The taming of coaching

The taming of coaching

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?

Posted in Coaching Change on Sunday, Jan 22nd, 2017


Good to see such passionate honesty. As a coach and mentor, working with (largely) senior 'Customer Insight' leaders within large corporations, I have also seen similar dilemmas. I don't have anything as complete as a solution or best way to respond. But I would add two caveats. First, there is diversity. As well as businesses that are pressurising their 'staff' in this way, there are also others with nobler aims. I work with a couple of companies with a more humane mindset and approach to people leadership. Second, despite the deceptive power of 'corporate speak', I wouldn't give up on the concept of working with leaders to explore 'resilience'. Much like school bullies, unfair systems or leaders can be challenged & sometimes stopped. Many years ago I was inspired by reading "The Heart Aroused" by David Whyte. His exploration, through poetry, of how leaders can 'find their voice' in the corporate battle can be a very empowering exploration. Progress can sometimes by partial or transitory and coaches can feel compromised by their constraints, but if we all 'ethically' walk off the battleground, then defeat is surely certain.

tyfrancis's picture

Thanks Paul and I agree that it's not right to give up on working on resilience, despite my exhaustion with yet another label that is being misapplied(don't even get me started on 'mindfulness'!). These terms can often provide a portal to a deeper enquiry. I appreciate your comments!

Hi TY,
Always so thought provoking reading your blogs. Thank you.
I have not until now heard the term 'sweating the asset' in relation to coaching. I find this a twisted philosophy and surely one that's ultimately doomed to fail? I believe people work for people and if the person you work for places no real value in you as a person this is easily sensed and one of the surest ways to prompt your leaving an organisation or job.
Like you perhaps, I believe that coaching is about learning; facilitating people to learn about them selves and open up new ways of thinking. My intention is to help them succeed and/or feel happier.
I personally practice mindfulness and find this helps me to remain compassionate and feel happier. It's not for everyone though and I do not believe this reduces my curiosity or ability to challenge.
Look forward to your next blog.

tyfrancis's picture

Great to receive your comments, Fiona. I shall keep blogging! If there are any topics you (or anyone) wants some thoughts on, please feel free to make suggestions! :)


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