Appreciative coaching to boost staff engagement

Bob Little explains how appreciative coaching, focusing on strengths rather than weaknesses, can help increase staff engagement – the equivalent of gold dust for any organisation. He explains the steps you need to take to put this type of coaching into practice.

Everyone who’s been to school can remember their favourite teacher. By force of personality, as much as anything else, they probably fostered a love for the subject they taught. They may even have influenced your life path.

In some ways, that favourite teacher had a similar skillset to a good coach or mentor who is using appreciative coaching. This approach encourages people to use their strengths to succeed, rather than focusing on how to overcome their weaknesses. 

Appreciative coaching’s developer, Sara Orem, an Adjunct Professor at San Francisco State University, co-authored a book on this subject in 2007, titled Appreciative Coaching: A Positive Process for Change. The authors explain the four key stages involved. The whole approach is based on appreciative inquiry, a technique which approaches issues by looking at what’s going right, rather than what’s going wrong. 

Applying these principles to individuals, Professor Orem realised that people are more productive and effective when they focus on their strengths. Using appreciative coaching techniques in the workplace, as well as at home, can therefore help people become more productive and achieve their potential. 

Focusing on the positive aspects of performance to enhance it involves a four-step process:

1. Encounter
You can’t have a relationship with someone you don’t know. So, you need to meet and get to know the person, or people, you’ll be trying to help. This will probably be via a face-to-face meeting, although it could be a remote, video-facilitated encounter. 

2. Enthuse
Enthusing people to learn and improve raises the issue of what motivates learners. Among the many theories on individual, team and organisational motivation are Douglas McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y, Charles Handy’s Motivation Theory (or Motivation Calculus), and David McClelland’s Human Motivation Theory. There are many ways to enthuse others but – thinking back to your favourite teacher – all these ways hinge on conversation. Fostering relationships with learners will increase their capacity for collaboration and change. This approach focuses on establishing and increasing trust: building on what works, rather than trying to fix what doesn’t. Learners aren’t part of an organisational machine. Each of them is a living human being and should be encountered – and enthused – as such. The downside is that this takes time and can’t be done entirely remotely. Overcoming that is a test of the L&D practitioner’s professionalism.

3. Encourage
Encouragement in the workplace, as in all areas of life, is vital. Failing to encourage those working for, and with you leads to diminished loyalty and commitment and rising absenteeism. All of this affects the organisation’s bottom line. Do it right, and workers are encouraged to learn and develop their skills – to the benefit of themselves and the organisation – and hopefully become motivated to continue doing so. In that case, you’ve helped to produce an ‘engaged’ worker, which is among the most valuable assets your organisation has.

David MacLeod and Nita Clarke’s 2009 report Engaging for Success: Enhancing performance through employee engagement argues that employee engagement is fundamental for organisational success. While employee engagement has a broad definition, one of the main descriptors is that employees feel valued. 

MacLeod and Clarke suggest four enablers of employee engagement: a strategic narrative; engaging managers; employee voice and integrity. While MacLeod and Clarke are not the only people to offer advice on how to engage workers, their advice – and following the four enablers they outline – should provide some useful guidelines for L&D practitioners who are keen to increase levels of engagement throughout their organisation.

4. Empower
To empower workers, you should ensure they:

  • Are trusted
  • Aren’t blamed when a process fails
  • Are listened to – and guided (coached)
  • Receive frequent feedback
  • Have authority to make decisions that relate to their jobs
  • Are recognised and rewarded (encouraged) for empowered behaviour.
  • Feel valued – encouragement plays a key part here
  • Look beyond themselves and their job to appreciate the organisation’s strategy
  • Provide key data that influences organisational strategy and tactics
  • Take part in goal setting and planning

Receiving frequent feedback raises a key point about empowerment which also reflects on appreciative coaching. While a key to coaching success is to focus on people’s strengths, it’s easy to confuse this with a lack of accountability. Not focusing on people’s weaknesses shouldn’t be the same as not holding people accountable. Getting people to grow comes by pushing them to go that little bit further, so they’re able to do more.

You can’t have empowerment without accountability. So, you must keep asking those you’re coaching: “Are you doing what you said you’d do?” and “Are you doing what you should be doing?” Asking those questions regularly means that, as a coach, you tread a fine line between being loved and feared by those you’re helping. Coaches need to encourage but they also need to push.

Just like your favourite teacher at school probably used to do for you.

About Bob Little

Bob Little is a communications professional (a writer, editor, commentator, speaker and broadcaster) specialising in the field of corporate L&D, who works internationally.


Different approaches to coaching by Bob Little

“Coaching means supporting individuals to improve their performance. It’s both person and performance-centred. A coach draws from the client what they already have and know, focusing on the talents that are already there.”

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