Share this content
Happy manager
Michael Jung/iStock

Engaging the disengaged manager

27th May 2015
Share this content

Jasmine is concerned with practical, tactical ways to bolster employee engagement, diversity and ultimately improve organisational cultures. She gives actionable advice to help HR professionals improve their organisations one step at a time and is known as a trainer, consultant and public speaker. Prior to moving to London in 2008, she was a professor teaching international business majors at the State University of New York. Her clients include PepsiCo, CBI, HarperCollins and Prudential. Jasmine's book, 'Employee Engagement: a little book of Big Ideas,' is available to buy.

Lately, there have been many articles about how employees with engaged managers are more likely to be engaged themselves.

And so it is not good news to find out that, according to Gallup, only 35% of US managers are engaged in their jobs. Further, 51% aren’t engaged, and 14% are actively disengaged. This costs the US economy an estimated between $319 billion to $398 billion every year. I couldn’t find any equivalent numbers – or any data at all – for the UK; this needs to be thought about.

What do you do when your managers are so disengaged themselves that they have no idea what is going on with their employees?

Perhaps, then, we need to focus on engaging managers too, not just employees.

There are two sources of disengagement for managers that I’d like to consider here (of course there are others!):

  • They are living in a bubble and have no idea what staff think
  • They are scared and / or worried about engaging with staff

The manager living in a bubble

“My employees are totally engaged,” Robert, the CEO of an advocacy organisation, told me. “I know, because I have a monthly town hall with them, and they don’t ask me any questions.”

It’s a common mistake to make –a manager might make the assumption that because he or she doesn’t hear criticisms or concerns raised, employees are happy.

Yet, I’d trained his staff, and I knew that the levels of disengagement were widespread and high.

Engaging the manager in a bubble

A manager can live in a bubble – everything seems fine inside the bubble, because there is a cosy buffer between the manager and the reality faced by his or her staff. The question is: is the buffer there out of habit? Or has the manager created a wall between himself and employees on purpose?

The manager in a bubble who has purposely created a wall won’t hear employees, though he might seek out views.

But of course, it’s not enough for the manager to go out and seek the views of employees – and by views I mean their fears and concerns, as well as their informed strategic suggestions – employee voice must be heard and acknowledged.

In other words, the manager doesn’t have to make the changes suggested by employees, but he or she should explain why they’re not taking those suggestions on board. That’s how staff know they’ve been heard.

So how to engage with this manager?

1. First, identify which type of bubble your manager is living in

  • Is he oblivious?
  • Or is it a protective shell?

2. If he’s just oblivious, engage him in conversation – work to build a relationship

3. If he’s purposely built a protective shell, he may be worried about what staff might ask of him.

  • The first step is the same as above, engage in conversation and try to build a relationship.
  • This is the real world, of course, and you may have a manager who truly has no interest in hearing views – in that case, my suggestion is to see what other managers are around who you can connect with instead.

The manager who is scared or worried

A few years ago, I trained a group of staff on communicating through change. The CEO sat in on the training. At one point, one employee turned to the CEO and said, “you know you can trust us with confidential issues, so why don’t you?”

The CEO paused for a moment. “I do trust you,” he said. “I’m just scared. All it takes is one piece of confidential information to get out in the wrong way, and it could have a huge negative impact on our business.”

Engaging the manager who is scared or worried

Alternatively, sometimes there is a fear that bad things can happen if the manager lets go of control. A manager might withhold certain data, not out of a desire to control, but rather to protect.

Admitting you’re scared is really difficult; however, the honesty of the CEO in the story above really landed with his employees. They saw that it wasn’t about them, but rather that he had been thinking about the implications on a big picture level, and his fear stemmed from a considered understanding of the risks.

If your manager seems to fall into this category, then here too, the best thing you can do is start up a conversation with him, and build up a relationship, so that at some point, he will feel comfortable engaging in conversation with you.

What have been your experiences with disengaged managers? What did you do to try to tackle this issue? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

Replies (1)

Please login or register to join the discussion.

By Padma
31st Jul 2015 13:16

Great article! It's nice to see an article about disengaged managers. Many a time, disengagement gets spoken about in relation to employees, not others. I personally haven't had to deal with an disengaged manager, which I am really thankful for. However, I have seen other colleagues deal with disengaged managers and I could see that they were getting incredibly frustrated with it. One way to tackle it would be to have an honest conversation about it - like you have mentioned. It might not always be easy to gauge first hand why a manager is disengaged. Having a conversation might help with. Once you've had the conversation, it might be easier to decide what you want to do next.

For insights about employee engagement, check out our blog -

Thanks (0)