What is engagement? Outside of work we think of engagement as a commitment, in the workplace engagement has come to mean the commitment that employees have to the organisation that they work for.  Engagement is an emotional state but it is also a description of a desired organisational state in which the talents and efforts of the people are fully aligned to the organisation’s purpose, and where each person offers the full potential of their talents and energy to their work. An engaged worker feels part of something bigger than themselves, part of a collective purpose that has meaning for them. They see their contribution to that purpose as important and believe that they are able to make it to the best of their ability. And they experience their work as satisfying their needs and expectations, whether those are financial, social or in terms of the opportunities for learning and growth it offers. In the simplest of terms engaged workers are in a relationship with the organisation that is working for both parties. Organisations in the last decade and more have come to value engagement more and more as a necessary condition for success in today’s volatile and challenging work environments. Many of them invest heavily in measuring engagement and the drivers of engagement in their organisation. But not all organisations really invest in the roots of engagement, in growing and nurturing it.

For most people the representative of the organisation is their direct manager, and their relationship with their manager in large part determines their engagement. People can be engaged without a good relationship with their direct manager, but it’s difficult and relies on great individual resilience and networks with others in the organisation. The key driver of disengagement, and a prime reason for leaving a job, is a poor relationship with my manager. It’s my manager that I expect to help me make sense of and clarify the organisation’s direction and my role in its success.  It’s my manager I look to for opportunities to contribute and to grow.  And it’s from my manager that I largely seek feedback and support.

Managers that cannot connect with direct reports in ways that enable and support a healthy relationship even in times of challenge and change will be barriers to engagement – reducing both happiness and performance at work. What researchers and thinkers such as Goleman have shown us is that managers need to be able to flex how they relate to their direct reports in response to the needs of the individuals and the situation. But certain ‘ways of relating’ have, overall, a more positive effect on how employees engage than others. In particular a ‘coaching style’ has a great overall impact on engagement. 

At its heart having a ‘coaching style’ simply means managers who can have great conversations with employees.  And difficult ones.  It means managers who invest in relationships, who really listen, who ask great questions and give clear challenging and supportive feedback. It means managers whose conversations create clarity, catalysing thinking and responsibility in others rather than trying to do all the thinking for everyone and telling them what to do. That doesn’t make coaching managers ‘soft’ – on the contrary they are never satisfied with the status quo, because they believe that their people have the potential for more. They see and celebrate the positive and want more of it. They catalyse growth.

Some managers that I work with are naturally comfortable in a coaching relationship, they bring themselves to those conversations authentically and confidently. For others it’s something they need to develop, they may not feel comfortable, and may need convincing of the benefit of investing in conversations rather than ‘telling’. And the cultures of some organisations are more conversation rich than others, they promote and value genuine conversations, and the coaching capacity of their leaders and managers. In those organisation the roots of engagement are strong and resilient and will support the organisation even in the most difficult and confusing of times.

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