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what the best managers know about disengaged employees

What the Best Managers Know About Disengaged Employees

by | Mar 21, 2017 | By Karin Hurt, Communication, Winning Well |

According to Gallup’s recent 2017 study, 70% of employees are not engaged at work. And countless studies have shown that the number one predictor of employee engagement and satisfaction is the relationship they have with their supervisor. So what do the best managers know about disengaged employees? Today I share a story from one of the most disengaged times in my life, and how my leader helped me get through.

The Secret to Overcoming Disengagement

I have a confession.

I was arguably the most disengaged freshman sorority pledge at Wake Forest University.

I’ve always been more of the madrigal singing, academic type, not much into the party scene–which I had assumed was what being in a sorority was all about. I’d ONLY joined because the Insiders Guide to Colleges had warned that it was my only chance of having a social life, and I was 18 and wanted a boyfriend.

Two months into pledging, I realized I was in real danger of failing my advanced biology class. And since I was there on an academic scholarship that required me to keep a B+ average, I was screwed.

I began to freak out in the kind of downward spiral you may be familiar if you’ve ever been (or been around) a teenage girl.

“OMG I can’t fail biology! I’m going to lose this scholarship! My Dad is going to kill me. Crap, I don’t even think I can stay here without that money. If I fail Bio, I’m going to have to live at home WITH MY PARENTS!–and then what? Work at the Renaissance Festival as a madrigal singer? Nope– that won’t even work, that Festival’s only open August through October.”

I began skipping “mandatory” sorority events. I ignored requirements like interviewing every sister about her major,  favorite foods and secret fantasies.

One day I ran into Brig, the sorority President, while walking to class on the quad. Brig had short, dark curly hair, sparkling eyes, an a personality so big everyone was shocked when they found out she was a math major.

“Karin, Do you have a minute?”

“Ahh,” I thought, “I’m not going to have to quit, I’m going to get kicked out. That’s a relief.”

I wasn’t expecting what Brig said next. “You seem athletic. Do you roller skate?”

“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.”

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

“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 big of a jerk.)

“Great, meet me on the quad at midnight. I’ll bring the skates.”

That night, as I walked up to the steps of the moonlit quad there was Brig standing there with two sets of roller skates.

As we strapped on our skates and began rolling around the quad she asked,

“What made you decide to join Tau Phi Delta?”

“I wanted a social life.”

“How’s that working out for you?”

I began to cry and let it all out.

Brig listened intently. Then she stopped skating. She looked me straight in the eyes and said softly:

“It strikes me that what you have here is not so much a sorority problem as a biology problem. If you had done those interviews we had asked you to do, you would know that five of our sisters are pre-med majors. They will help you study if you just ask.

How about this?  We postpone all your pledge requirements until next semester and we spend the next three weeks helping get you through biology. You can graduate with your pledge class and make up the rest next semester.

Because one of two things is going to happen here. You’re either going to quit right here on this quad tonight, or you’re going to stick with it and become President of the Sorority some day.

My vote is for President.”

When she returned for homecoming a few years later I asked her if she remembered that night. “Of course I do,” she smiled. And I’ve heard you’ve done a great job as President.”

Brig knew a secret many managers don’t. When dealing with a disengaged employee, sometimes the best approach is to strap on your skates.

Want more human-centered leaders in the workplace? Share this today!

Want more human-centered leaders in the workplace? Share this today?


  1. LaRae Quy

    What I loved the most about this story is that Brig was simply willing to listen to you. Sometimes that’s all it takes…a person with a big heart and even bigger ears. Loved this!

  2. Stephen

    I think you pretty much hit it on the head here; the best way to truly motivate someone is to demonstrate an investment in them. Yes Brig listened, she came up with a game plan, and she left you with some motivation, but all of it truly boiled down to investment. She was truly invested in you, and you then became vested in the organization.

    Sometimes all it takes is to feel like someone is in your corner to start fighting aggressively for their cause. Brig knew that, and by demonstrating her investment in you at what seemed like such an insurmountable time to you gave her a better ROI than most leaders would even hope for these days.

    • Karin Hurt

      Stephen, Thanks so much for your wonderful thoughts!

  3. Sam

    How relationships start is probably the most important milestone. My experience has suggested the first and best thing a manager can do is make sure the person and the job fit. Putting someone in a job they don’t fit sets them, and the company up to fail. I’ve been in a situation where the head of a group hired someone that his two most senior employees (me being one of them) said was wrong for the role, that they wouldn’t like the job. The candidate was quietly hired and as predicted, dislikes the job, struggles with the job, and everyone is frustrated.

    The next thing I’ve seen is people not being supported through early road bumps. Mr. Hurt’s story is as much one about a person taking the time to help someone through a rough spot. Doing something CREATIVE to steer past a pothole so they weren’t derailed from the journey. Rarely have I seen managers do that in spite of all the DATA showing the negative impact of turnover.

    At the end of the day, if you really like your work you’ll be engaged. If you really like your team (and don’t hate the work) you’ll be engaged. Truthfully, it’s really not that complicated.

    • Karin Hurt

      Sam, FANTASTIC insights. Your comments are a blog post in themselves. Thank you!

  4. Tom Roach

    I am fortunate that Brig is my wife…and she still connects with people and has a strong influence on those in her network. And yes, she still stays up past midnight!

  5. Karin Hurt

    Tom, Thanks so much for sharing this. I love to hear that Brig is still influencing and winning well. So much fun to hear from you!!!!


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Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt helps human-centered leaders find clarity in uncertainty, drive innovation, and achieve breakthrough results.  She’s the founder and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. She’s the award-winning author of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Powerful Phrases for Dealing with Workplace Conflict, and hosts the popular Asking For a Friend Vlog on LinkedIn. A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. Karin and her husband and business partner, David Dye, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells – building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.

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7 Practical Ways to be a Bit More Daring

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