Employee engagement - how can coaching ensure employees don't become stagnant in their roles?

By Kevin Dougall

How can coaching help organisations to exit out employees who have become stagnant in their roles? Kevin discusses how the approach to the problem of disengaged employees starts with the organisation. What can organisations do to ensure an open and honest culture and promote employee engagement, and how can coaching strategies help with this?

Is coaching the right approach?

It is an interesting and challenging thing to pose the question of exiting out employees to a coach, as it is not usually within the remit of a coach to assist a company to get rid of an employee.

'Getting rid' of someone sounds quite brutal but the truth of the matter is, it is. Why dress it up? It is akin to referring to humane killing or being killed by friendly fire. What is humane about killing and what makes being killed by friendly fire any more acceptable or less shocking?

Any organisation that cannot, or will not, be open and honest has a fundamental inherent problem. I will come back to this.

Turn a problem into an opportunity

The cost of losing any employee is high, with much of the true cost hidden, such as the negative effect that it can have on other people’s morale. It also takes time, and money, to recruit and induct a new employee. So why not try and resolve the problem before losing the employee?

Look at the issue from the opposite direction; and turn a problem in to an opportunity – for both the employee and the company.

 Engagement & learning - keen to retain employees

First of all, find out why the employee has become stagnant. One could reasonably assume that the person’s performance was below par and has been for some time. Why not then focus on improving their performance? If the person’s performance improves, it is highly likely that they will be much happier and will be more likely to stay put.

Improving performance is not particularly difficult, albeit that it will take time and effort; and it may be some time before sustained improvement is seen.

Why is it not difficult? It is widely recognised that optimum performance is achieved when we learn through our job, combined with a strong sense of fulfilment. In other words, performance can be improved if an organisation is focused on learning and fulfilment.

 Promote an energetic organisational culture

Providing new training opportunities may be difficult in some cases, particularly where a job is based around repetitive and mundane tasks. But it's not impossible. Introducing variety by regularly changing roles, whereby people need to learn new skills, can alleviate this particular problem. Investing in enhancing people's general skills is yet another way of doing this.

A school where I coach the executive team has realised that the staff can learn just as easily as the pupils. They have introduced lunchtime and evening classes for staff covering a wide and varied curriculum. People can learn skills that they can use outside of their work, for example cooking and gardening. It's still too early to tell how this has improved overall performance, but already there has been a marked fall in absenteeism. The headteacher commented that there was a “buzz about the place”.

I suspect that she was referring to increased energy levels, among both staff and pupils. If the staff have energy, the pupils will pick up on that and their own energy levels will improve.

 Employees must be able to communicate freely

So what has energy got to do with performance? Everything is the simple answer. Performance has been described as potential plus energy minus interference. Potential is improved through learning. Energy is improved by a combination of learning and the sense of fulfilment that we get from our job.

Interference is often the most difficult issue to address and reduce. Interference, in the context of performance, can include many things, both at work and also away from work.

Possibly the easiest and most effective way to reduce interference is to create a safe, non-judgemental environment. An environment where people feel safe is one where ultimately they can express their thoughts and ideas without fear of criticism and ridicule. The focus is on what people get right and not what they get wrong. Communication needs to be open and honest if a safe environment is to be established and maintained.

 Organisations need to trust employees

In terms of coaches helping organisations exit out 'stagnant' employees, it is evident that communication is anything but open and honest. Open and honest communication is centred on trust.

Trust is the bedrock of any relationship and if the organisation cannot be trusted to be open and honest with its people, then it is not particularly surprising that they have an underperforming employee. The likelihood is that they have a number of employees who are not performing well.

So, my advice would be that the under-performing employee is the 'outcome' and the 'source' (of the problem) is actually the organisation.

 Coaches need to be honest with organisations

Telling an organisation that they are the cause of the problem of disengaged employees is not going to go down well.

However, if we are intent on coaching organisations in creating safe and non-judgemental environments, then we must be open and honest with them. To do otherwise would be to undermine our own values.

 Performance - a tricky business for all

 Consider the following questions around performance:

If the pass mark for an Oxbridge first is 70%, achieved in an environment that is focused purposefully and solely on passing the exams, why do we expect people to be right 100% of the time when they are at work?

And why do professional footballers miss the goal so often when they spend so much time training to complete that very simple task?

 Perhaps there is hope for us mere mortals after all.