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How to improve employee engagement through coaching

What is employee engagement?

Employee engagement is generally observed to be how “involved, committed, passionate, and empowered” people feel at and about work, as evidenced by their behaviour.

Think: someone who turns up early and leaves late every day – by choice! – is super switched on and meets every expectation set of them with a smile. The opposite of an engaged employee could be someone who has mentally checked out and is potentially on the verge of leaving.

There’s a lot that goes into whether employees feel engaged or not. There has to be some alignment of values between employee and employer. People need to enjoy their work, receive recognition for their achievements, and have the opportunity to grow. They need to feel like they’re contributing to something, or that what they’re doing has meaning.

From the personal motivations of the individual, to the purpose and ethos of the business, its financial state, events outside of work, personal issues, politics, the economy. It’s lots of different things. As a result, employee engagement is ambiguously defined, which makes it hard to properly quantify and measure. And it’s not just me saying that:

“We were somewhat dismayed by our search for practical definitions of employee engagement and clear strategies and tactics that managers can use to create an engaged workforce. In fact, our current review of selected and more recent works on employee engagement reveals the fact that there is still no widespread agreement on what engagement actually means…”

As an employee yourself, you know what ‘engagement’ is when you feel it. You’ve been engaged at work before. You’ve been disengaged before. And you know the difference. But it’s sometimes unclear when we try to observe or quantify employee engagement in others. It can also be a nightmare to manage, particularly at scale.

Why is employee engagement important?

Two things mainly: performance and retention. Employees who feel energised and motivated about what they’re doing are typically pushing the top end of both productivity and quality in their work. And as a result, job satisfaction. Meaning they’re less likely to leave.

A side effect of being bought in to the company and their role for whatever reason: the workplace ticks a cultural box for the employee, the work itself is rewarding and/or important, or the benefits they receive in their role outweigh what they’ve experienced in equivalent positions. Because of a greater sense of satisfaction and emotional connection to the work (and/or the workplace), employees are less inclined to actively pursue a move elsewhere. The research backs me up on this too:

“…there is clear evidence in empirical research that finds employee work engagement positively related to work performance, commitment to job and organization and job retention.”

Translation: engaged employees perform better and are less likely to leave. Loyalty and increased performance compounds over time, creating exponential benefits for businesses. So it really is in a company’s best interests to keep their employees as engaged as possible, as sustainably as possible.

What are the consequences of low employee engagement?

Disengaged employees are at greater risk of either leaving the business, or staying and underperforming. There are various associated costs that go along with low employee engagement, notably time and money spent on lost productivity and replacing departing staff.

What I’ve noticed reading various bits on the subject, is that employee engagement is often referred to as the opposite of burnout. Imagine a spectrum, with BURNOUT on one end and ENGAGEMENT on the other. And the world’s employees occupying various positions somewhere in the middle.

Is it really that simple? Is the opposite of an engaged employee a burned out one? Can we fix the burnout problem at work simply by being better at engagement?

I’m not sure. I get the feeling too much engagement might lead to burnout. But it sounds like it would help. And it’s probably a good time to try something: a recent Gallup poll found just 20%-36% of employees worldwide feel “engaged” at any one time. Which is startling when you consider what that means for the remaining 70, 80 percent.

What influences employee engagement?

For a while, investing in L&D resources and support, and providing greater opportunities for career development were seen as the best ways to boost employee engagement. And they genuinely do make a positive difference.

A lot of the literature today points at managers. They’re often identified as the people most responsible in a business for driving employee engagement. But it’s arguably an unfair position to put them in, since there’s a remarkable lack of clarity as to how precisely they should go about it: what approach they should take, what actions they should prioritise, and how any impacts should be measured.

You can ask employees, in a survey, how engaged they are. You can anonymise it and encourage them to be honest and hope the result is something you can learn from.

You can sit people down individually and ask them directly, although this runs the risk of descending into an interrogation if you don’t get the answers you want right away. A 1-2-1 interaction may also be more or less candid than an anonymous survey, depending on the relationship of the two people talking.

You can simply look at the numbers: productivity, performance, revenue, attendance, who’s logging on earliest and clocking off latest. But while all of these methods will each tell their own part of a much larger and more complex story, it won’t be the whole story.

How coaching improves employee engagement

Given that it’s hard to pin down and measure specifically, employee engagement is something you have to look at holistically. A bit like the benefits of coaching in many ways. We operate a holistic model at Sanctus. It’s how we coach people, and it informs a lot of the way the business operates.

