I’ve kept a deep, dark secret for more almost 20 years, and in the spirit of soul-cleansing honesty I’m confessing it now: I once worked eighteen months straight, entirely disengaged from my job. There, it’s out, and it feels good to get it off my chest.

It clearly wasn’t my fault, though. I mean my whole team packed it in. The people I worked with had been talented, creative, hard-working people who poured themselves into the company and each other, but when things at the company changed, those same people and I collectively ‘quit’ without actually leaving the company.

In the 18 months that followed we kept our heads down, mouths shut and did exactly what we were told to do, just enough to get by without getting fired. We felt justified in our disengagement. New technology changed the way our team’s work would be completed and called into question the validity of everything we had previously done. Suddenly, our competence and integrity were questioned in every memo and meeting.

I’d never met our senior leaders before but suddenly faced them in weekly panels to defend my work. To make matters worse, my supervisor literally kicked me under the table when he didn’t like my answers, the kind of kick that visibly startles you and leaves shoeprints on shins. No lie. We felt defiantly justified in our decision to disengage because we were, after all, the victims. We had been wronged, and the company wouldn’t get an ounce above the minimum from us.

Years later, I now understand how poorly I handled things. The bottom line is I made the decision, a choice, to disengage from my job. New circumstances complicated my situation, but I’m only accountable for myself, and there were far more responsible and productive responses to my situation. I took the easy way out by disengaging.

What should I have done, and more importantly what can you do if you find yourself in my shoes, disengaged at work? Here’s a three-step alternative to disengagement:  

  1. Don’t Play the Victim

It’s so easy to play the victim when things turn sour. I had a mountain of great reasons to disengage: a crappy boss; insufficient pay; a thankless job; a finger-pointing culture; crazy-high stress levels; my list went on and on. Valid or not, I accepted all these excuses as truths so I could feel justified to disengage. It was everyone else’s fault, and I bore no blame for my situation. I absolved myself of any wrongdoing and settled in for a nice long lowering of the bar.

You just can’t do this. As soon as you become the victim, you give yourself permission to behave in ways you normally wouldn’t. Fight hard against this because your integrity depends on it. Get angry about the temptation to disengage and refuse to believe there’s no other choice. You always have a choice. Which brings me to…

  1. Be Accountable for Your Choices

You’ve heard this simple truth before: we can’t control what happens around us, but we can control how we respond to it. Disengagement is a choice, just like it was mine years ago. Make no mistake: disengagement is an active decision to go inactive. It’s a choice that conveys tacit approval of your situation, essentially saying “I give up and accept all things the way they are.” If you accept accountability for your own disengagement, it’s hard to keep playing the victim.

Instead of disengaging, commit to making things better. Refuse to accept dysfunction and, more importantly, refuse to participate in it. Beginning with yourself, refuse to accept mediocrity. Engage others who want to see positive changes. Dare to improve things and stay focused on what the future would look like if everyone cared.

In other words, be part of the solution, not part of the problem.  Then, you can….

  1. Do Something About It

Go on the offensive to fix things. Constructively engage leaders, peers and anyone who will listen to get them on board with you. Volunteer to lead or participate in an initiative to raise morale and engagement. Read up on the financial benefits of employee engagement and present a compelling case to your leadership (start with a simple internet search for “financial benefits of employee engagement”). You don’t need to have all the answers; you just need passion and commitment to get started. Once you have leadership on board and engage others, you will figure out the answers as you go.

When All Else Fails…

If you earnestly try but fail to see things improve, I still challenge you to resist the easy choice of disengagement. Your career is way too long for you to be unhappy in a job you don’t love at a company you don’t care about. Instead of disengaging, find a new company where you can start fresh and be happy again, and leave with a clear conscience knowing you tried to make it work. You owe that to yourself.