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When not to invest in coaching

Updated: May 3, 2022

By Elloa Phoenix Barbour

Short on time? Skip to the bottom of this article to read our summary.

Our last article, on whether coaching is worth the investment of time and money, sparked a really interesting conversation on TWP founder Sarah Jane Last’s LinkedIn page. Clearly, coaching is a complicated business, with a lot of considerations for coachees and organisations to work through in order to maximise the efficacy of the intervention.

Over the last few years as we've coached leaders across various industries, we’ve repeatedly encountered four scenarios when coaching – as powerful and helpful as it can be – isn’t actually the optimal intervention for that particular individual. Sometimes, coaching is sought out to solve the wrong problem.

Today, we’re going to share four examples we've encountered so that you – as a leader, decision-maker, and/or potential coachee – know what to look out for when considering business coaching.

So without further ado, from experience, we’ve found that:

1. Coaching isn't the optimal intervention when... individuals are sent for coaching to develop a skill set that runs counter to their innate strengths, gifts and talents.

Photo by Clark Young via Unsplash.

It goes a little something like this: a leader is rising through the ranks, taking on a new project, or perpetually falling down the same rabbit hole in terms of some behaviour or skill gap. Their organisation recognises there are certain ‘weaknesses’ or gaps in their skill set, so they’re sent for coaching to address it.

Now, this makes sense in many instances. We all have skills we need to keep developing, and we now know that the adult brain isn’t ‘hardwired’ and can continue to learn and grow throughout our lifetimes. Learning, growing and developing is highly possible, but there are a few caveats.

Learning agility

Firstly, much depends on a person’s learning agility, which has been researched by Dr W. Warner Burke, a professor of psychology at Colombia University. People who are more learning agile demonstrate this in nine ways: through their flexibility, speed, experimentation, performance risk-taking, interpersonal risk-taking, collaboration, gathering of information, seeking of feedback, and reflection.

Coaching often isn’t an efficacious intervention for a person with low learning agility if the objective is for them to learn and grow. We often use the Burke learning ability diagnostic prior to coaching to help the client make an informed decision about whether this is the optimal intervention for them at this time.

Coaching to attempt to change one's personality

In addition, we’ve found from experience that whilst coaching can provide an individual with the opportunity to develop new skills, it cannot fundamentally change one’s personality.

For example, TWP’s founder, Sarah, is not and never will be a detail-oriented person. She has ADHD (we're sharing this with full permission from her) and no amount of coaching will change her brain chemistry. She’s very clear that it would be a total waste of time and money to try to change this about her!

Certain personality traits are more fixed or innate in each of us and sometimes, trying to get a person to change is an attempt to solve the wrong problem.

In this example, for instance, we would recommend taking a more holistic view and finding ways to build in processes that utilise the natural strengths of Sarah's team (we have some very detail-oriented consultants here at TWP) to support Sarah without her having to constantly swim upstream against her personality.

This isn’t about letting someone ‘off the hook’ or giving them a free pass, but about identifying and respecting each other’s strengths and not wasting energy trying to get someone to develop a skill that at best, they may achieve competence but not mastery in.

Although taking a strengths-based approach isn’t flawless (something we’ll probably write about at a later date), overall we have found that coaching that supports people to play to their strengths, find their sweet spot and figure out how to do what Cal Newport calls ‘deep work’ or the ‘flow state’ (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) is more effective than coaching that seeks to tackle a person’s weaknesses.

Certain thinkers such as the folks at Next Jump, a Deliberately Developmental Organisation, don't agree with this; they proactively seek to help their people 'develop their backhand'. Clearly, there's a balance to be struck between the two.

The individual in context

We also believe it’s important to work with the individual in context; the biopsychosocial model below examines the interconnection between biology, psychology and environment.

The biopsychosocial model. Source: Google Images

It’s impractical to simply address one of these since we cannot examine who we are without paying attention to the environment we find ourselves in. The book Brave New Work by Aaron Dignan offers an excellent framework for thinking about the way we work which goes beyond the individual – something we’ll come back to in a moment.

In summary, sending someone for coaching to try to change something about who they fundamentally are is pointless and will only lead to frustration and conflict.

Solely coaching an individual in an attempt to get them and them alone to change is not the ideal solution. When we run pre-coaching diagnostics, we’ll talk with you about what might work more effectively.

