Three meetings in three days with corporate training professionals recently left me with a strong sense that employee engagement, and the lack thereof, is on everyone’s minds these days. Each of the leaders I met with looked at the engagement challenge through a different lens, including employee turnover, performance and a tight labor market. But the inability for their mid-level managers to master engagement among the larger employee base was the issue that got them all nodding about what needed fixing in their organizations. Employee engagement as it relates to retention was their major concern, because turnover costs to the company are most direct when an employee leaves. Even though the price of employee turnover is job-specific, it typically runs into the tens of thousands of dollars per employee lost.

These conversations started me thinking about where I see the engagement lightbulbs go off with my clients and what is happening when those switches aren’t flipped. It made me think hard about what true employee engagement really looks like and how little it looks like the primary solutions I hear discussed (e.g., more employee communications and game rooms on every floor). It made me wonder why we spend more and more on training and yet struggle to train managers to engage their employees.

Why Doesn’t Training Improve Engagement?

The leadership skills that engage employees most reliably fall under the umbrella of emotional intelligence (EQ) and soft skills. If you google “EQ and soft skills training,” of course, you’ll find any number of training offerings. However, the typical training model is poorly constructed to actually shift people’s behavior, because soft skills are fundamentally shaped by the cultures in which we live and work. Soft skills are:

  • Modeled and reinforced by our surrounding cultures
  • Rooted in personal experience dating from childhood
  • Changed based on experience, not knowledge

The typical training format and framework, even in experiential learning environments, are unsuited to addressing these cultural and reinforcement factors. They are focused on knowledge and giving people a taste of the kind of change we hope they will come to thirst for. By contrast, I find that sustainable change in behavior only occurs over time, and only when constantly reinforced and personalized.

What Does Effective Employee Engagement Training Look Like?

I have a senior manager coaching client, Laura, who was struggling with another employee on her team. She was having a hard time getting him to engage. She told me that this lack of engagement showed up as apathy, distraction, belligerence and an unwillingness to collaborate. She tried rewards and recognition when this person performed well, and while it had a briefly positive impact, things quickly went back to the way they were. Laura went through management skills training and was doing everything the company trained her to do, including ensuring the employee’s evaluation and other paperwork is processed and holding regular informal feedback sessions. So far, she said, “Nothing has worked.”

Fifteen minutes into our conversation, we uncovered a critical step Laura missed: She was holding feedback sessions as she was trained to do, but she wasn’t really listening to her employee’s concerns or providing him clear feedback and guidance on what he cared about most. Most of Laura’s time in these sessions was spent telling him what she thought he should know; in other words, her feedback went one way. Somehow, Laura missed the “importance of listening” message in the training she received, or, more accurately, she didn’t connect that aspect of the training to her challenge with this particular employee.

After our discussions helped Laura see how her own beliefs prevented her from listening to her employee more deeply, and after she took two weeks to practice listening, Laura’s engagement challenge with this employee began to improve.

Ironically, our coaching session occurred in the middle of a fairly traditional training program, not dissimilar to the training session where Laura failed to connect the dots. However, there is one important difference between our training session and her previous one: We expanded the learning over many weeks; delivered it in smaller chunks, including video and worksheet content she could do on her own time; and built in feedback loops so Laura and the other participants had the chance to practice what they learned and discuss that practice in a private group format. In this framework, all the participants had lightbulbs going off pretty consistently for weeks, and they saw their employee engagement challenges begin to transform into engagement successes.

It was the personalized coaching component that connected the dots for Laura, but traditional coaching models are based on expensive one-on-one interactions. Powerful and affordable group strategies that integrate coaching can focus on the tactical, behavioral outcomes and provide cost-effective training. Unlike typical soft skills training, this “coaching-inside-a-training” approach is focused on providing opportunities to learn and practice effective personal interactions, where soft skills are built. Those soft skills, then, can counter the pull of the surrounding cultural defaults. This is why the coaching paradigm is so valuable; it helps people address their personally entangled soft skills deficits. Coaching, with its personal focus and accountability framework, provides the opportunity to meet each individual “where they are” and help them discover the behavior shifts that they can personally sustain – even in a group setting.

Most organizations can be more creative in addressing the hidden costs of talent development and retention. I always suggest to my clients that they invest in the win-win, supporting the individual employee’s well-being, personal effectiveness and career development while also upgrading behaviors and skills that will pay off for their company and their customers in the form of increased productivity, reduced conflict, improved collaboration and improved brand communications. With this objective, a win-win is the only viable outcome for the employee and the company.