Coaching: Beware the Hype & Hyperbole 6 processes that threaten its very raison d’être …

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Preamble

This blog is not about decrying Coaching as much as it is about safeguarding and insulating Coaching from the onslaught of the hype and dysfunctional processes.

Demand for coaching in the last few years has gone through the roof. Diverse institutions and coaching academies offering skilling, training, and certifications are prospering; riding a wave of aspirants – including trainers, consultants, executives seeking alternate careers in their mid-lives, and entrepreneurs. The ecology construed around Coaching is burgeoning with multiple stakeholders, global and local – responding to a growing demand from the industry.

HR leaders and corporate denizens are subscribing to a belief that coaching is the new panacea for all kinds of ills that impact managers and leaders – and this has led to a certain hype around coaching. My opinion is that it is this hype and associated noise or hyperbole that perhaps threatens to puncture this mushrooming ‘industry’ which is already burdened with low entry barriers, opportunistic coaching academies, naïve customers, and ‘imported’ expertise from the west.

I fear that unless this noise is deconstructed and dismantled, coaching would be set up as the promised holy grail – to bring in energy and vitality to scores of individuals, but may never deliver.

There are unconscious processes that need to be explicated and worked with otherwise Coaching may be doomed to fail in the long run. In this blog, I would like to highlight six such processes that need to be mulled over by both the Coach and the Coachee as they sign on to a psychological contract imbued with expectations and phantasies.

 

  1. Corporate Sponsorship & the process of reinforcing Instrumentality

Many of my fellow-coaches have highlighted the trend that coaching assignments are largely paid for or sponsored by the corporate organization – large, small, family owned, global etc. Corporate organizations are enmeshed in an ideology of market capitalism that reinforces instrumentality – how can each of us as an instrument add value to the context that we are a part of?

Regardless of any espoused agenda – “that we are coaching you for your own good”, or “for unleashing your potential” etc. – there is an unconscious internalisation by the Coachee, that – “Coaching MUST make me into a better instrument, so that I can impact revenues, profitability or any other goal

This process of making oneself as an instrument of performance has many consequences in the short to medium front. Firstly it accentuates a process of alienation – where the coachee is unwilling to look at desires, dreams, fantasies, tiredness, fatigue, spirituality, notion of collectives, or any agenda that goes against instrumentality.

Secondly it creates resistance – bolstered by unstated or even denied anger at the purposiveness of the contract, within the Coachee, and blocks any new enquiry or explorations.

Lastly it burdens the Coach to renege upon the coaching dharma, and focus more on the immediate gratification of this instrumentality – work on generating quick solutions and practices that makes the Coachee a superior instrument.

Thus most Coaches and Coachees get constrained by the expectations of impact, performance, and instrumentality – largely because the coaching contract is underwritten by corporate funds.

 

  1. Subverting Andragogical Axioms – Unwilling to discern Process from Content

The Coaching practice is usually accepted as a learning process influenced by andragogical principles. The andragogical principles assume the coachee to be self-directed and autonomous, wanting to learn, and willing to experiment and apply. A key assumption is that the Coachee does not want to be told what to do but may seek guidance and a space for dialogue with the coach.

However these very same principles underlying learning / andragogy get thwarted when the Coachee is looking at the content and not the process of engagement. Spoiled by a templatized orientation (quite rampant in large scale ITES companies), often the Coachee wishes for quick-fixes from the Coach.

Thus the Coach is evaluated on the content level offerings including subject matter expertise, experience of similar problems and solutions, and knowledge as opposed to be someone who accompanies the coachee in his or her learning journey.

In the Indian context as opposed to the other cultures, the Coachee often refuses to discern and value the process dimension of the relationship, and seeks content as a dependent child. The Coach’s need to be seen as Guru or at least an SME, gives energy to this collusion, and subverts any real learning.

 

  1. Blindness to the Constraints of the Organizational Context – Ecology and Culture

Often the organization wishes to see a magical transformation of a high potential leader, without willing to look at the context that brought him or her in the first place. Often, the coachee is expected to grow courage where the context is extremely oppressive and dangerous, or the coachee is expected to be more empathetic when the context demands him or her to be abrasive and aggressive or the coachee is expected to be more strategic when the context is that of survival within a VUCA world.

