The Dust of Disengagement

I think probably what was affected was the professional development aspect of it, you know the collaborative relationship that I had with [my abusive colleague] – and we did a lot of collaboration. And so [after she threw me] under the bus… I had very little contact with her, so there was less — there was not the collaboration that there had been before. I would do what she asked me to do or she would do what I asked her to do, but it was definitely a minimal kind of effort on both of our ends. I don’t remember whether I was pursuing professional stuff at that time or not. Probably not. – Low morale study participant  (Female, acquisitions librarian)

[The abusive interaction I suffered] put a little more space in the relationship between myself and the institution…where I felt like I was not as willing to do extra things, because it wasn’t worth it. If I’m going to do– if I’m going to give more, if I’m going to volunteer for something in which I’m not receiving compensation, that has to have value for me. And what that interaction did was it changed the relationship of you know, ‘I’m not going to put myself out as much because obviously I’m not being valued, and the work I’m doing is not being valued.’ – Low morale study participant (Female, reference & instruction librarian)

I have found it very hard to care about my work. And I’ve been a librarian for [over three decades]. I love what I do. But it’s hard to care about it when you feel like anything you do is going to be held against you.  – Low morale study participant (Male, acquisitions librarian)

I got a dinner break, so I would just take really long dinner breaks… ideally we get an hour for dinner, but since we don’t punch a clock, it’s kind of up to us when we get back to work. And I’d put off getting back to work… you know, I would stretch [my lunch break] to two, two and a half hours… – Low morale study participant (Female, cataloging and metadata librarian)

These significant statements from the 2017 low-morale study data highlight one of the major cognitive responses to low-morale: reduced professional engagement. The statements expose the multifaceted ways it can manifest: 

  • cessation of person-to-person interactions
  • reduction of collegial collaborations
  • apathy towards core daily work
  • increased work avoidance/ unethical work behaviors

Kahn defines disengagement as “the uncoupling of selves from work roles; in disengagement, people withdraw and defend” (1990, 694). As the low-morale experience continues, these and other behaviors become consciously entrenched. One participant discussed a behavior that seems encompass the problem of disengagement. During our talk, we coined it planned procrastination. See how it plays out below: 

I’m waiting for people to come and ask me [for help]. I’m not being proactive and reaching out.I’m spending more time at my desk working on other things that are not work related…if you ask me to do something, I’ll get it done right before deadline — I’m not going to get it done ahead of time, which sometimes bites me if I’ve got too many things that are all coming due at the same time, but meh…. [I]f I’ve got multiple things that are due, I’ll look and pick which one is the lowest priority — which is based on a combination of what it is and who it’s for — and I’ll go to that person and go ‘hi, I’ve had a couple of other things come up. Can I get you this tomorrow or in the next 48 hours’ or you know, look for an extension. Which usually I’m able to get. – Male, acquisitions librarian

Disengagement showcases the layers of feelings and inertia low morale engenders as sufferers consciously settle into their disassociation from co-workers, the profession, and/or their workplace.  In the exchange above, we see how  anger and ambivalence caused by workplace abuse and neglect can spur passive-aggressiveness and subterfuge. The immediate impact is that others’ work is negatively impacted, in turn slowing down the long-term goals of the library organization.

Porath’s and Pearson’s work on civility highlights that long-time exposure to rudeness in the workplace results in increased apathy (2012), and similar results are shared in discussions about workplace bullying in higher education spheres (Hollis 2015).

Was disengagement part of your experience? Did it manifest in any of the ways shared above, or was it different? Did you capitulate to the other extreme to try to “right your wrongs” of disengagement? 

Works Cited

Kahn, W. (1990). Psychological conditions of personal engagement and disengagement at work. Academy of Management Journal, 33(4):692-724. Retrieved from

Kendrick, K.D. (2017). The low-morale experience of academic librarians: A phenomenological study. Journal of Library Administration, 57(8): 846-878.

Hollis, L.P. (2015). Bully university? The cost of workplace bullying and employee disengagement in American higher education. Sage Open, (April – June): 1- 11. Retrieved from

Porath, C.L., & Pearson, C.M. (2012). Emotional and behavioral responses to workplace incivility and the impact of hierarchical status. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 42(1): 326-357.


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