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How leaders and coaches can use a ‘coach approach’ to unlock deeper insight and create lasting value with engagement survey data.

Imagine a meeting in which the leadership team of a company, together with their coach, is reviewing the results of the latest employee engagement survey. The team is confused by low scores in how employees connect their work to the vision of the organization. After a lengthy discussion, the team decides that the solution is to take the employees through a series of workshops to ensure the company has the right vision.

At that point the coach asks, “what is the underlying problem that you are fixing with these workshops?” The team looked puzzled. A vice president explained that clearly people are not aligned. “All of our recent work done on the company vision missed the mark.”

The coach absorbed that comment and then asked, “does this group of leaders believe you have the right vision?” The response was an emphatic yes. The coach continued, “what, if anything, would you refine in your company vision?” The leadership team was emphatic that it had the right vision. There was nothing to refine.

The coach dug deeper, “if this group is strongly behind the new vision, what else might you do to help people connect their work to the vision?” There was a lengthy silence as the executives alternated between thinking and looking around the room to see if anybody else had an answer. Finally, the same VP spoke up, “could it be that we have not communicated this new vision properly?” The CFO jumped in, “We sent out a company-wide email and talked about it at our last town hall. Shouldn’t people have it by now?” An aha moment ensued.

Communication was likely closer to the core underlying problem given the strong conviction the leaders had. The truth is we need to dig deeper still. We would need to ask the employees themselves via focus groups or crowdsourced feedback to get to the true answer.

Jump to questions, not conclusions

So many times I have seen organizations make big assumptions when using engagement diagnostics. People look at engagement data and think they know what the problem is. But that is not how it works. It’s the difference between lab test results and a doctor’s diagnosis. Lab results provide clues not conclusions. A diagnosis requires the patient’s context.

Ask more questions, make fewer assumptions

Assumptions are often made out of necessity. Engagement data is a complex view of an entire system and leaders want to communicate results quickly. While we can give people a quick review of the results, lasting improvement requires deeper understanding. Deeper understanding requires more questions to arrive at the correct diagnosis. If we make sweeping assumptions to expedite the process, we run the risk of reinforcing the same pattern that created the poor results in the first place.

Use engagement surveys to inform powerful coaching questions

In my experience, it is common for leadership teams to see answers in engagement survey results, where they should see questions. It is okay if leaders do not know the underlying causes of poor engagement. If we knew the answer, we wouldn’t need to do the survey in the first place. Engagement surveys give us powerful coaching questions, not answers.

Look beyond engagement scores for deeper meaning

Typically, leaders get wrapped up in aggregate engagement scores and departmental averages. Is 71% engagement really better than 69% if we still do not understand the root cause of consistently low scores in one dimension of the survey? In the SupportingLines framework, we are less concerned with overall scores and more focused on identifying a smaller number of areas where we can make a meaningful impact.

Use a coach approach to create tremendous value

In many companies I have worked with, a significant portion of employees expect nothing to change as a result of the engagement survey. That’s actually good news. People’s expectation of engagement surveys is so low, there is an opportunity for leaders and coaches to make a difference. The key is to replace assumptions and rapid conclusions with powerful questions.

For leaders, engagement surveys are opportunities to use a coach approach and be curious. Engagement survey debriefs create a space for connection with employees and show that you truly care about their experience.

For certified coaches, effectively using engagement surveys helps you probe deeper into client organizations creating more coaching insight, additional coaching opportunities and tangible value for clients.

About Jeff Smith

Jeff Smith is the founder and CEO of the SupportingLines Institute. He has 20 years of leadership experience in sales, finance, people & culture and operations across multiple industries. His teams have generated $8 billion in new revenue and supported the integration of $10 billion in mergers and acquisitions.

Jeff is a Certified Executive Coach, Chartered Professional Accountant and recipient of Business in Vancouver’s prestigious Forty Under 40 award (2011). He is also a Certified Dharma Yoga Instructor (which earned him the nickname “Chief Yoga Officer”). When he’s not at work he is passionate about family time, practicing & teaching yoga, hockey coaching and personal development.

Learn more about Jeff Smith

Jeff Smith’s special offer to readers

The SupportingLines Performance Culture & Engagement survey can be taken as a leader self-assessment to quickly identify areas of concern. For readers of this blog post, we will offer a free 30-minute debriefing of your self-assessment results. For leaders in organizations interested in taking the survey, we encourage you to invite your current coach to the debriefing.

While our diagnostic will identify the neighborhood that your challenges live in, it will be your coach approach that helps you find the exact house.

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