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We were preparing to meet a new appointee. “You know the joke about heaven and hell?” my boss asked. “Was this a trick question?” I wondered. “Which joke?” “Heaven is before the interview. The future looks pink and rosy, cherubs floating on clouds, harps playing, ambrosia. Hell is what happens when you get your feet in the door”

Sadly, for some people at work, if hell doesn’t materialise the moment they walk through the door, it may do at some later stage. Practices and policies which seemed a welcome change from their past employment may turn out to be mere words rather than enacted reality; benevolent managers move on elsewhere and untrusting ones take their place; the culture of the organisation changes because of commercial drives or leadership changes.

Result: – performance goes down, disputes go up, motivation decreases, turnover increases. All at a cost, which is both financial and human.

What makes heaven and hell at work?
What makes heaven and hell at work depends on your personality and role; the degree of autonomy, support and challenge you have; working hours and environment; ratio of reward to input; opportunities for advancement; rate of change. Then there’s the impact of perceptions and fit with individual values; judgements on the leadership’s integrity and vision; alignment with the social and environmental impact of the company. And it won’t be the same for every individual or every team.

Communication is often said to be the key to success: 75% of the message delivered on time being better than 100% delivered too late. This old adage misses the fact that successful communication starts with listening. As does understanding what will make the workplace more like heaven for a larger percentage of employees. So, surveys, focus groups and sharing the emerging findings in an iterative way, all help to create a mutual understanding of what will make people happy.

Managing expectations, establishing trust
It’s important not to overpromise what managers will do as a result of listening and gathering views across the organisation. Sometimes when people are consulted, they automatically expect their views to be acted on in full. If this is the case, when something less is delivered, or other people’s views are preferred, a “consultation” can engender increased unrest and disengagement. Start by being clear about who will take final decisions on how the views of any survey or focus group will influence outcomes.

Trust is fragile. “X doesn’t trust me” is one of the frequent complaints I hear when I’m coaching. The impact on motivation and performance is huge. So be clear about where a consultation on value to employees might lead, be clear about what might or might not be possible and overdeliver rather than raise expectations which cannot be met.

Coaching adds value in times of change
Change often unsettles workforce equilibrium. Not many people thrive on uncertainty about the future. Alongside being clear in communication, it’s worth upping the use of coaching type activities to add value to both individuals and teams.

Research conducted by the Human Capital Institute and the International Coach Federation (ICF) in 2018[i] on change management initiatives found that coaching type activities were rated as the most helpful overall. There were 432 participants in the study, including HR, L&D and TM professionals, coach practitioners and managers. The coaching activities named included 1:1 coaching, team coaching, and work group coaching, all with a professional practitioner.

Addressing leadership style was one of the most frequently reasons cited in the study for using coaching in a change situation. And experience tells us how much the quality of leaders and managers impacts on employee motivation and self-worth.

So, three key ingredients for establishing (or re-establishing) the EVP for your organisation: –
>Clarity about what’s possible

Sarah Gornall, PCC, is an experienced executive coach and Past President of the UK Chapter of the International Coach Federation.

[i] Filipkowski J, Ruth M, Heverin A (2018) Building a Coaching Culture for Change Management (2018) HCI and ICF, available from  

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