The larger context is scary, complex, and unweildy – and it is so seductive to work with the individual.

Thus like Mullah Nasrudidin discovers that it is easier to find the elusive ring under the light of the street lamp as opposed to hunt for it in the darkness of the jungle where it might have been lost, merely because the street lamp is comforting, we often get to notice – it is better to work with an individual as opposed to really exploring the larger context.

There are unconscious processes of denial – of the power of the overwhelming context that renders one as impotent – that lays the foundation of a coaching assignment. It is then when the Coaching relationship focuses on only Coping skills of the Coachee, as the external context is too scary to work with.

Many large organizations choose not to look at their constraining and oppressive structures, policies, and cultures – as working with these elements can get too complex and frightening.

Its far easier and rather sexier to reduce the complexity of the context to an individual and his or her developmental agendas.

Nobody gets hurt in this agency orientation!

 

  1. Abdication of existing leadership towards capability building

Decades ago, a manager, a supervisor, and a leader of course, were held responsible and accountable for the emotional growth, intellectual development, and maturation of his or her direct reports. Contingency leadership models were designed and pedalled to management all over, exhorting them to work with both the task and relatedness dimensions of their roles.

But the manager, the supervisor, and the leader got steadily distracted from these duties and responsibilities as business became more complex and demanding. Financial performance of the firm became more important and rewarding than investing one’s energies into others.

For sure, the HR function ‘appeared’ like a fairy godmother to the busybees – the leaders, managers, and supervisors – and the function was set up and had to be ‘perceived’ as the staff function to take care of such responsibilities including the growth of the people. The supervisor, the manager, and the leaders heaved many a sigh of relief as they could now legitimately continue to make more money for their stakeholders without having to think about their people – for these had to be nannied by the HR function.

However this fragile arrangement was shortlived as several HR managers got wiser to the overall ideology of abdication – the abdication of the management responsibilities towards their employees when it came to growth and maturation, and hopped onto the outsourcing bandwagon of using external coaches!

I strongly believe that the emergence of the coaching practice is also to do with the abdication of the supervisor and the manager – not to assume responsibility for the reporting individuals and teams.

This abdication creates resentment and anxieties for the Coachee – who now looks upon the Coach as the messiah or the saviour at best but more likely to treat the Coach as the surrogate parent or the Nanny.

In some of the triadic relationships between the Supervisor – the Coachee cum Direct Report and the external Coach, sometimes a much more basic and primal psychodrama gets played out – the abandoned child (Coachee / DR), the absent parent (Supervisor) and the Nanny (Coach). In some of these triadic relationships, the nanny (Coach) receives the sighs of disappointment and frustration from the absent parent, and has to deal with the tantrums of the abandoned child. This psychodrama sabotages the original intent of Coaching.

 

  1. Looking at Coaching as a surrogate for Therapy!?

In the coaching arena worldover, there is a growing number of psychoanalysts, therapists, and counsellors that are donning the hats of a Coach. These professionals bring in an excellent set of skills and knowledge, and practices to engage with the diverse demands of the Coachee.

However one fears that unconsiously, the client (Coachee) may also look at coaching as therapeutic even though these professionals do not intend to be so. The notion of therapy is built on the concept of sickness – and in these parts of the world, sickness is held with trepidation and tremendous shame.

Often, the sponsor says to a coach – can you help (read ‘fix’) this Coachee?

While I do not doubt the need for therapy nor do I doubt the skills of the therapist – what leaves me in dismay is that there is no questioning of why the Coachee got sick in the first place?

I suspect that this query of how and where the sickness comes from has to do again with the organization as a system – its culture, practices, values, ethics, and its context.

Coaching relegated to therapy in any form is still a reactive stance – it shames the Coachee and yet does not posit serious questions to how the afflictions and the sickness comes to be in the first place.

 

  1. This System or the Next – the ramifications of splitting

Often the Coach-Coachee relatedness gets imbued with intimacy, magic, and warmth, that only reinforces the alienated context of the Coachee – for now he or she can draw comparisons with relationships outside – relationships with authority figures, with peers, and with friends.

