The Surprising Way to Encourage Disengagement

Within three years, Mike had gone from an excited, creative new hire full of passion, energy and ideas, to a guy with one foot out the door with disengagement like carbon monoxide: invisible and impossible to smell. Here is his story.

My first year, my ideas and alternative views were “refreshing.” I was quickly viewed as a rising star and invited to the right meetings. I was pleased to be rewarded with the coveted “exceeds expectations” rating. I was constantly looking for ways to improve our processes and make the company better. The next year, I guess I got a little too comfortable with sharing my opinions. In hindsight, I could have positioned them better, but I was saying what needed to be said. And every time I left a meeting the level above (except my boss) would thank me for speaking the truth. I just cared so much about our cause and was attached to our vision.

I received a “developing rating” that year.  That’s when I knew I was going to have to leave, but I wanted it to be on my own terms. I decided the only way to survive was to just stop caring. And that’s what I did. I buried my passion and I went along, even if I knew a better approach. And that year, I was once again given the rating of “exceeds expectations.” I “exceeded expectations” by caring less, offering less, and doing less.”

Mike’s boss made a point to chime in on the appraisal with a comment: “It’s nice to have you back.”

Mike is convinced his secret was subtle, but I doubt it. I imagine other box 9 candidates with great ideas vicariously got the “settle down” message and stiffled their enthusiasm as they polished their resumes.

It’s easy to think of engagement as everyone singing along with a merry smile.

Dig deeper. Your most engaged players may be the naysayers. They may need some polish, but be careful not to rub off their passion and value in the process.

Posted in Career & Learning, Communication, confident humility, 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 recently named on Inc's list of 100 Great Leadership Speakers and American Management Association's 50 Leaders to Watch. She’s the author of 3 books: Winning Well: A Manager's Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul, Overcoming an Imperfect Boss, and Glowstone Peak.


  1. Mike’s story sounds chillingly familiar. I can remember taking over a new leadership position and being told “John” was a superstar and making the impossible happen. Two months into our working relationship he applied for a Director position in another division. Everyone who knew John was surprised. I wasn’t shocked because while he was a good worker, he never made the investment in our relationship no matter how many times I tried to open the door. He didn’t invest because he was already gone. Within a year he had not only left the division but the entire organization.

    Important message here for leaders everywhere!

    ~ Alli

    • Alli,
      Ahh yes, Savvy leaders know the signs;-) I’m a strong believer in always looking to rerecruit your A players.

  2. Excellent post and story, Karin!

    Mike’s story is a sad commentary on not only disengaging our employees but also disempowering them. I have trained and coached many Mike’s who feel their team situations are hopeless. They don’t feel valued or even that they matter unless they go along with the team leader’s ideas. Not great for collaboration. Not great for innovation. Not great for growing future leaders.

    Thanks Karin!

    • Terri, Thanks so much as always for sharing your experiences. The challenge I’ve found in many such situations, is helping them to channel their passion so that they can be most persuasive and let their voice be heard.

  3. The story of Mike sounds like the ultimate political football. On the surface, everyone is supportive and positive, but the real current is running deep beneath the surface, so far deep that guys like Mike have no idea of what they are truly facing.

    I’ve seen that happen so many times. I’ve even been a part of it. When someone comes in with new and different ideas, everyone really does want to listen. But since they are unproven, they are also a bit out on the limb. So, put someone close to monitor where those ideas have credibility and legs. If they do, you are their champion. If not, shut them down before they do harm.

    Most organizations that want to stay relevant will pay attention to the innovators. But, the real test is in whether the Mike’s of the world have any heft behind the initial ideas…it’s easy to blame the organization for being the naysayer…and yet for everyone who comes in excited about the next big idea, there are many that crash and burn.

    When to give an employee direction and encouragement, and when to see that there is nothing there but hopeful ideas with no substance?

    • LaRae,
      Wow! Your comment is a post in itself. You raise such important points of this balancing act. THANK YOU.

  4. Mike’s Story is very true and relevant in today’s world of corporate diplomacy. Sometimes when you grow, you passion and work needs something called “managing your boss’s” expectations which most of people miss and leads to disengagement as leaders are few who would encourage your honest ideas and discussions.
    This art is important in managing self and large teams at a later stage and one can still engage other too with what he wants to say and get delivered.
    Building and hiring teams with people better than self is one of the important steps leader do everytime when they want to grow and that’s where bosses fail.

  5. Thanks for sharing Karin — as those of us in the world of human potential know, there is usually other elements to a scenario such as this. Here’s another view for readers to consider. I see this as a possible coaching point for Mike. There is a maturing process (emotional intelligence) in being an effective professional…it’s having good ideas, maintaining personal passion balanced with the reality of how to maintain and share that appropriately in conjunction with the realities of running a business. I share in my leadership development seminars, the real challenge is maintaining a vision while keeping a foot in reality. In Mike’s case it’s about discipling his passion and idea sharing in the context of reality without loosing heart or professional commitment to do/be his best not matter what. Deciding to “give up” or withdraw or not contribute is defeatist, or passive aggressive, or what I call throwing a silent temper tantrum, as a response to not having things received and used as he expects. …just an additional view 🙂

    • Joann, YES YES YES!!!!! This is a multi-directional tragedy. The deeper story shows sins of omission on both sides of the relationship. Disciplined passion is a beautiful way to put this. And yes, a silent temper tantrum is never a leadership behavior.

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