12 coaching questions that empower disengaged employees

Corporations spend a lot of money and energy on employee engagement as if there is some magic formula of training, open door policies, and performance management systems that will make people like their jobs and want to be productive.

Free lunch, a pool table in the break room and flex hours are not the answer to poor engagement. Setting clear goals is a start but can backfire and lead to entitlement without regular feedback and accountability.

Disengaged employees tend to personalize feedback, think their challenges are far more pervasive than they are and ultimately believe the situation will never change. Their egos cry out for attention. The need to be right, heard and affirmed takes over good judgment. And entitlement, low self-esteem, bad behavior or under-performance can become the norm.

It’s not the leader’s job to engage workers. It’s the workers’ job to come to work ready to do their best. Often the problem is that bureaucracy, cynicism, personal agendas and posturing within the organization can poison company cultures, especially when employees start attaching interpretive stories to factual situations. ‘I’ll never get a promotion’ is an assumption not a fact. ‘I can derive satisfaction from doing great work,’ is a fact.

The natural human condition is to thrive. No one sets out to under-perform, be negative or fail. Those are symptoms of unhappiness and disengagement. It’s hard for an employee to perform at their ‘best’ when they rarely see what ‘best’ looks. It’s the leader’s job to model and issue the call to excellence – to help employees be great in spite of the noise that goes on around them.

Leaders can help employees bypass their ego before it triggers a regrettable emotional response and the emotional churn and action paralysis that follow. Instead of just being a sounding board when employees are frustrated, help employees become self-aware by encouraging them to be a third-party observer of their behavior and the choices they have that they may not recognize. Coaching questions help with this.

Twelve Coaching Questions that Empower Disengaged Employees


1. If you were watching yourself on TV right now what would you see?

This helps the employee get out of his own head and view himself from a third-party perspective.

2. What is true about this situation and what is an assumption?

Separate the facts from the fiction. Help the employee see another wide to the story she is creating so she won’t feel victimized.

3. What would great look like right now?

This forces the employee to set a standard for himself – a great skill of empowerment.

4. What is your plan to accomplish what needs to be done in spite of the obstacles?

Here she is nudged to own her behavior and to be an originator of a solution to the challenges she faces. She can gauge her own destiny rather than being prey to a situation.

5. If an actor/actress were playing you in a movie right now who would it be?

This is a way to bring humor to the situation. The employee gets to view himself as a hero or an attractive figure who he admires. He may even identify with a character he doesn’t like, inspiring change.

6. What might be going on under the surface?

Most people have intuition. Intuition can shut down when people become fixated on one perspective. This question draws on the strength of their intuition to help her get unstuck.

7. Why are you passionate about the company mission? How do your values align with the company’s values? 

Employees need to remember why they want to work for an organization. If their personal values are in alignment with the values of an organization and the organization prioritizes those values people will reengage.

8. What signature strength do you have that can bring value to this situation?

We all have far more power then we recognize. People forget what they are good at if they don’t look inside themselves and draw on it.

9. How would you tell the story of your career trajectory thus far in five sentences or less?

This question helps people recognize if they complain about the same things no matter where they work. It also helps them realize what has propelled or limited them.

10. What are your suggested solutions to challenges you perceive the company may have?

This helps the employee feel valued as a creator and a solutions provider. It also forces her to assess the situation from the employer’s perspective.

11. What are your suggested solutions to the challenges you perceive you have?

This helps him turn his solution focus inside and realize the cause and effect of his own behavior. Here he realizes his influence in creating his own outcomes

12. What tone of voice and body language do you want to have to convey your strengths and presence? 

This asks the employee to take an honest look at himself and make a conscious choice of what he wants others to see. It builds executive presence.