One of the unintended consequences is that the Coachee often splits a complex reality into comparative relationships – relationship with the Coach, who seeks to bring alive the dreamer, the romantic, unleash the magic, heal the hurts et al, and relationships with an existing organizational system that may be bordering on exploitation and manipulation.

Naturally, the splitting renders the latter world of task systems as oppressive, dry, and lonely. It is a bit like when an individual attends a lab or a GRC, and emerges from an intense space to question his or her context – except that in Coaching – this process is not limited to 5 or 10 days – but runs across weeks and months.

Often the Coachee is tempted to look beyond his or her context as a consequence – unless he or she understands this splitting phenomenon. Often I have discovered that this comprehension (painful as it is) is sacrficed to keep the coaching contract alive, and in ths process there is forced attrition. In my journey as a Coach, I have found a high percentage of Coachees wanting to look beyond – seeking a new adventure or new meanings, and they believe that the first step is to exit from current systems.

While some of them cannot be blamed for this decision – it does come as a shock to organization sponsors and supervisors who believed that they are really investing into this high potential manager.

 

Conclusion

Many of the processes that I have written about are based on my acute experiences with coaching assignments that clients have trusted me with. I sense their dilemmas and their dissatisfaction with how Coaching is being presented as the new panacea. I believe that these and many more need to be dialogued while contracting with each client.

I do hope you like this piece and would love to hear from you on your experiences and insights.

 

My context

I write this blog, as some of my colleagues are getting together to give shape to a new coaching paradigm in TAO, away from the anglo-saxon assumptions around learning and coaching, and wishing to integrate the Indian context including our notions of spirituality, growth, and philosophy.

What was initially an internal paper on some of the dangers and threats around existing coaching practices has taken the form of this blog.

I owe my energy to write this particular blog from my conversations with Raghu Ananthanarayanan, Sarbari Gomes, Abhay Phadnis, KS Narendran and Snigdha Nautiyal – each of them is a successful and brilliant coach in his or her right.

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10 thoughts on “Coaching: Beware the Hype & Hyperbole 6 processes that threaten its very raison d’être …

  1. Dear Gagan,

    I tried writing the response twice before but my iPad for some reason decided to disagree with me, and hence after writing long responses it froze and eventually lost the response. That was afternoon. I am hoping that I have retained my chain of thoughts since then as I write now.

    Thank you for a very well written post. I could not agree with you more on all the points. You have pointed out the maladies that most organisations are struggling with today.

    I would like to share with some of my observations and opinions the coaches and coaching process for I believe what you have written about organisations are equally applicable to the practising coaches.

    a. first of all, I dislike the word coaching – knowing that it has come from the sports terminology, it inevitably brings with it a metaphor of making one better against all others. This itself defines the process to what you are calling “instrumentality”.

    I dont like mentoring either, to me that smacks of a elderly senior person who is mentoring someone in the same subject that he/she has huge expertise.

    To me this process ought to be more like a meaningful dialogue between two individuals where the client/coachee is seeking a space outside the work chatter to review meanings made, habits formed, patterns frozen as well as trying to understand her life/work context (that is ever changing) so that a meaningful engagement can either be continued or formed from a location of conviction and resilience. The coach at best can create an infrastructure for this process through support, challenge and assessment simultaneously.

    b. I have also come across managers who are very interested in the growth and well being of their direct reports, but being part of the same picture frame, can not really offer a different view point to them. In this context, working with another individual who brings in an external lens perhaps helps the coachee/client to look at self and context differently and discover/explore different things. One of the coachee/client I am working with is working on creating a pan India strategy for his organisation while at the same time dealing with his envy of one of his peers after realizing how his primary system drama has juxtaposed itself in the secondary system.

    c. you have mentioned: “This process of making oneself as an instrument of performance has many consequences in the short to medium front. Firstly it accentuates a process of alienation – where the coachee is unwilling to look at desires, dreams, fantasies, tiredness, fatigue, spirituality, notion of collectives, or any agenda that goes against instrumentality.”
    I find the organisations caught in the same loop, with an environment that does not guarantee anything, no certainty and no stability. As such, I find the demands made on the organization and the employees are tremendous and often beyond the capability of the collective psyche of the organisation. However, at the same time, I cannot but empathise with the organisations a little bit (without colluding) that VUCA is a ever present reality in today’s time for all organisations, as much as they are for the employees. Hence increasing one’s coping mechanism becomes a necessary agenda in the coaching process but at the same time, if the coachee/client cannot see herself/himself both as a part and as a whole (which would mean asking the first set of questions “who am I” and “what am I doing here” to “what do I wish to do” and “what does all of these really mean to me and to others”) the whole process becomes meaningless. These questions must start from the person’s own understanding of herself rather than jumping into business solutions.