2. Coaching isn't the optimal intervention when... a leader is avoiding having a series of tough conversations with the person they manage, so they try to ‘outsource’ this by sending the person for coaching.

Image by Michael Spain via Unsplash

We’ve seen this occur a surprising number of times. Sometimes, we get approached for coaching with the unconscious ‘wish’ on the part of the line manager to have us as coaches facilitate a courageous conversation that feels too difficult to broach in house.

The difficult thing about this situation is that it’s not immediately observable; no one states out loud that they don’t want to give difficult feedback to give to a colleague so could we do it instead!

Therefore, figuring this out requires a bit of reading between the lines. A leader can do this themselves; it isn’t something only an external coach can discern.

One suggestion is to pay attention to how you feel and what you catch yourself thinking when discussing the possibility of coaching.

  • Does it feel like there’s a bit of an elephant in the room?

  • Do you notice yourself feeling genuinely excited about the opportunity to learn and grow, or as if something isn’t being said?

  • Do you find yourself biting your tongue, or wondering if the other person is?

  • Have you offered your direct report frank and transparent feedback?

The issue with this dynamic is that it usually isn't an isolated incident.

Often, there’s a need for a wider conversation about things like psychological safety, feedback and candour throughout the wider system; a principle of systems thinking is that if something is occurring in one part of a system, it’s likely happening elsewhere, too.

For coaches and consultants, there is a balance to strike between supporting the individual in the system, and resisting the desire to unconsciously collude with a system's built in defences that keep it stuck longer term. We want our interventions – individual or collective – to help people and the culture they're part of to grow and evolve.

Our approach when we see this dynamic playing out is to name it. It’s not the responsibility of the direct report to ‘fix’ something that their line manager needs to be addressing in a more direct way. And it doesn't support the organisation to outsource these difficult conversations.

We believe it is the role of a good coach and consultant to name the elephant in the room, even if it means risking getting fired. We're not always right, but we have learned to trust our instincts and our experience.

In summary, sometimes coaching is unconsciously selected as a way of outsourcing the challenging conversations that would serve the people in an organisation better if they were to happen in a more direct way.

Coaching can still be a helpful source of support here, but if there’s a more effective approach to fostering what Kim Scott calls ‘radical candour’, we’ll name that and will do what we can to help facilitate it.

3. Coaching isn't the optimal intervention when... issues exist within the wider organisational systems or culture, and instead of tackling those head on, certain individuals are sent for coaching.

Image by Omar Flores via Unsplash.

This is similar to the above situation. Coaching can be an incredibly supportive experience for people from all walks of life – but it is no substitute for tackling systemic issues.

Let’s use burnout as an example. Officially reclassified as an occupational phenomenon by the World Health Organisation in 2019, burnout is a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion which results in an increased sense of distance or cynicism towards one’s work, plus lowered efficacy at work.

In coaching, we often work with people who are experiencing burnout, and there’s no denying that it can help support individuals to make supportive and sustainable changes.

But there’s often a wider issue – the organisational and collective systems we live and work in set people up to burn out in the first place.

At best, coaching can help people on a case by case basis, and can even prompt them to start conversations about this at work or to cascade certain changes into their team – but it does not and cannot replace the need for wider conversations that need to happen higher up the chain or at the group level.

If it’s a faulty or dysfunctional system that needs to change, there’s no point taking an individual out of it, coaching them and expecting the system to change.

An individual can make a positive dent in a system by showing up differently within it, but we think it’s far better to put a team or cultural intervention in place instead.

On the occasions when we’ve seen this, the coaching brief usually includes some discussion of time management, workload or overwhelm, as if the issue is one belonging to the individual alone, or which they alone aren't managing well enough.

But burnout is a collective issue (and arguably, a political one) which organisations have a responsibility for helping to solve.

In summary, whilst we firmly believe that it’s healthy and important to support individuals to develop supportive processes and habits to work in a way that prevents burnout and helps them to be more productive, very often there are wider problems that are affecting people across the whole organisation.

If it’s almost impossible to get your work done because you’re in back to back meetings all day, for example, this is likely something your colleagues are also experiencing alongside you.

In these instances, we will of course work with a coachee if they want the support, but we’ll also open a conversation about whether certain issues need addressing at the level of the system itself.

