Misconceptions of Coaching
Common misconceptions of organisational coaching as it has emerged from community-based, life coaching beginnings are that coaching is ‘weird’ and ‘fluffy’ with no solid underpinnings for professional practice. However, if one extrapolates from a sports-coaching perspective, coaching is definitely not ‘weird’ or ‘fluffy’. It is calculated, measured, and controlled. It is a team-oriented strategy to achieve a targeted, performance-based outcome. Sports coaches are on the field with their team every day, motivating their players to succeed. The notion of leaders in the workplace using coaching to motivate their employees towards improved performance was initially foreign to organisations. However over time, many organisational leaders who are also sports coaches have begun using the sporting analogy within their business teams to motivate employees to succeed. This has, in part, caused the benefits of coaching to migrate into organisations.
Coaching was also once viewed as a ‘fringe’ activity conducted by those without formal qualifications in human behaviour or psychology. Coaches were considered to be practicing in areas beyond their expertise. This perception was, and still is, accurate to some extent because coaching is an unregulated industry in which anyone can participate. However, as international coaching associations were formed and developed coaching standards, private coach-training companies were also established to train individuals as coaches to these standards. Most of the private coach-training companies and organisations (including some universities) adhere to the self-regulated industry standards that have been developed to guide practitioner coaching, which brings greater rigour to the coaching practice that is conducted in organisations and increases confidence in its veracity and effectiveness as a valid developmental tool. Research into individual differences, motivation, and organisational behaviour over the past seventy years has informed the evolving coach-training and coaching practice. In recent years, the benefits of coaching have been more rigorously researched, including how coaching may be applied to leadership practice in organisations.
Those who view coaching as a ‘waste of time’ have typically had negative experiences of coaching in the past and not regarded coaching highly. They may have been misled or misinformed as to what coaching is and how it could help them and, consequently, may have found that coaching didn’t meet their expectations or needs. The disappointed individual may not have been coached by a professional coach and found the experience less than fulfilling. As a result, they may have become suspicious of coaching and sceptical of any value that coaching can offer. Unfortunately, individuals whose needs have not been met do what any customer does—they tell their friends about the bad experience—and as we know, word of mouth spreads, and negative publicity has a way of being transmitted quickly through the peer group and colleagues.
Contemporary Views of Coaching
Coaching was initially introduced into the organisational arena as a remedial exercise—a ‘last resort’ effort to reorient employees who were underperforming. Underperformers thought that being sent to coaching was shameful, and it was particularly stressful since the individual knew that if they didn’t improve their performance, they would be fired. Managers under the old-school command-and-control style of management considered employees who were sent to coaching to be weak, a view which is still firmly entrenched in some organisations today. An executive coach who has been coaching since the early 1990s tells the story of how this view started to change: “When I first started coaching, I remember working with [a coaching guru] on the coaching standards and we had to make a point of differentiation between remedial coaching and development coaching and you wouldn’t even hear that language any more today would you—remedial coaching? And yet it was the dominant form in, probably 2008 or somewhere like that, or 2009.’ He went on to note that ‘nobody gets badged remedial anymore.”
These days, employees are more discerning about the organisations they work for. Hence, when there is a misalignment between personal and organisational values, purpose, and direction, the individual being coached for remedial purposes may choose to leave the organisation voluntarily rather than be exited involuntarily from their position. An executive coach estimates that about 30 per cent of coaching engagements result in the coachee leaving the organisation not because they’ve been ‘given the push’ but because, through coaching, they have recognised a mismatch of their personal values with the organisation’s values, and hence, they self-select out of the organisation.
Some sceptics of coaching view coaching as a fad, something that won’t stand the test of time and will soon be replaced by the ‘next best thing’. One reason for this view may be lack of knowledge about coaching. Another reason may be that most individuals don’t like change, and as managers, they may be asked to do things differently. Some HR professionals may be scared of losing their job or, at least, their skills base if coaching moves into the leadership arena: What HR activities will leaders take over next? However, in those organisations that really believe in the benefits of coaching, have embraced coaching, and are establishing the beginnings of a coaching culture, coaching is definitely not a fad as one organisational leader explains:
“If it is a fad, then we’re goners. If we’re ever going to revert to the old command-and-control, no one responds—if they ever did. The hierarchies are disheartening. It’s a dead hand—some of the disempowerment of the hierarchies and the bureaucratic nature of government—and this [coaching] is a glimmer of light.”
As coaching becomes more accepted within organisations, it is conducted as an effective intervention for developmental purposes. Line managers may recommend that certain talented individuals who are included in the organisation’s succession plan be coached. Thereafter, as the benefits of coaching spread, employees who aren’t being coached may express discontent at what they see as an unfair situation, expecting to be coached as well. An executive coach tells the story of working with an individual for four months, and then one of her peers said, “So if so-and-so is entitled to a coach, surely I can have one too?”
From an organisational perspective, as HR professionals become better acquainted with coaching either from knowing someone who has been coached, being coached themselves, or undertaking formal coach-training from an external provider, they may feel compelled to check out coaching as possibly a highly valuable addition to their organisation’s suite of development tools for leaders. An organisational leader explains this ‘me too’ perspective thus:
“I think somebody may have been exposed to coaching, and then they thought, Hey, we probably need some of that here. And this is probably not just in Australian companies. It’s probably most companies, and much like other management fads or hot topics, they say, Oh, we need to get that here . . . We need to get some coaching. We need to get some . . . whatever, and they just push for a token sort of representation in that arena to say, Oh yeah, we’ve hired a coach for these two people. We do that here. And of course, there’s always the ‘copy-cat’ syndrome that, Well, everybody does it. We should do it too.”
On the contrary, organisational leaders and HR professionals who are better informed about coaching may be concerned that their organisation is missing out on one of the latest, evidence-based, effective development tools available to leaders. From this valued perspective, as coaching enters their organisation, it takes on a completely different conception—as an intervention that is considered prestigious and sought after by discerning individuals who want to benefit from the insights and developmental opportunities that the coaching process enables. An organisational leader notes that ten years ago, individuals were adamant that they didn’t need a coach, and consequently, coaching was often sugar-coated as mentoring to get individuals involved in personal conversations in a way that they understood. Nowadays, however, that view has changed:
“I think in the private sector, it is becoming prestigious to have a coach. It used to be a stigma. It used to be, I don’t need a coach. I don’t need help. A coach was seen as a psychologist. These days, it’s my observation that they see it as, Oh I’m having a coach. I must be on a fast track for a promotion. So it’s seen as a prestige status thing rather than an I need help thing.”
In summary, these early conceptions of coaching have changed over the past decade as the coaching profession has matured and as individuals and organisations have gained more knowledge and understanding of what coaching is and how it can benefit individuals, teams, and organisations. Coaching has shaken off the stigma that it once had. Individuals who are coached now consider coaching to be a prestigious activity in which they are fortunate to engage. As the demand for coaching grows, organisations proudly display the fact that they coach as a badge of honour. Many executives expect that once they get to a certain level within the organisation, they’ll be entitled to a coach even though they may not actually know what a coach can do for them or what they want out of the coaching experience. The coaching process identifies their individual coaching needs and assists them to reach their goals much sooner than expected, overcoming any barriers along the way.