Employee engagement scores are as low as they’ve been for a long time. After a decade-long climb, they’ve fallen steadily since 2020 with no sign of a rebound this year. While many factors contribute to the drop, management certainly contributes. Managers know they should coach, and they’ve been transitioning from command-and-control to coaching for some time now. But coaching is about much more than just giving feedback on a behavior: It’s taking the time to get to know yourself and the people who work for you. When you’re pressed for time and under-resourced, it can be difficult to find the time to build relationships with your direct reports—but this practice is more important than ever.

Engagement Is About Motivation, Not Behavior

In his book, “The Leaders We Need,” Michael Maccoby lays out five Rs of employee engagement: reasons, responsibilities, recognition, relationships and rewards. Many leaders start a relationship with a new employee by laying out their roles, responsibilities and the expected results — but that’s a mistake. It sets the stage for a behavior-based relationship where you’re giving feedback about what employees do. Given this kind of feedback, people, who naturally seek autonomy, will resist being forced into certain behaviors and you’ll get everything on the spectrum from rebellion to compliance, but not engagement.

Instead, starting with reasons — what motivates you as a leader, what motivates your employees, how people’s motivations overlap and differ — sets you up to achieve true engagement.

Think of a buoy bobbing on the surface of the water. It’s there for a reason: There’s an anchor holding it down on the ocean floor. Behavior is the buoy that you see in employees; motivation is the anchor. If you want to achieve a certain behavior, you need to build a chain between the two: connect the motivation to the behavior. If you connect every work task to what really matters to the employee, every choice they make becomes an exercise of their will in the world.

Understand Your Own Anchors

To engage your employees through coaching, you must first understand what motivates you as an individual (your anchor) and tie your motivation to your behavior (your buoy) as a coach. According toCore Strengths research, individuals are motivated primarily by concern for people, concern for process, concern for performance or a combination of two or all three.

  • People: Individuals who are motivated by the protection, growth and welfare of others. They have a strong desire to help others who can genuinely benefit.
  • Performance: Individuals who are motivated by task accomplishment and achieving results. They have a strong desire to set goals, take decisive action, and claim earned rewards.
  • Process: Individuals who are motivated by meaningful order and thinking things through. They have a strong desire to pursue independent interests, to be practical and to be fair.

When you read about these three motives, does one jump out that’s most important to you, do you strongly identify with two, or do you balance all three? Self-awareness makes managers better coaches. Understanding your own motivations makes you more aware of innate bias and open to the fact that others have different primary motivations from your own.

Understand the Anchors of Your Direct Reports

A coaching relationship isn’t about defining the optimal way of doing something and getting people to comply. That’s because everyone’s definition of optimal will be different. Just as you must understand what motivates you, you also must understand what motivates each person on your team and coach them in a way that taps into their motivation.

  • Can you compare your primary motivation(s) to those of the people you manage?
  • Do you know how you respond when your motive isn’t being valued? Do you know how they respond?
  • Do you know how you inadvertently trigger each other?

If you can answer those questions, you’re prepared to have a coaching relationship.

Getting to know people can take time, though. Employees need paid time for relationship-building conversations with you. Even with hourly employees: Invest in them, know them, value them, then coach them from your knowledge of who they are and not simply what you want them to do. The good news is, by understanding the concept of motives and comparing the prioritization of motives, you can really accelerate the time it takes to know and appreciate someone.

Build the Chain to the Buoy

If you, as the manager, understand how and why things become meaningful to an employee, you can better coach them to do their best work.

People tend to value their own motivations most, and managers often give feedback in a manner that they themselves would find motivating. But as you build motive-based relationships, you begin to consider what motivates the person you are coaching. This will allow you to override the caution you may feel when someone does a task differently from how you prefer it done. Instead, you will be more likely to appreciate the different approach. For example, if you feel the impulse to correct a behavior, then take the time to consider what actually needs to be done, you may realize that the way they’re doing it works best for them. Then you can avoid giving feedback that steers someone away from their best self and instead, have an exchange of perspectives to mutually find the best way forward.

In addition, different projects and tasks may be more or less attractive and initially satisfying based on how someone prioritizes the motivations of people, performance and process. If you know your direct reports well enough, you can anticipate when they might not be excited about a task or project. When a manager is attuned to these situations and both the manager and direct report can be open about the meaning of the work, the benefit is a direct report who feels fully known.

Working together, both people can then identify ways that the task or project can connect to their motivations. This connection can transform the work from meaningless to meaningful. And finding meaning in our work can allow even the most mundane tasks or projects to become an engaging experience.

Your job as a coach is to understand yourself and your employees and be curious about your differences. As you think about how to give feedback differently, consider what matters most to each person and coach from that perspective. As you practice doing this, you can forget about achieving bare-minimum compliance — people will start deeply engaging with their work.