Shades of Grey: The Nuances of Team Disengagement - Ideas for Leaders
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Shades of Grey: The Nuances of Team Disengagement

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As leaders and organizations strive to increase engagement, new research shows different nuances to disengagement that undermine the engagement effort. Some teams are pseudo-engaged, with individuals behaving as if they’re engaged but only interested in their own welfare. Others are contented rather than being disgruntled, deciding they want to do the minimum and no more.


Despite the focus by managers and thought leaders on the power of employee engagement to improve individual and organizational results, the world of business seems to continue to be befuddled by how to get employees more engaged. A new study explores the question of engagement at the team level, since in a world in which collaboration and teamwork are the linchpins of organizational performance, team engagement is more important than ever.

The research is based data from 195 employees in 28 work teams, spanning 7 industrial sectors. The researchers collected the data through observations, interviews, focus groups with teams and questionnaires. 

Parsing the data, the researchers found that the dichotomy of ‘engagement’ or ‘disengagement’ was misleading. Instead, four different levels or ‘zones’ of engagement emerged from the research. 

Zone of Contentment. Twenty-one per cent of teams were located in the Zone of Contentment. Contented teams don’t push themselves. They never go ‘above and beyond,’ happy, instead, to do the minimum and go home. On average, members of these teams may be older than members of other teams and as a result of this longevity, they may just be coasting till retirement. 

Zone of Disengagement. Thirty-two per cent of teams were located in the Zone of Disengagement. A high level of mistrust is one of the distinguishing characteristics of disengaged teams. There is infighting between team members, who often form into warring cliques; team members don’t feel valued and respected; and a blame culture permeates the team. The leaders of these teams, often imperious leaders who do not listen to others and exhibit volatile behaviour, bear a major portion of the blame for the negative team environment.

Zone of Pseudo-Engagement. Twenty-one per cent of teams were located in the Zone of Pseudo-Engagement. While team members may take initiative, these behaviours are not for the benefit of the team but for the benefit of the individual. True teamwork is absent in these teams. Instead, team members play the system for their benefit, for example, by filling their time with busy work to appear to be engaged and active. They also ‘manage up’ — doing what it takes to garner the team leader’s favour. Team leaders themselves are also focused on their own success (ingratiating themselves with executives, for example) than on the success of the team. This zone is especially nefarious since seemingly proactive team behaviours can disguise the negative team climate.

Zone of Engagement. Twenty-five per cent of teams were located in the Zone of Engagement. Team members support each other, personally and professionally. They work together and actively seek solutions. They feel empowered and valued by their leaders and each other. They go above and beyond, and they have fun doing it. Team leaders, set high standards, support their employees to enable their success, and display their respect for their employees. As a result, these teams are deeply committed and connected to each other, which leads to superior performance.


Since team leadership is a major influence in defining a team’s zone of engagement, there are steps leaders can take to address issues and problems and encourage positive behaviour. Selected actions that leaders or organizations can take in the different zones include the following:

Teams in the Zone of Contentment. Through honest conversations, help team members acknowledge that they are in this zone and gauge whether they can become engaged. Perhaps varying work, introducing new projects or bringing in new blood may make a change. If change is not possible, because of age or attitudes, use the team accordingly, for example in back office functions where routine is as important as initiative.  

Teams in the Zone of Disengagement. The team leader is often a major cause of problems and should be replaced with team leaders who demonstrate emotional stability and strong people skills. Work also with team members, giving them more autonomy, offering regular and consistent feedback, and treating all team members equally. Remember, disengaged teams have rarely been consulted and appreciated; any steps in this direction should help.

Teams in the Zone of Pseudo-Engagement. Set team targets and explicitly reward teamwork: team members must learn that the success of the team, not the individual, is paramount. While as individuals they must perform, team members should understand that ‘looking good’ individually at the expense of the team is not valued or rewarded. Also, strengthen the connection between team members by co-developing a shared purpose. Other connectivity initiatives, such as social activities, can also help.

Teams in the Zone of Engagement. Although this team is performing at a high level, leaders should not get complacent. Set new challenges to excite team members, share and rotate leadership to foster distributed leadership, ensure regular feedback to keep individuals and the team growing, and celebrate success consistently.

In general, ensuring that people are given challenging and varied work, that they feel they can trust their colleagues, and that they can trust and respect their leader is essential in fostering engaged teams. In addition, the researchers warn that leaders should use of engagement surveys carefully, as they do not always reveal the whole picture of engagement.



  Amy Armstrong’s profile on LinkedIn
  Sam Wilkinson’s profile on LinkedIn
  Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School Executive Education profile at IEDP


Shades of Grey: An Exploratory Study of Engagement in Work Teams. Amy Armstrong, Sharon Olivier & Sam Wilkinson. Engage for Success/ Ashridge Executive Education/ Oracle Study (November 2018)

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Idea conceived

November 1, 2018

Idea posted

Mar 2019
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