, while emotional engagement stresses the degree of passion and connectedness to the task as being instrumental to reach one’s goal. Engagement matters because engaged employees report greater work satisfaction, exhibit more creativity, have qualitatively better relationships with co-workers, and demonstrate higher work productivity, compared with their less-engaged peers (Combs et al., 2006). School engagement means a passion for learning, consistent attendance, and involvement in school-related activities (Fredericks et al., 2019).

Fortunately, there is a robust field of engagement research and findings reveal consistent and confluent patterns of evidence about how to increase engagement at work and school. Specifically, when using leadership and instructional approaches based on the principles of self-determination theory, task engagement increases (Reeve, 2021). The more a person feels like they have choice and the ability to orchestrate their destiny, the greater the engagement. While a short article cannot describe this research in depth, the seven strategies below suggested by Reeve (2021) are easily implemented and have shown consistent effectiveness across different performance and learning contexts.

  1. Take the other person’s perspective: Enhancing engagement starts with relinquishing the egocentric approach that most of us use to address challenges. Instead of worrying about personal consequences, try to determine employee or student preferences and beliefs. Ask questions such as “what do you prefer?” or “If you were the decision-maker, what would you do?” Ask opinions about the relevance of an assigned task or goal and determine if the objective is consistent with the individual's assessment of their skills and abilities.

    Why it works: People like choices. When discretion is offered, the probability of enhanced intrinsic motivation is improved because people are more committed to a choice than a mandate
  2. Invite performers to pursue interests: Find out what interests individuals. Explore what topics or goals get them excited to learn new things. Understand whether they like or disdain certain projects or topics. While this strategy may seem simplistic, many times tasks or learning goals can be personalized as to when and how the goal is accomplished. The most significant learning and performance gains occur when people have a high interest level in what they are doing.

    Why it works: When individuals pursue what they like they dislike doing, they feel they are being controlled. Even if the task is something that “must” be done, consideration of individual interest allows the person to gain a sense of ownership over what they are doing.
  3. Present challenges in need-satisfying ways: Universally, humans have three basic needs: to feel autonomous (not controlled), competent (a clear sense of identity and acknowledgment of what they do well), and a sense of belonging ( a social connectedness and feeling part of a group). As such, whenever we can help foster positive emotions associated with what we do and how we do it, engagement increases. Instead of seeing a task as a chore, people may internalize the goal and make it part of their identity and how they want to be seen by others.

    Why it works: When people feel competent their confidence increases. They are more likely to be persistent, overcome task challenges, and reach their goal. Their motivation increases because they become emotionally attached to the prospective outcomes.
  4. Provide explanatory rationale: One of the most important ways to encourage engagement is by verifying if the task has personal relevance to the individual. If a person thinks they are doing “busy work” that is personally pointless, there will be reduced engagement. While not all tasks can be stimulating and interesting, by providing reasons why the task needs to be done the individual will minimally understand why task completion is useful.

    Why it works: Explanatory rationale shows that the individual is valued and their time and goals are respected. This approach enhances individual self-esteem and avoids feelings of apathy and manipulation.
  5. Display patience: No one likes to be micromanaged and we all prefer a sense of freedom. Instead of constantly monitoring the person, stressing deadlines, or using demeaning styles, such as “figure it out,” try a deliberate, calmer approach. Using this strategy doesn’t mean working or teaching in some idealistic stress-free world, but it does mean to approach task guidance in a way that is sensitive to the individual’s needs. When the individual feels respected, they are more likely to seek help when needed, which avoids failure or error.

    Why it works: Showing patience reveals that the supervisor or teacher has empathy toward the individual. The approach shows that the person is treated as an individual who has important values and beliefs.
  6. Acknowledge negative feelings: Some tasks are not exciting and stimulating. Students must learn certain material that seems useless and work chores can be downright boring or seem pointless. As such, engagement-fostering leaders who want to encourage frustrated, apathetic, or stressed individuals must acknowledge the feelings of the person. Be authentic and truthful by stating things such as “Yes, you are right, this is boring, but here is why we need to….” (Reeve, 2021). Keep in mind to never say, “you must.” Instead, acknowledge the negative feelings so that the person feels like their time is valued, despite the tedium of the task.

    Why it works: People strive to feel valued, which is constrained when they feel like they are being taken advantage of or forced to do something. These basic approaches convey empathy and understanding to the individual and thus promote compliance even when the request seems unnecessary or trivial.

These strategies are designed to cultivate intrinsic motivation. While the carrot and stick approach (extrinsic motivation) can often work in isolated situations, leaders who consider engagement realize that when a person feels valued, respected, and self-sufficient the probability of enhanced performance increases significantly.

References

Combs, J., Liu, Y., Hall, A., & Ketchen, D. (2006). How much do high‐performance work practices matter? A meta‐analysis of their effects on organizational performance. Personnel Psychology, 59(3), 501-528.

Crabtree, S. (2013). Worldwide, 13% of employees are engaged at work. Retrieved on November 11, 2021 from: http://www.gallup.com/poll/165269/worldwide-employees-engagedwork.Aspx

Fredricks, J. A., Reschly, A. L., & Christenson, S. L. (2019). Interventions for student engagement: Overview and state of the field. Handbook of Student Engagement Interventions, 1-11.

Reeve, J., & Cheon, S. H. (2021). Autonomy-supportive teaching: Its malleability, beliefs, and potential to improve education. Educational Psychologist, 56(1), 54-77.

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