Catherine Flavin

Disengagement burns energy poorly. It wears us out and wears others down. Basically, it is a problem of self awareness and being out of sorts with the current environment. It isn’t a slacker problem. It hits all of us at some point, but we typically don’t see ourselves as disengaged.

We can avoid becoming and staying disengaged by taking a hard look at ourselves, and gaining skill at managing the aversive emotions that are disengagement’s hallmark.  From our coaching and survey work, here are my top 4 signs that a leader has become disengaged and 5 steps to take if disengagement has a grip on you.


4 Signs You Are Disengaged


  1. Feeling undervalued and ineffective. Disengaged people are out of their zones, longing to again feel like a competent, connected contributor. Their pain is real and sounds like, “No one values me or the work I do…” or  “I am mired in [insert source of pain] and feel ineffective…”


  1. Feeling fatigued from arguing ineffectively with current realities. With a change underfoot, disengaged people tell themselves things should be different (e.g., merger, a financial pressure, a productivity imperative, a system change is too slow or too fast). A mix of aversive emotions – anger, sadness, fear, disgust – flows, as do fatigue and blame.


  1. Expressing way more negativity than positivity. Well-placed wit can be a godsend in times of stress; however, sarcasm can be cutting, and venting often makes things worse (e.g., Gossip, snarky comments, and excessive criticism flow too easily when disengaged, often because those aversive emotions are not engaged effectively.


  1. Hunkering down in your own role. Disengaged people often say things like this: “I am just focusing on doing my job and on my direct reports.” Why is that a problem? Doing your job well is never a problem; however, detaching from the levels above you rapidly becomes a problem. As one financial-services leader put it, “highly engaged people fill their own bucket and fill the ones above and beside them.” If you break the connection upward, it can work for a while as a coping or survival strategy; but it quickly takes on a life of its own. People come to see you as not a great colleague or a weak follower. When that happens, your work world shrinks further; and you likely do not see how the mindset you held and choices you made brought the story in your head to the tragic conclusion you predicted.


What To Do About It


Below are 5 steps you can take to avoid disengagement’s drain at work and home, and to get yourself back on solid, secure footing at work:


  • Step back, take a break, and regroup. Find a restorative space to refuel; take care of your physical self. (Seriously, you’ve burned your reserves down.)  Then, self-assess how your current behavior compares to your values.  Finally, reach beyond yourself; pull for honest feedback about performance and potential from trusted people who will tell you the truth.


  • Relate to what you feel wisely. Use the insights aversive emotions offer; resist suppressing, avoiding, or overly attaching to them. Honestly ask yourself what you feel and what is at stake.


  • Relate to negative thoughts wisely; don’t let them overshadow whatever good is right in front of you. Do not over-feed negative feelings by overthinking. Emotionally skilled leaders see brutal realities and grieve losses; but they don’t fixate on what is wrong.  They ask better questions to pull for a balanced view of reality and potential – e.g., What do I appreciate about difficult colleagues or about this crazy new strategic direction?  What benefits could come with the pressures of growth?  When have I handled a challenge like this well in the past?  In sum, they don’t let negative sentiments outweigh a balanced view of reality, however murky it is.


  • Behave like your senior leadership team matters to you. Instead of isolating yourself, connect and empathize upwards, too. Reach out to your boss and to colleagues. Talk about what people a level or two up from you need now and what you can offer. If you have something true and useful to say, express it constructively.  In addition, listen and evolve your thinking as you hear from them.


  • Evolve how you use your strengths and how you add value. If you are out of your zone, build skills quickly (e.g., master a new system rather than complain about it). Consider letting go of habits that don’t work anymore. Find creative ways to work from your strengths on things that you care about, and meet a real need of the organization today.


If you find you are truly in a situation that offers very limited chances to engage effectively (perpetual under-use of your top strengths or skills, mired in bureaucracy, unethical behavior, leaders who are nonresponsive to persistent concerns, excessive work-life imbalance), of course, you can choose to make a change.  If you decide that is your best option, you’ll feel better having done the work above to make sure your own house is in order first.  It is also a good bet that, having done the work above, new possibilities are likely to open up where you are.


Read more about how to cultivate self-awarenesss ( to keep you engaged and reduce risks in a changing environment.


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