Waving the magic wand at work

What employees want

According to the results of a Gallup poll reported last year in a Straits Times article “S’pore staff ‘not engaged’ at work“ (8 Dec 2013), only 10% of employees polled reported feeling passionate and motivated about their work. Given the benefits of engaged employees (including lower absenteeism and turnover), it seems in the interests of employers to do more to boost engagement among employees.

An older study on local employees conducted in 2011 indicated monetary remuneration (including benefits) to be a key motivating factor. While fair compensation is cited as an important factor for creating a conducive working environment for employees (“What really motivates employees?”, Forbes, 26 Nov 2013), it’s important for employers to be aware that monetary rewards have their limitations. This is because monetary incentives reduce employees’ intrinsic motivation — referred to as the crowding out effect (Frey, 1997).

Extrinsic motivation produces relatively lower levels of task performance (read about those research findings here). Employees whose performance is motivated by a tangible reward, such as financial incentives, tend to put in less effort compared to employees driven by intrinsic motivation (assuming fair salary compensation). In contrast, recognition for work well done and guidance for career advancement in the form of coaching and mentorship are on employees’ wish list (see this list on Gallup). Not surprisingly, the study on 500 workers cited above finds local employees expressing the desire for their employers to provide and support a collaborative work environment.

According to Gallup, engaged employees are those with friendships at work. A 2012 study by MSW Research and Dale Carnegie Training articulates one of the key drivers for employee engagement — it is the relationship an employee has with his or her immediate supervisor. Building trust and rapport into the supervisor-employee relationship takes practice (here are some useful tips and guidelines), but reaps benefits in the long term.

More importantly, it is not necessary to assume that managers have an innate ability to listen and communicate effectively. Neither do all supervisors know how to provide feedback to employees. And mentorship requires bosses to genuinely care about their team. These are skills to be acquired through training and then honed for many more years to come.

There’s no magic wand for motivating employees. Dangling carrots can help initially. But recognizing work well done and providing guidance to achieve optimal performance will more likely to lead to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Executive coaching is not for life

We know a coach as someone who demands drills on the field and laps in the pool or that comfortable but speedy curtain-clad air-conditioned double-decker which delivers customers at the doorstep of the newest mall across the causeway. It’s also that classic Vespa light blue leather must-have, complete with requisite tassels, zips, and shoulder strap.

Executive Coaching

But there’s another kind of coaching that’s becoming increasingly ubiquitous.

Life coaches aim to help people reach their goals, as this article indicates. Life coaches may however not have the training, skills, or empathetic aptitude they should be equipped with, as the author of this article discovers. In fact, data from this study suggest that a substantial proportion of those who seek help from a life coach show signs of depression. As such, it seems important for life coaches to have received adequate and appropriate training. As this CBS Moneywatch article suggests, the importance of being coached by a professional life coach cannot be overemphasized. Even so, there are benefits to life coaching: Specifically, evidence-based life coaching has been shown to improve psychological wellbeing (Green, Oades, & Grant, 2006) and help clients achieve and strive for their goals (Spence & Grant, 2005).

There is another sort of coaching known as business coaching. This is where business owners receive advice about growing their business. The kind where social enterprises receive guidance from peers in the same industry under a scheme hosted by the Ministry of Social and Family Development. And in the same vein as Social Inc., the Channel News Asia programme, in which new social enterprise start-ups receive mentorship from established business owners in the same industry. The benefits are not only qualitative (read this blog), but quantitative (read this article).

And then there’s executive coaching, which based on a definition by Kilburg (1996), involves using cognitive and behavioural techniques to help a manager/supervisor improve his/her performance, wellbeing, and effectiveness of his/her organization. To be distinguished from mentorship, which facilitates an employee’s professional and career development (here’s a fact sheet), executive coaching provides a structured environment in which managers or supervisors work with the coach to identify and meet specific and short-term (even immediate) goals to solve work-related issues.

Evidence from research including random controlled studies, indicates that the cognitive-behavioural solution-focused approach brings about goal attainment, increased mental resilience, improved psychological wellbeing, and reduced stress levels. Other studies report benefits which extend beyond a six-fold return-on-investment to include improvements in teamwork, relationships, job satisfaction and performance.

But as this Harvard Business Review notes, the results can also be a bit of a mixed bag. Much depends on the coaches hired. There is certainly value in hiring someone with senior corporate management experience (“Coaching the Next Generation“, Straits Times, 2004), particularly since executive coaches need to have insight into “the demands of the leadership roles from first-line supervision to middle management to the top executive” (APA, 2002). At the same time, there is also value in hiring someone trained to handle underlying interpersonal relationship issues (“Coaching the coaches“, Psychology Today, 2009).

Moreover, there is funding available to support executive coaching initiatives. Training staff through executive coaching (using local funding such as the Productivity and Innovation Credit scheme and Capability Development Grant from the National Productivity and Continuing Education Council’s Way to Go! campaign) meets the target of enhancing productivity by helping managers and supervisors optimize employee engagement. It’s not for life but it will give you a head start in the corporate world.