Engagement as Relationship Development

When we hear the word ‘engagement’ within organisations, it is usually alongside a reference to a survey which has been, or will be, conducted to measure how engaged the company is and hopefully aim to make it more so. Our reaction can be a non-committal ‘oh’ - however, ‘engagement’ in its everyday life use engenders a much more exciting and emotive connotation. We agree to become ‘engaged’ to our partner when we feel our relationship is strong enough to sustain ourselves as a pairing into the future – we know we can support and be heard by each other, that we share a vision of the future and most importantly, we realise we have enough space around each other to grow as individuals.

This personal engagement experience links very well with the highly practical organisational engagement model proposed by Holbeche and Matthews (2012) who submit that good corporate engagement is provided through 4 e-elements:-

  • Connectedness – identifying with, and taking pride in the organisation, and sharing it’s vision & values
  • Voice – feeling informed, heard and involvedwithin organisational activity
  • Support – feeling well, being supported & enabled to do the job and feeling valued in the organisation
  • Scope – having space for growth and accomplishment, feeling autonomous and trusted

These vital ingredients for organisational engagement form a convincing match with those required for strong personal relationships. Interestingly, they also reflect the extent of ‘feeling’ involved in true engagement, whether interpersonal or organisational.

This month, in a summary of research findings from organisations, academics and research houses,  Rayton et al (2012) have provided strong evidence that raising levels of organisational engagement is positively and significantly correlated with performance and productivity. They show that engagement uplifts have been associated with considerable increases in income growth, customer satisfaction, innovation, retention and well-being. Given that the concept of organisational engagement correlates very well with that of personal relationships, one would also expect that increasing the strength of working relationships within organisations to produce similar results.

Reinforcing the relational theme within engagement, Towers Watson (2008) define engagement as “the employees relationship with the organisation, its leadership and their work experience”. But you can’t have a relationship with ‘the organisation’ an inanimate object! In reality, someone has to represent the organisation and it will be the parameters of any particular employee’s relationship with that person (usually a manager) that will have a massive impact on their engagement in the company. In their book, ‘Engage’, Holbeche and Matthews spend a lot of advising that managers need to build their relationships with employees – getting to know them, caring for them, supporting them, setting them up for success and showing empathy. They argue that these management ‘soft skills’ are now the real determinants of good versus great in terms of corporate performance, and at the same time recognise these are ‘hard’ to measure, train and develop. However, they unfortunately offer little in terms of the ‘how’, suggesting only attending ‘leader as coach’ training courses and spending more 1-1 time with your direct reports as the main development options.

In practice, one such proven route towards developing high quality human interaction skills comes in the form of relational group coaching processes. Over 6-8 sessions, small (6-8) groups of managers can effectively learn relational skills from each other using live cases to practice their interaction advances. At the same time, they will build supportive relationships with each other, and trust begins to build for them within this enjoyable experience. This in turn supports them strongly within the workplace in deploying their new-found skills and experience with their direct reports, so that engagement develops naturally.

Seeing engagement as the development of organisational relationships offers a highly practical perspective on how to improve it. Developing a strong working alliance (Bordin, 1983) within coaching relationships requires for all 3 of ‘goals, tasks and bonds’ to be shared between the parties. Given that the bonds are often most lacking in work situations, relational group processes provide an excellent mechanism for re-engaging these human connections and merits exploration in the workplace.



Bordin, E.S. (1979) The generalizability of the psychoanalytic concept of the working alliance. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 16, 252-60

Holbeche, L. & Matthews, G. (2012). Engaged. Wiley & Sons Ltd.

Rayton, B, Dodge, T & D’Analeze, G. (2012). The Evidence – Employee Engagement Task Force. Engage for Success