Employee engagement – the Australian dilemma: The role of coaching and and leadership styles

Employee Engagement & Coaching

In February 2009 Fiona Smith reported in the Australian Financial on the most recent (till then) Gallup poll of 1000 workers. The poll showed 79% of workers as either not engaged, or actively disengaged. This poll is taken every two years and the previous bi-annual results were 2006, 82% disengaged and 2004, 80%. These levels of disengagement have been estimated to stifle business productivity to the tune of $33.5 billion (Smith, 2009). Reports in the UK and US have shown similar, although slightly lower, levels of disengagement. A further insight from the poll was that the most experienced employees, those most likely to be used for mentorship, have the lowest engagement.

Gallup defines three levels of employee engagement:

The Importance of Employee Engagement:

Engagement manifests as something given by the employee benefiting the organisation through commitment and dedication, advocacy, discretionary effort, using talents to the fullest and being supportive of the organisation’s goals and values. An “engaged” employee has a sense of attachment towards their organization: They invest themselves not only in their role, but also in the organisation as a whole.

Employee engagement is a stronger predictor of business outcomes than employee satisfaction and various studies have demonstrated links between higher engagement and increased productivity correlating with individual, group and organisational performance (Ronertson-Smith & Marwick, 2009). Higher engagement levels are associated with lower employee turnover, less sick leave, higher productivity and higher return on investment (Bauruk, 2006; CIPD Annual Survey Report, 2006). Organisations with high levels of employee engagement increased their operating income by 19 per cent and their earnings per share by 28 per cent year? to?year compared to those with lower levels of engagement (Towers-Perrin, 2007). Gallup estimate that it takes five fully engaged workers to cancel out the impact of one actively disengaged colleague (Smith, 2009)

Building employee engagement

Until recently most of the focus in improving employee engagement has been on what organisations can do to engage their employees: The drivers of engagement are seen to be at the organizational level and typically include: the nature of the work undertaken, work that has transparent meaning and purpose, development opportunities, receiving timely recognition and rewards, displaying organizational integrity, an “employee voice”, building respectful and assertive relationships, having open two-way communication systems and inspiring leadership (Crabb, 2011; Ronertson-Smith & Marwick, 2009).

The above are drivers that the organization can control if it chooses: Receiving less attention are the internalised employee drivers that deliver an engaged state: What facilitates an engaged internalised state, that in combination with organisational level drivers, delivers optimal performance benefiting the employee and the individual. Recent work by Crabb (2011) examined this relatively unexplored side of the engagement equation and identified three key drivers of an engaged state:

  • Focusing strengths
  • Managing emotions
  • Aligning purpose

These three individual drivers of engagement combined with organisation drivers of engagement facilitate peak performance as per the diagram below:

Employees rarely have the individual skills to develop these three drivers. Managers and leaders within the organisation are crucial in facilitating the development of these drivers within employees: Highly developed coaching skills are valuable if they are to perform this role effectively. For example:

  • Exploring how the employee can improve their resilience by challenging their negative emotions and reframing negative or irrational thoughts.
  • Assisting employees identify where their individual values align closely with the work they do.
  • Facilitating employees finding personal meaning in the work they do.
  • Facilitating the employee identifying and measuring their strengths.
  • Developing the coaching dialogue to uncover how an employees role might be shaped to accommodate more of their strengths and fewer of their weaknesses.
  • Facilitating the employee identifying creative and practical ways to manage their weaker areas effectively.

Leadership and engagement

The role of leadership within the organisation is critical if maximal employee engagement is to be attained: Leaders are responsible for determining and implementing the organisational drivers of engagement. To be effective, leaders must authentically reflect the organisational culture and values to those they lead and to do this they must be engaged themselves.

Finally, leaders must impart to employees the skills to develop their individual drivers of engagement. At a number of junctures the adoption of a coaching approach may be useful: Coaching to facilitate high levels of leadership engagement could assist managers to reflect the organisational culture and values in an authentic way, whilst training them in coaching skills, such as those outlined above, might facilitate the adoption of self coaching by employees and thereby the development of their individual drivers of engagement.

An adaptation of Crabb’s model is shown below highlighting both the critical role of management as the interface in facilitating employee engagement, and the potential role of coaching at various junctures:

What type of leadership?

A recent study has suggested that of the various leadership styles, an empowering style is effective in facilitating employee engagement (Tuckey, Bakker, & Dollard, 2012). Empowering leaders motivates employees to achieve as well as enabling them to do so, as opposed to merely delegating responsibility and authority (Conger & Kanungo, 1988). Person oriented empowering behaviours can potentially be utilised by a range of leaders and may be manifested in behaviours such as encouraging employees to seek out opportunities to learn and grow, to reframe problems as challenges or opportunities, to assume responsibility and accountability to coordinate effectively with other team members (Pearce et al., 2003).

Empowering leadership in an organisation contrasts with directive leadership (using position power to influence employees), transactional leadership (clarification of the effort-reward relationship and motivating via rewards) and transformational leadership (motivation via inspiration, intellectual stimulation and individual consideration (Tuckey, et al., 2012). Both empowering and transformational leaders coach and mentor employees but for different reasons: Transformational leaders use coaching to consolidate leader charisma and belief in the leader whereas empowering leadership focuses on targeting the development of self-leadership capabilities within employees. As self-leadership is critical to the employee developing their individual drivers of engagement the coaching competency of the empowering leader is critical.

Implications for Australian Organisations

Levels of engagement amongst Australian workers have been consistently low since surveys started in 2004. If organisations and employees are to reap the rewards of an engaged workforce then consideration needs to be given not only to developing organisational drivers of engagement but also to developing the individual employee drivers of engagement. The role of management as the interface between the organisation and its employees in critical in this process and the available data indicates that it is failing badly. Using coaching principles in conjunction with an empowering style of leadership offers a potential solution that is both theoretically sound and practical to implement.


Bauruk, R. (2006). Why managers are crucial to increasing engagement. Strategic HR Review(January/February).

CIPD Annual Survey Report. (2006). How engaged are British employees? London: CIPD.

Conger, J., & Kanungo, R. (1988). The empowerment process: Integrating theory and practice. The Academy of Management Review, 13(471-482).

Crabb, S. (2011). The use of coaching principles to fodster employee engagement. The Coaching Psychologist, 7(1), 27-34.

Pearce, C., Sim, H., Cox, J., Ball, G., Schell, E., Smith, K., et al. (2003). Transactors, transformers and beyond. Journal of Management and Development, 22, 273-307.

Ronertson-Smith, G., & Marwick, C. (2009). Employee Engagement A review of current thinking. Brighton: INSTITUTE FOR EMPLOYMENT STUDIES.

Smith, F. (2009). Workers as Disengaged as Ever. Australian Financial Review.

Towers-Perrin. (2007). Largest Ever Study of Global Workforce Finds Senior Management Holds Trigger to Unleash Talent Potential: http://www.towersperrin.com/tp/showdctmdoc.jsp?url=HR_Services/Canada/Englis h/Press_Releases/2007/20071022/2007_10_22.htm&country=global.

Tuckey, M., Bakker, A., & Dollard, M. (2012). Empowering Leaders Optimize Working Conditions for Engagement: A multilevel Study. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 17(1), 15-27.