Coach or couch?

I remember attending a very interesting talk on executive coaching a while ago and the presenter – who was both a therapist and a coach, was quite open in admitting that a great deal of coaching is psychotherapy under a different name. Managers and executives will accept coaching whereas they wouldn’t dream of going near a therapist – even though, in reality, much of the work, and many of the problems encountered, are exactly the same.

Is this a problem? In one sense, no. If the individual is, for example, lacking in confidence, is constantly shooting themselves in the foot, is finding it impossible to work with others, is continually engaging in strategies which are designed to undermine his or her colleagues whilst achieving nothing of any value to the organisation, is dragging their feet in the face of a major change initiative, then wouldn’t it be helpful to both them and their employer to address these issues?

Absolutely.  The key question, though, is what is the best way to achieve this? Certainly, it seems to make little sense to try and address such problems at the level of the organisation rather than the individual. In other words, to address, for example, problems of confidence by exploring the structure of the organisation, rather than how the individual sees him or herself in relation to his or her role, or in terms of how he or she relates to others.

So in this sense, coaching – which does address the problem from the perspective of the individual employee, certainly does seem to be a step up from trying to ignore the individual completely and focusing instead on ‘macro-structures’, processes, etc. Coaching is very much part of the humanisation and personalisation of the workplace. It puts the individual employee very much centre stage in the study of organisational and workplace life.

However, it’s not quite that straightforward.  Although the organisation ignores its individual members at its peril – and, incidentally, is one of the main reasons why so many change management programmes fail (80% on some counts), it is equally true that individual employees ignore the organisation at their peril.

One of the problems with executive coaching, which is now often incorporated into a more comprehensive practice called corporate therapy, is that it often appears to view the organisation as nothing more than the sum or aggregate of its members. In other words, the individual members are the organisation. This is why a lot of coaches and corporate therapists come from psychological and psychotherapeutic backgrounds. From their perspective it makes perfect sense to view the organisation, however large, in terms of the relationships between individuals and groups of individuals.

The problem here, however, is that organisations are more than the sum of their individual members. And, furthermore, they can greatly affect how individuals feel, think, act, and relate to one another within that organisation. So, going back to the example of the manager who lacks confidence: this may well stem from early childhood experiences (in which case one would have to wonder about the value of coaching in the first place). However, if the culture of the organisation is one in which doubt, mistakes, uncertainty, are simply not tolerated in managers, then this is going to profoundly affect how someone who already has problems with confidence is going to respond to such a culture.

In other words, although the focus is on the individual – in this case a manager who lacks confidence, what matters is how that particular individual, who has a particular history, engages with, relates to, the particular kind of organisation, and the particular role, that he or she finds herself in. It may be that, at the end of the day, this particular individual is not suited to the role that he or she is currently in. It may even be that he or she is not really suited to the kind of organisation that he or she is currently a member of.  However, in many ways this is precisely what the work with the individual is exploring.

Whether this could be described as ‘coaching’ is a good question. Whatever label is used, this kind of work aims, ultimately, to find out how the individual employee experiences, ‘lives’, the organisation.