The Socialization of Coaching

We are beginning a series of posts on coaching as we lead up to our first Accreditation for Coaches workshop this September. These posts will provide a little perspective on our position and thinking about coaching and how we use our assessments in this type of work.

As you can tell from the title of this post one of our perspectives is that coaching needs more of a social perspective to bring some balance to the overriding and often unquestioned psychological perspective that is so prevalent in coaching approaches today. While we do think the psychological perspective has real value we also think that this perspective truly does need to be balanced by the social.

First, some brief definitions. We are defining the psychological approach to coaching as one where the coach’s role is primarily focused on analyzing the coachee’s behavior, coming to a well considered, and perhaps joint diagnosis and then working with the coachee on the basis of this diagnosis to change behavior. The primary focus for the coach is analysis and diagnosis and the process is one of being separate from the context in order to analyze and diagnose objectively.

We define the social approach to coaching as one where the coach immerses themself as another participant in the context in which the coachee resides and works within the existing patterns of interaction to try and affect change within those patterns. The primary focus for the coach is affecting interactions and the process is one of being a participant in the context in order to affect emerging patterns. As we will see later, this approach can take many forms, some not requiring direct involvement by the coach at all.

We think both of these approaches are needed and that right now the social approach is dramatically underrepresented in coaching work and we think that needs to change.

Why? While there are a number of reasons, there are really 3 that are most significant:

• The psychological approach requires individual change and does not put enough emphasis on the context in which that individual change occurs. It is assumed that individual change is enough, when it is not. Individual change affects, and is affected by others and also by the context in which that change occurs. The social approach brings this realization into the work.

• The psychological approach produces an elitist dynamic where coaching is available only to those with significant resources. Even with the proliferation of coaching in the past 20 years, almost all of it occurs at relatively senior levels in organizations or where resources are allocated by senior people to make it available to others. A social approach focuses on changing patterns of interaction and this can be accomplished in some cases by ‘structuring’ interactions in ways that disrupt normal patterns. With groups this can be accomplished without the direct involvement of a coach, thus opening the door for much broader access to the benefits of coaching without the need of such significant resources.

• The psychological approach does not adequately address the need to develop the internal capacity to change. The dynamic of the coach being in an expert role of diagnosing what the problem is, too easily creates a dependence on external expertise as a requirement for change rather than developing the internal capacity for it. The social approach balances the value of external expertise with the need to develop internal expertise.

So how do we ‘socialize’ coaching? Here are some starting points that we have found effective:

1. Don’t go overboard on assessment use or data gathering. It can be shocking how many assessments some coaches use. I talked with one coach that routinely used 9 different assessments in their coaching work plus interview data. There is a correlation between assessments and diagnosis and the more assessments you use the more likely you are dependent on getting the right diagnosis. You can spend so much time analyzing data that you cannot immerse yourself in what is actually going on in the day to day life of the people you are working with! You can become considerably distant from the actual work you are doing and your affect on it. If you use them at all we typically find 2 assessments are enough and likely some interview data.

2. Make the work more transparent. In almost all the coaching we do, the people we are working with identify and seek out others in their organization that work in parallel to the work we do. In addition the objectives of the work are shared with other significant stakeholders so they know what is going on and are recognized as part of the process of the work. When the work is transparent the context is recognized as important. Transparency also reduces the risk of dependence on the coach and brings other perspectives to the forefront.

3. Be affected by the work and recognize your affect on it. This is about questioning the reality of your objectivity and acknowledging that the simple fact of your presence changes things. In essence the value you bring is more about you bringing your full self to the work and less about your ability to analyze and diagnose. You bring different experiences and intentions to the work that are unique and this has significant value.

The first 2 points above tend to be fairly easy to implement. The third point hits at the heart of the psychological approach and is often the most challenging as we strive to balance this approach with more of a social perspective.

Our work in organizations, including coaching is informed by our interaction framework outlined below. As our series of posts continues we will talk a bit more about this and how we use it.

Infinity interaction process 1
Author – Tom

4 Comments

  1. Reply

    Hi, Tom – You’ve captured some of my coaching philosophy in this post. I talk about my interaction coaching methodology and co-constructing action plans that are aligned to the core and to the context. Way to go for bringing these important ideas into the broader conversation.

    • Reply

      Thanks for your comment Patti and it was good to see the words ‘core’ and ‘context’ used in the same sentence. I think we tend to see the word ‘core’ used quite a bit more frequently than ‘context’ in the coaching world and for me this is indicative of an overbalance to the psychological approach.

      I imagine you find numerous paradoxes in your work that are best left as paradoxes and that you are comfortable with the uncertainty that core and context taken together can create.

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