    I have seen many coaches (not necessarily the clients) falling in the trap of increasing the coping mechanism of their clients and often talking on behalf of the organisation as they truly believed that without this capacity building, the coaching process is “pandering to the individual”. Many coaches I have met, does just the opposite. They get into “healing” the client/coachee and offer all kinds of solutions so that the poor client/coachee can cope with the horrible world of systems.

    b. However, I would agree with you here where you have written: “However these very same principles underlying learning / andragogy get thwarted when the Coachee is looking at the content and not the process of engagement. Spoiled by a templatized orientation (quite rampant in large scale ITES companies), often the Coachee wishes for quick-fixes from the Coach ….
    Thus the Coach is evaluated on the content level offerings including subject matter expertise, experience of similar problems and solutions, and knowledge as opposed to be someone who accompanies the coachee in his or her learning journey.”

    I believe all coaches come across this situation where the coachee/client feeling pushed to a corner by the work or life context, would actually ask for solutions, or is perhaps lazy, is testing the coach or is simply keen to find out how to work, rather than what would work. I believe this is where a coach’s intent, skills, expertise and experiences are put to ultimate test. I was coaching an extremely brilliant lady in a large IT organisation, where the first four sessions she spent asking me the very questions (tips or case studies of how others have worked better in similar situations) until I actually responded to her with actual case studies and then asked her how helpful were the stories, and needless to say, she began to unravel her own drama at the work place, her basic assumptions about nature of systems, authority and her contributions in the coaching sessions thereafter.

    I also believe that while the organisations are seeking coaching, both the organisation and the coachee/clients really do not believe that the coaching process is anything beyond advisory lessons received from a “more experienced person”. Unfortunately many coaches also believe so. As it is India, we believe offering advice is our birthright, and when we get paid for it, it becomes legitimate.

    Net net, I think what I am trying to say is that the processes that you have outlined have three players, the organisation, the coachee/client and the coach and each one of them are complicit in this drama. If we are to truly go beyond this, all of the three would have to look at their basic assumptions about nature of systems, biases, prejudices, desires, fears, anxieties and a whole host of other things, conscious and unconscious. Without these, the same drama will recur.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Gagandeep, your post and Sarbari’s comments read together covers very interesting ground.
    I hope you will also be doing a post on that elaborates on what Sarbari has referred to in places..the world of the coach. Some speculations:
    a. The coach seeks a brief but believes that the answers lie in going beyond the brief.
    b. The coach invariably feels the context needs to be worked with for the client to truly reflect change / enhanced capabilities.
    c. If the engagement fails, I am never the problem.

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    1. Speaking for myself, the problem in the last point is the reverse: the difficulty is in moving away from the feeling that “If the engagement fails, I *am* the problem.”

      Put differently: I think we, as coaches, assume too much of the burden of making the engagement work. A large part of it comes from concern for the coachee, but…part of it comes from the need to prove that we are useful, part of it from the economics of it (a truncated engagement means less money!), and part of it from ego (how can *I* fail at making this work?). When I find myself feeling pressed to “make it work”, I have to take extra care to check that the pressure isn’t coming from one or more of the latter three sources!

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  3. A very apposite, thoughtful, and well-written piece, Gagan. And a great follow-up from Sarbari. Two points that I would like to add:

    (1) The role of the manager:
    The managers’ abdication of their role in developing their people has another dimension that has a direct impact on the coaching: the extent of their involvement and support when their team member is working with an external coach. Ideally, the manager should be part of the agenda setting at the beginning, should be following and supporting the individual’s development journey (of which coaching is but one component), and should be part of a closing discussion around progress achieved and the path forward. In actuality, I have found that just about 30-40% of managers have shown up for the agenda setting, while barely 15% of my coachees have reported any proactive enquiry/progress check/active support by their managers. Less than 10% of managers have taken the trouble to be part of the final review, almost all of them in situations where the organisation has mandated it as part of the process (and even in those cases, the hit rate is well below 100%!).

