what the best managers know about disengaged employees

How to Encourage the Lazy and Disengaged

How can you encourage the lazy and disengaged? The short answer… roller skates, or their metaphorical equivalent. Stay with me as we flashback in time.

I was arguably the most disengaged and “lazy” sorority pledge at Wake Forest University. I had rushed because I was warned that nearly all social life on campus centered around the Greek system. I had never viewed myself as a “sorority girl.” I was more of the studious, madrigal-singing type. But there I was skipping “mandatory” events that felt to me like a colossal waste of time and blowing off the requirement to interview every “sister” about her favorite foods and secret fantasies. When my advanced biology class started to crush my brain, I was on the verge of quitting.

Brig, the President. pulled me aside. I felt instant relief.  Ahh, I wasn’t going to have to quit. I was going to get kicked out, even better.

“Karin, you seem athletic. Do you know how to roller skate?”  I laughed. My friend Sabine would visit from Germany every summer and we strapped on roller skates most days until dusk swirling, racing and making up shows.

“Actually, I do,” I confessed.

“Great, we need someone to do the roller skate leg of the relay around the quad for the Greek games (think high energy, silly, yet serious olympics).”

“Oh, I’d love to, but I didn’t bring my skates to school.” Off the hook again.

“Oh, I’ll find you some skates.”

“Well, I’d have to try them out and I’m so busy studying for this biology exam,” even I knew how ridiculous that sounded as the words spewed out. Clearly I was still trying to get voted off the island.

Brig persisted, “What time are you done studying tonight?”

“Midnight.” (Yeah, I really was being that jerky.)

“Great, meet me on the quad at midnight. I’ll bring the skates. The race is at 3pm tomorrow.”

As I laced up the skates, she asked me how I was liking the sorority. I began to confess. As I skated and she ran beside me around the moonlit quad, I shared my fears of losing my academic scholarship if I didn’t pass biology, my resistance of the silly interviews, and my feelings that this just wasn’t for me.

Brig listened intently and asked questions. “Why did you join the sorority?  What requirements are making this seem impossible? Do you know why we require you to talk to each sister?”

She explained the “why” behind every ritual. And then we worked together to create a reduced schedule of obligations that I could commit to and keep my academic standing.

When she returned for homecoming a few years later I asked her if she remembered that night. “Of course I do,” she smiled. “Good leadership is never accidental.”

“How crazy is it that I ended up being President?”  I smiled.

Brig looked at me full of confidence and pride. “Karin, I knew one of two things was going to happen with you. You were going to quit, or you were going to be President someday. My vote was for President.”

Posted in Communication, Employee Engagement & Energy and tagged , .

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt, Founder of Let’s Grow Leaders, helps leaders around the world achieve breakthrough results, without losing their soul. A former Verizon Wireless executive, she has over two decades of experience in sales, customer service, and HR. She was named on Inc's list of 100 Great Leadership Speakers and American Management Association's 50 Leaders to Watch. She’s the author of several books: Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates (Harper Collins Summer 2020), Winning Well: A Manager's Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul, Overcoming an Imperfect Boss, and Glowstone Peak.


  1. Engage in conversation which is what she did with you. She became curious about what you were thinking. Sounds like she empowered you and gave you the ownership.


    • Steve she really did. It’s funny, she was a math major, not looking to go into leadership at all, but she was a natural.

    • Thanks so much, Marcia. I totally agree. Our world needs more such conversations.

  2. I have been ‘dis-engaged’ on a few jobs when I was in Corporate Canada…..I wish I could only have had a leader who had this ability, natural or learned to ASK me what would make things better. Thank you for sharing Karen.

    • Linda, Thanks so much for sharing your experiences. I learned a lot from this situation on the importance of asking. It has served me well over the years.

    • Thanks so much Steve. Yeah, it’s amazing how powerful good questions can be.

  3. What a great story, Karin and I loved that you actually became president of you sorority! And yes you are a natural born leader!

    What Brig (Is that a real name?) did for you was take the time to get to know you in a more meaningful way. When leaders connect with their team members by asking questions to learn more about what motivates them, they are building deep relationships which can often lead to future leadership as with you.

    I know I am more eager to work harder when I think the people around me care.

    Thanks Karin!

  4. I love that story, Karin! I too pledged a sorority because it was the thing to do but never got over the disengagement hump. I see now that I had chances to connect, yet made other choices.

    In corporate life, I learned that part of what fostered disengagement was that someone else was always calling the shots. Early on, I wanted to throw my hat and creativity into the ring in a bigger way and some rockstar leaders I worked with encouraged me and created the space to do just that. Moving from doing… to thinking… to owning did wonders for engagement.

    • Great insights, Alli. Thanks. I so agree…people want to be involved and know they are making a difference.

  5. Karin,

    A great question – how to engage the disengaged? Be curious with the individual. Ask them questions. Find out what their ideas are. Determine what stirs a spark within them. With whatever you learn, take some action to let them know you heard them and value what they offer.



    • Jon, you raise great points here… it goes beyond listening, people need to know they have been heard. Amen.

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