Why Talented People Disengage Quietly

By Sunitha Narayanan

Coaches can use the observations and exercises described in this article to generate powerful questions that can help employees and their employers recognize the underlying process of disengagement. Specific ideas are given to help both groups address this gap in awareness so that everyone benefits from focused productivity and joyful engagement, which in turn creates a culture for innovative results and sustainable high performance behaviors.

In August 2016, a white paper, “The Chemistry of Employee Engagement,” published by Glint, Inc., reported data that is familiar to those working in the area of employee disengagement:

While the white paper gives ideas for helping organizations evaluate their systems to measure employee engagement, this article focuses on why talented, solid and high performers disengage without anyone noticing. First, ideas to strengthen individual self-awareness around disengagement are discussed and then strategies to redirect this disenchantment productively, to the benefit of both the employee and the organization, are presented for consideration.

First Identify the Disconnect
It is not always possible to pinpoint exactly when joy leaves the room. The disquiet, when it happens, seems to grow in moments -- moments that are ignored in the busyness of life. For things to truly breathe freely, Mark Nepo suggests, “we must put down what we carry.” A coach may encourage the client to “put down” their busyness and start looking at their work by asking these three questions:

  1. What helps you identify a lack of joy in your work?
  2. What stops you at a visceral level from paying attention to warning signs?
  3. How might you and your employer build ongoing, inquiring conversations about the engagement gap, without fear of retaliation?

Tools for Overcoming Disenchantment
A coach may use the following meditative exercises to help clients identify where things are out of balance.

Wheel of Life Exercise: A beloved exercise that was shared by Laura Whitcomb and her colleagues in their book, Co-Active Coaching, always delights. In this exercise, clients use a wheel that contains sections with spokes that together represent one way of describing their lives as it appears to them. To rank (0-10) their level of satisfaction in each area, clients begin at the center of the wheel as zero, create lines, or spokes, toward the outer edge as an ideal ten, with the length of the spoke revealing the level of satisfaction. The perimeter of the circle changes as lines are drawn, as not all spokes reach a ten – the final wheel is not always a whole circle! It is hard to ignore the truths in a broken wheel.

Analyzing Work: Have clients look at their job description in a new light, in terms of values, interests, and skills. In his book, Die Empty, Todd Henry discusses how mediocrity is a mindset, “a compromise of abilities and potential; a negotiation between the drive to excel and the biological urge to become comfortable.” This captures the play between vulnerability and courage because it compels us to recognize the disconnect between values (why we are driven), interests (what gives us joy) and skills (what we are good at). When clients take a bright red pencil and re-write their job description, using only their own values, interests and skills, the areas of significant disconnect between the red job description and the tasks in the current role that do not encourage feelings of engagement and joy for the client show up on paper. It is hard to ignore red marks.

Giving Permission: Brené Brown in her book, Rising Strong, introduces the concept of using “permission slips” to help individuals engage actively with their emotions. This is a powerful tool to use in a coaching conversation to help acknowledge feelings of anxiety, reluctance, and turmoil that accompany a discussion on disengagement. A permission slip allows the conversation to go deeper with compassion and creativity. One way that I have used this tool is to ask, “When saying 'yes', what do you say 'no' to?” Or reverse the question, “When saying 'no', what do you say 'yes' to?” The light of permission softly and gently brings compassion into the conversation and when that happens, the confidence to speak up gathers momentum. Staying safe becomes a non-choice.

Addressing the Disengagement
Coaches can share encouraging ways to help clients build conversations with employers about disengagement. Coaches may even sit down with both the employee and the employer to address the following issues.

Ownership: Make time to discuss the concept of shared ownership and identify the alignment between the individual and collective talent in the organization. One question to ask, “What promotes and sustains creating exceptional work in this organization?”
Expectations: St Francis of Assisi said, “You are that which you are seeking.” One way to do this is to ask the employee and employer to identify three legacy words independently and then have a dialogue with each other. This exercise helps move two separate and disconnected worldviews towards a holistic view that aligns with organizational and cultural expectations.
Resiliency: Recognize that timing rarely cooperates because the frenzy for results is ever-present in work. A coaching conversation can halt this frenzy to replace it with resiliency and create possibility, one in which both parties move beyond feeling stuck, passive and powerless. The coaching question, “If you were an outside observer listening to this story, what would you be curious about?” unlocks shared ownership towards growth. When that shift happens, the alignment of individual engagement and business results is less likely to erode.

