When she told me that, “Our coaches are hired to help us maximise the efficiency of our workforce,” I lost all interest in the prospective new client and walked away from the pitch.
At its best, coaching is a subversive activity. In my opinion, it should not be used to help companies ‘sweat their assets’ – a hideous expression that boils down to being complicit in corporate slavery. It should be used to help people illuminate their blindspots, question their basic assumptions, explore their discomforts with taken-for-granted orthodoxies, and develop response-ability – all of which are inextricably interwoven with the honourable endeavour to learn deeply and grow beautifully. But perhaps organisations have lost some appetite for developing leaders who question the way things are done and have some moral purposefulness?
I am afraid that coaching is being tamed. This taming seems to have two manifestations – two emerging patterns – in some aspects of my work as a coach and OD supervisor.
In the one emerging pattern, more and more of my in-company coachees and supervisees are asking for support not in dealing with the complexity of casework issues or their ways of being, but with how to survive in an organisational culture that works them so hard they are risking burn-out. Propping up departments that are so short-staffed that my clients are doing the work of three people for their original salary package is not uncommon. In addition, some new client are honest enough to say that their managers have advised them to get coaching so that they ‘learn resilience’. Resilience is the new corporate-speak for putting up with abominable conditions for extended periods of time without complaining or taking sick leave. I find myself in an ethical dilemma, where my coaching and supervision is being used as a palliative measure to help clients endure situations that are simply wrong.
In the other emerging pattern, both internal and external coachees and clients seem to have less appetite for interventions that provide deeper insights into dysfunctional dynamics: put another way, there is more desire for less challenging interventions. For example, one client complained recently that constellations work ‘held too much truth’ for him; another client didn’t want to look at her part in a team conflict but did want support to help her learn how to switch off her feelings of guilt. It is becoming too risky to tackle underlying dynamics as clients might lose their jobs, so – unlike Snowden, they blow no whistles…
In both patterns, delight in the imaginative engagement with complexity is avoided. Personal responsibility for systemic dysfunction is avoided. What is the role of a coach, given this? There are pressures on us as coaches and OD practitioners to dumb down and not name or tackle the deeper issues of organisational ideology – mainly based on economics, from what I can tell – that are influencing company politics and policies and result in client burn-out. I can walk away from these kinds of contracts, but the problem of seeing people as ‘sweatable assets’ remains and my walking away becomes part of the problem. I wonder how other coaches and supervisers experience and respond to this dilemma?