The Challenge of Executive Coaching – Individual Change and Social Response

A primary informing model of one-on-one executive coaching is psychoanalytic.  The couch might have disappeared but the model remains.  One individual there to change and the other individual there to assist in that change.  When the individual changes, success is assumed.  The challenge is that success is only really determined when those changes are taken out of the coaching scenario and into the social world of the organization.  This sounds incredibly obvious but represents two very different models of how we understand behavior change….

A typical executive coaching initiative will follow a process that:

  1. begins with developing an acceptance and awareness of behavior that needs changing,
  2. understanding how to change that behavior,
  3. and then actually doing it.

The important part about this model is that the change is very much centered on the individual and the assumption that if the 3 steps above are achieved, the individual has changed their behavior and likely even some small part of their identity.  Typically inferred and built into the process of one-on-one coaching is a fourth step:

        4. try out the new behavior and see how it goes.

With the psychoanalytic model you would then move back to step 1 at this point but the process and its assumptions do not change, the individual will make behavior changes and take that forward into the world.

That fourth point is an interesting one though.  If we interpret it through the social psychology of George Herbert Mead, step 4 would be a gesture that calls forth a response from another, or perhaps even a group of others.  Step 4 becomes the conversation of gestures Mead illustrates as the way identities emerge and behavior change happens.  Through this conversation of gestures, all involved are affected, with the possibility of no change happening, through to radically unpredictable change happening.  It is a social process and an individual process and both are part of a continuum of interaction, ‘individual’ being the singular interaction of conversations with ourselves and ‘social’  being the plural of the same interaction continuum.

Occasionally, an executive coach may shadow their client and observe their changed behavior in their actual work setting.  Most of the time, however, the executive coach does not get involved in the social aspect of this behavior change in any direct way.  There may be multiple reasons for this such as:

  • Their skill set is focused on individual work
  • They suggest replicating one-on-one work with the group and the cost of this is prohibitive
  • They think group work is a poor substitution for one-on-one work.
  • The group doesn’t want it (often driven by thinking that if the leader is fixed, they will be fine too)
  • It’s not built into the initial process so seen as a failure of the one-on-one work if it is added on

Whatever the reasons, the work done that would recognize the social aspect of change and identity development is not seen as part of most executive coaching work; and therein lies the challenge.

A staple of executive coaching is data; often lots of it, from self and individual assessments, 360 instruments and interviews done by the coach.  The social aspect of executive coaching, in the form of working with the executive within the social context of their direct team requires data as well.  It needs to be group or social data, so the conversations of gestures in the group setting are influenced by this data that is relevant to the entire group.  A compilation of individual data can be of value as well but it ideally needs to be compiled on a common model or foundation so meaningful comparisons and analysis can take place.  What then happens is that the individual focus and changes made through one-on-one, executive coaching can be tested out within the context of the group work.  The group data acts as a buffer to the integration of individual change of the executive and honors the social, responsive aspect of behavior change at the same time.

From our suite of assessments we have found the Team Performance Profile and the Team Management Profile work well with this group work.

Certainly the dominant thinking in organizations focuses on the individual model of behavior change and one-on-one coaching, especially executive coaching has grown because it fits well with the accepted socialization process in organizations.  The social model is just as critical, perhaps even more so, and executive coaching needs to begin to incorporate it to fully realize it’s potential.

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