4. Coaching isn't the optimal intervention when... the onus for the success of the coaching is placed solely on the coach and/or the coachee.

The effectiveness of coaching in organisations rests on the mutual accountability of the coach, the coachee and the organisation itself.

What we often see once the coaching commences is a distancing by the organisation, with little further engagement in supporting the coachee, which can make the coaching feel like an isolated process that doesn’t support a full integration of the lessons learned in the coaching space.

The coachee’s attempts to create change in how they show up can also be met with opposition, because change is unsettling. It challenges the status quo and can be inconvenient for others.

Therefore, really clear contracting is needed at the outset.

A good coach will steer this conversation and create verbal and written clarity so that all parties (including the coachee’s line manager and HR/People/L&D team) are on the same page.

A vital aspect of the contracting is to create very clear boundaries around confidentiality. Part of what makes coaching so valuable is the creation of a safe, confidential space for the coachee to speak honestly about their experiences, emotions, beliefs and struggles.

This is made easier when it’s very clear what needs feeding back to the organisation and what aspects of the coaching will be made transparent.

Accountability on the part of the organisation is also vital because leaders are often time poor and without really clear contracting, the process can easily be de-prioritised when new deadlines, people or projects make demands on a leader’s time.

Missed or postponed sessions usually lead to lost momentum as long gaps open up between sessions. This can prevent the coach and leader from developing a truly collaborative and creative space, and can lead to the coaching sessions becoming more of a ‘check in’ space rather than one where deep work can occur.

Without clear contracting, coaching can be hit with a double bind: seen as both a solution for any issue whilst also treated as the lowest priority when an urgent or pressing issue arises. This can also be tackled through strong contracting at the beginning; when one of these ‘crunch points’ arises, the coachee often feels more able to ring fence the time allocated to coaching because they know they have the support of their line manager and organisation.

In summary, the success of a coaching intervention in an organisational context requires the commitment of the coach, coachee and the organisation itself.

How we tackle these issues

We’ve encountered the above situations multiple times and have developed a series of simple but effective responses.

  • As mentioned multiple times in this article, we contract very strongly with the leader at the start of the process, and with their key stakeholder(s).

  • We name what we notice in the pre-coaching phase, opening up the conversation about wider systemic issues where relevant.

  • We work with people every two weeks at a regular day and time, ring fencing the time at the beginning of the process. That way, if a session needs rearranging, there’s an opportunity for reflection on what might be happening that this very important meeting is being postponed or deprioritised.

  • We recommend a minimum contract of six months. We do work with people for three months, but will usually suggest that a longer process will enable deeper, long-lasting change to take root.

  • We are available to our coachees in between sessions for check ins via email. The work takes place in between sessions, not just in the coaching conversations themselves.

  • We work offsite or away from people’s work space, to allow the work to be as deep and transformational as possible. In the world of hybrid working, that might look like telephone coaching, walking whilst coaching, working in person away from the office, and as much as possible, trying to get someone away from their laptop.

  • We value insight and action equally. We go deep in sessions to cultivate meaningful insights (hence the need for regular sessions to build deep trust), and challenge our coachees to commit to meaningful action in between sessions.

In conclusion (or TLDR)

Coaching is a big investment of time, commitment, energy and money. Sometimes, it’s treated as a one-stop shop for a host of organisational issues, yet paradoxically it can also be seen as a luxury and the first thing to be erased from a leader’s list when other tasks crop up (and in organisations, they always do!).

We’ve found from experience that further exploration might be required when:

  1. It seeks to change fundamental aspects of a leader’s personality or to try to tackle weaknesses rather than capitalise on strengths.

  2. A tough conversation is being outsourced to the coaching space. This often happens unconsciously rather than consciously.

  3. There are systemic or cultural issues that need addressing at the group rather than the individual level.

  4. The organisation places the bulk of responsibility on the coach and/or coachee for the success of the coaching intervention.

We recommend slowing down and exploring the underlying reasons for seeking out coaching in the first place.

This maximises the chances of an effective and fulfilling experience for the coachee, which will positively impact the organisation.

And, if it transpires that a different intervention might be more effective, either instead of or alongside coaching, that can be clarified at the start.

Now we’d love to hear from you. Have you found the same to be true? As a coach, what for you influences the success of a coaching process? Have you found that coaching isn’t always the optimal solution? Leave a comment below or join us over at LinkedIn.



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