    (2) The coachee’s sense of agency:
    In my work with people in coaching, psychometric/competency assessment, and other individual/organisational development initiatives, the single most striking factor has been the very low sense of agency among the individuals concerned. A very, very small number of individuals seem to feel that there is anything they can do about their condition and their circumstances; the overwhelming majority seem to feel swamped, put upon, hapless, helpless, frustrated, and powerless. At least half the effort in coaching ends up being about helping them rediscover (or perhaps discover for the first time!) a sense of agency in themselves, a belief that they can make a difference – however small – in both their lives and their context.
    It is dispiriting to find this phenomenon being so widespread, and organisations too bemoan it indirectly when they talk of people not taking ownership. There is, however, an associated danger in working on it: in many instances, the individuals who awaken their sense of agency go on to use it in ways that are unanticipated by the organisation. I am not talking here only of people upping and leaving (although that does happen too), but more of people who were perceived hitherto as being peaceful and complaisant starting to be seen as confrontative and uncooperative because they start asking more questions and/or standing their ground*.
    I think this is one area where TAO’s proposed coaching model can offer a lot: discovering one’s own sense of agency and learning to deploy it with sensitivity to context.

    [*A recent experience: a colleague and I were coaching, between us, a large number of very senior people in an organisation. The coaching agenda that was identified – with inputs from the CEO – included things like Impact and Influence, Innovation, and Drive for Excellence. In the coaching, we found that most of the coachees had a very low sense of agency, which led them to the assumption that the organisation had to create the conditions for these things to flower in them. As the coaching progressed, the sense of agency got visibly awakened and bolstered in many cases, which was received positively by all concerned but later had some interesting fallout: we got feedback that the CEO was upset because some of the coachees had been “unreasonable” in the performance appraisal discussions by being vocal about their demands and – especially – by questioning decisions around their team members’ ratings and rewards. The coaches, and the coaching process itself, started getting a distinctly cooler reception from the powers-that-be following those appraisal discussions!]

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  4. Found the article brilliant Gagan! Found it articulating many of the amorphous discomforts floating around in my subconscious! And likewise, found the ensuing discussions too valuable!

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  5. Quite liked reading your brilliant blog Gagan and quite insightful replies by sarbari and abhay.
    Couple of my views and questions based on my coaching engagements,
    In organization sponsored coaching, the instrumentality premise is a given. If so, what contracting could be done with the sponsors that allows the organization to support holistic growth than only aim at improved contribution to the organization. I have seen one exceptional sponsor (who has gone through coaching himself) say explicitly that “This is for the coachee’s growth” and he was very supportive of not wanting to be “updated” on the coaching progress. I also wonder whether such a dialogue would go so against the grain of the organization construct that it will be a non starter or a sure to fail attempt.
    on manager abdication, What roles could be created for the manager to support the coaching process? I liked abhay’s example of joint agenda setting and final reflection. What post coaching support can be extended to the manager to be able to support team member development?
    Thirdly, I have seen many coachees seek tips and steps (e.g. how do i influence my uncooperative peer). As a coach i have felt the pressure to teach the coachee in a specific area he / she is actively seeking help. This after explicit clarification of what the process coaching process is and what the coach will / will not do! How could this be handled?
    I also came across one coachee who valued exploration far more than being taught. It seems the answer partly lies in assessing coachee’s readiness and predisposition for an exploratory process. What other steps could make the experience worthwhile for the coachee (& the coach🙂

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  6. Maybe you are on the quest for big things, big causes, for impact or ‘success’ and only for clients who are worthy of your abilities. Perhaps clients are able to sense and pick this up and they counter by using the coach as an instrument and there is the ensuing pathos. What is play to you?

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    1. I am not sure where you are getting these judgments stated as “maybe” in your response – Ahmed; I refer to client sponsors seeking magical transformations – these are not mine… the last question to me is some curve ball! I don’t split play and work … let me posit a response – what lies beneath your judgments? And what lays behind the pointed innuendos on my “worthy abililities”

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