Mindful Engagement
The pulse of engagement lies within each one of us, as does our ownership to keep that light burning brightly. Certainly, talented people can and do leave organizations. The hope is that the exit is intentional and mindful while supporting the greater good of the individual and that of the organization. Not because an opportunity to have a critical conversation was missed along the way. Not because it was easy to avoid asking difficult questions. Not because it seemed that the organization appeared to have a closed mind. And not because it was comfortable to stay safe. I believe we can help each other figure out that missing joy. What do you think?

Brown, B. (2015). Rising Strong. New York: Random House.

Glint Inc. (2016, August). The Chemistry of Employee Engagement.. Retrieved from http://tinyurl.com/h34bz6s

Henry, T. (2015). Die Empty. New York: Penguin Press.

Nepo, M. (2011). The Book of Awakening. San Fransisco, CA: Conari Press.

Whitworth, L, Kimsey-House, K., Kimsey-House, H., Sandahl, P. (2007). Co-Active Coaching: New Skills for Coaching People Towards Success (2nd ed). Mountain View, CA: Davies-Black Publishing.


Sunitha Narayanan, M.Ed, CMF, Certified Executive and Leadership Coach, works as a co-active coach and believes that the only way to go toward the life we want is by paying attention to the life we have. Her clients can depend on her wholehearted presence as she helps them create a process to craft a clear pathway to choices, opportunities and ownership. Sunitha’s hallmark style is to give clients the space to experiment without censure; to support inspiration as a springboard for learning; to invite the widest range of possibilities and practice sustainable behaviors. She can be reached at narayanansunitha4@gmail.com, and via LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/in/sunitha4.

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Kevin McNulty   on Wednesday 03/01/2017 at 10:41 AM

Great piece Sunitha...as always, great insight, with thoughtful actions for the reader to take.

Ron Elsdon   on Wednesday 03/01/2017 at 06:27 PM

Thank you for your interesting article in Career Convergence Sunitha. Given your topic, you might find my book "Affiliation in the Workplace: Value Creation in the New Organization" of particular interest. It is published by Praeger, here is a link: http://www.elsdon.com/affiliation-in-the-workplace.html

Sunitha Narayanan   on Wednesday 03/01/2017 at 06:39 PM

Thanks, Ron for reading and sharing your resource.

Tim Schonover   on Friday 03/03/2017 at 07:03 AM

Sunitha brings a great amount of emotional energy grounded in experience to her work. the the article on Employee Engagement is a reflection of how seriously she takes not only her work but her life as well. Sunitha is a light that keeps us all engaged in life and work! Thank you, Sunitha!

Sunitha Narayanan   on Friday 03/03/2017 at 08:05 AM

Thanks, Tim for providing many of us the space to do that work that matters to us. Proud to be part of the team at Promark Company, A CPI firm, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Lesley Taylor   on Tuesday 03/21/2017 at 09:55 PM

Thanks for this well written article. Engagement may look differently for introverts something I write about in my book The Dynamic Introvert: Leading Quietly with Passion and Purpose. Since 50% of the general population is introverted it's important to recognize that introverts may have specific needs. Cheers!

Sunitha Narayanan   on Wednesday 03/22/2017 at 06:32 AM

Thanks for reading and engaging. Yes, disengagement has significant preference and style components. What one or two observations stand out for you when you look at this topic from the MBTI lens?

Thanks and I wish you the best.

Lesley Taylor   on Thursday 03/23/2017 at 04:17 PM

Hello Sunitha, That's a very good question. When I did my MBTI training I learned that we are all multi-faceted and that there are 5 facets for each of the four MBTI Pairs: E-I, S-N,T-F and J-P. Too much info to go into here. BUT I think you are on the right track with your coach approach to engagement. Once an organization is aware of the fact that employees are dis-engaged and decides to take action it makes sense to enlist the help of coaches to work with employees 1 on 1. Having employees complete the MBTI Step II would help them discover what makes them unique, why they have become dis-engaged and what they need in order to be fully engaged in their work. http://www.thedynamicintrovert.com

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.