How to deal with disengaged team members

How to deal with disengaged team members

As a project manager or team leader, if you have ever had an unmotivated, disengaged member on your team, you would know how damaging it can be for the rest of the team and the project on which you are working. How do you help them course-correct? In this article, leadership facilitator and Honorary Lecturer at the University of Sydney, Ehssan Sakhaee, shares the critical factors that support you to seek out the root cause of the disengagement and find sustainable, long term solutions.


Jun 07, 2022

5 mins read

Have you ever experienced a team member as unmotivated, grumpy or uncooperative? The first response of many project managers experiencing disengagement on the team is to react negatively, then become critical of the troubled team member and label them as ‘uncaring’, ‘lazy’, or ‘incompetent’. Even when such views are not explicit, the belief alone can be enough to negatively impact how the project manager engages with the individual in question. In other words, the project manager’s attitude and behaviour start to mirror their belief in a manner commonly known as a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’. This article explores how to use the power of care, curiosity, courage and compassion to re-engage a disengaged team member. 

Think back to an occasion when you engaged with someone you inwardly judged as ‘lazy’ or ‘incompetent’. Did you have a sense of care and compassion when interacting with that person? Unlikely. When we perceive others negatively, we are less likely to bring care, compassion and understanding to our interactions. Consequently, the quality of our presence with them deteriorates, and so does the chance of positive change or the opportunity to influence them positively. 

I’ve spoken to many project managers who are quick to criticise team members when they discover they are not pulling their weight. This confrontation often results because the project manager finds themselves frustrated by the lack of engagement before having a deeper understanding of why the individual is disengaged. A premature judgement of the situation leads to labelling the team member as ‘uncaring’ or ‘lazy’. The project manager may send an email or have a meeting that addresses the behaviour, but this does nothing to identify the root cause of the team member’s disengagement from the team and their work.

Addressing the behaviour alone generally yields an ineffective result. For instance, the team member may leave or quit the project if they feel pressured or may not perform as effectively as they would if they were intrinsically motivated. The key to intrinsically motivating a disengaged team member is to uncover and address the root cause. The root cause could stem from a variety of factors, such as a personal challenge at home, a physical or mental health issue, or loss of meaning and purpose in the project. By judging a situation or person too early and taking actions that yield a ‘quick fix’, we deprive ourselves of a sustainable outcome and the other person of being empowered, recovering from their problem, and making a meaningful contribution to the project. 

Here are four critical factors to encourage re-engagement: care, curiosity, courage, compassion

The question remains: how do we deal with disengaged team members? The answer starts with care. Care is when something is important to us. Based on the Being Framework™, “Care (concern) is when someone or something matters to you and affects you in such a way that you ensure they are looked after, protected or dealt with in the best manner possible. It is when you value someone or something so profoundly that it leads you to do whatever is necessary to nurture that person or matter and dedicate the appropriate level of time, resources and attention to them.”

Once we address care, many other qualities flow on from it and provide a greater opportunity for deeper engagement with other team members. Besides care, three other factors play a crucial role in re-engaging with a disengaged team member: curiosity, courage and compassion.

Becoming curious and not relying on automatic perceptions and judgement is key. We are all prone to prematurely judge others and situations before we get a deeper understanding of the root causes of others’ ‘irrational’ or ‘unacceptable’ behaviour. Catch your judgements, and put them aside. Then become curious so that through the pursuit of understanding, you can seek to understand these root causes through inquiry.  It is essential to get to the bottom of why someone is the way they are and that their manifested surface behaviour is addressed at its root. Inquiry helps the individual draw out the real issue and trumps advice-giving every time. Developing your relationship with awareness, vulnerability and authenticity, as described in the Being Framework, will support you here.

We also need courage to look in places where it is uncomfortable to look. Why? Because it takes courage to delve deeper into understanding problems and accessing compassion and empathy. It takes courage because we may discover things we are unprepared for or challenge our perceptions and beliefs. The new knowledge may significantly alter and influence your perceptions. It may require you to let go of beliefs you held onto dearly. However, without going deep, authentic influence is not likely. If we only attempt to ‘fix’ things at the surface level, ineffectiveness or short term effectiveness with long term disasters are generally the outcomes. 

Compassion is a flow-on effect that arises from awareness and understanding. When we are caring, curious and courageous enough to be present to someone’s suffering and pain, we can more readily empathise with them, which provides access to authentic compassion. This compassion leads to a deeper connection with the individual and the problem they face that prevents them from being engaged in the project. For instance, take a project manager who labels a disengaged team member as “lazy” and is about to fire them. Instead, they become caring, curious and courageous, engage with the team member, and discover what’s really going on. They learn that the team member is going through an emotional breakdown because their partner has terminal cancer. Compassion enables the project manager to be sensitive to the team member’s feelings and needs and make the necessary changes to support the rest of the team and the project. 

By adopting the four critical factors outlined above as a project manager, you will dramatically improve your engagement with a disengaged team member and the outcome. To recap:

  • Care: Start with care. Without care, you won’t be motivated to go further.  
  • Curiosity: Become curious and let that dominate your original sense of premature judgement and criticism.
  • Courage: Be courageous to seek to understand where you don’t want to look and be influenced.
  • Compassion: Become compassionate as you learn more about their pain and understand their perspective. 

The next time you have a challenge with a disengaged team member or colleague, I encourage you to adopt the four critical factors outlined in this article. Seek to understand the real issue and address it appropriately to ensure long-term effectiveness. By having genuine, authentic care for others and understanding their problem, you will empower them to address their underlying personal challenges and re-engage in your project more effectively.


Ehssan Sakhaee
Ehssan Sakhaee

About The Author

Dr. Ehssan Sakhaee is a leadership facilitator, lecturer, author, speaker and engineer. He has taught, mentored and coached thousands of engineers and project managers over the past decade to cultivate higher levels of wellbeing, leadership and effectiveness. He holds a PhD in Engineering and was a lecturer at University of Sydney and UCLA Extension in the field of personal development and leadership for project managers and engineers.

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