What this means is: we don’t only focus on performance exclusively, or whether or not you’re struggling. The person comes first, rather than the topic.

People use Sanctus to work on whatever they feel is important. You can talk about your relational health, your mental wellbeing, performance at work, your physical health. And it is only really through seeing all these disparate elements come together that we can get a fuller picture of the person in front of us.

Rather than look at employee engagement as a score to achieve or any one thing to manage, we recognise there are lots of elements in play. Here are five things known to be key to employee engagement, and the difference coaching can have on each of them.

1. Setting performance and development goals

One of the main benefits of working with a Coach is leveraging the various tools and techniques they have access to. Coaches are professionals in optimising, streamlining, and improving people’s lives, and they have a range of ways to do this. From goal setting frameworks to simple ways of tracking performance, recommending daily habits to implement and novel ways of maintaining focus and productivity.

From my own personal experience with coaching, it’s more about making incremental improvements – or to use the language of business, “moving the needle” – in a few key areas, rather than attempting instant, wholesale change.

We’ve developed a system for tracking performance and development goals in leadership teams. Connected Leadership focuses more on the modern manager’s toolkit than traditional leadership development programs, charting the progress of individual managers in certain skills and competencies over time, as well as pointing to areas for further development. It’s based on five pillars you can read about here.

2. Providing ongoing feedback and recognition

Sometimes all you need is one session with a Coach to hash things out and you’re on your way. More often than not however, we see the most sustained improvements when you experience coaching regularly.

The opportunity to pause and reflect on life and work is an important aspect of the Sanctus space. This provides a regular opportunity to check in on how things are going, and to recognise opportunities and achievements as well as challenges and shortcomings – which can be the more tempting to become preoccupied with and focus on.

Having a regularly scheduled conversation with someone who actively asks “What’s been going well since the last time we spoke?” is an effective way to achieve a bit of perspective and remind ourselves of what we have to celebrate. We’ve written about feedback recently: where we often get it wrong, and how we can make it better.

3. Managing employee development

Providing opportunities for development is often seen as the silver bullet for employee engagement issues, and the antidote to absenteeism. Which makes sense: unlock potential in people to grow and they’ll feel more inclined to show up at work – in every sense.

Coaching can help people tune in to their own development needs, and provide a space for people to explore strategies for managing their own learning. Part of the challenge might be in selling busy employees on the importance of learning in the first place, not to mention the logistics of making time for it.

A Coach may encourage someone they’re working with to adopt a mindset of continuous learning, to take ownership of their own self development and look for opportunities to learn in both formal and informal settings alike.

4. Conducting appraisals

Sanctus Coaches help employees prepare for important appraisals in advance, manage anxiety leading up to the event, and debrief afterwards in order to process feedback objectively. Long term, the approach will shift towards taking meaningful actions to implement any feedback, setting achievable goals, and optimising performance in order to reach them.

With Connected Leadership, we coach managers and people leaders how to conduct more meaningful appraisals, and to inject an appropriate, important level of personality into their check ins and working day. This is the deeper level of leadership employees have been crying out for, which makes a huge difference to how engaged people feel about work.

5. Cultivating a climate of trust and empowerment

The power of trust in business is well documented. From relationships with customers, colleagues, superiors, and stakeholders – it’s the foundation for good communication in the workplace.

Sanctus Coaches offer trust by the nature of the coaching relationship – everything you say is completely confidential – and seeing the same Coach over time breeds trust, as well as consistency with the process and greater effectiveness because of it.

Coaches help you connect to who you really are. Being honest about who you are and what you want is not only important in terms of self expression, it has external benefits like being seen, appreciated, taken seriously, and having your boundaries respected.

“Trust is not only important to driving employee engagement but also a necessary foundation for empowerment and crucial to successfully working with your employees through all the phases of your company’s performance management process.”

How Sanctus supports employee engagement

Sanctus Coaches encourage and support people to achieve perspective on their work and life. To get in touch with themselves, and what’s important to them. We might even park the topic of engagement at work initially, and spend a bit of time first exploring what makes a person tick, what they enjoy. And then, working from there.

We provide space for people to reflect, process, develop and grow in a safe environment that is both separate from the workplace, and intrinsic to it at the same time. The benefits of this kind of coaching include improved work life balance, wellbeing, and communication skills, optimised productivity and performance, better focus and increased resilience to everyday challenges.

Instead of trying to manage something fleeting, intangible, and non specific like employee engagement, our approach is to focus wholeheartedly on the individual – the person in front of us. Reason being: employee engagement fluctuates, who you are rarely does.