Coaching is political

By Martin Vogel

Coaching has been practised to support leadership for a few decades now. But the mismatch between leaders’ impact and the challenges we face as a society has never seemed greater.

Look, for example, at the paralysis over how to manage climate change. Politicians and executives seem clueless, or unwilling to engage in strategies that can help bring about the radical changes required to mitigate predicted disaster scenarios. The question here is how the coaching profession can engage with the climate emergency – only one of the complex political issues that shape the context in which we encounter our clients. The mismatch between the scale of these tasks and the quality of leadership with which the world can tackle them is a call for coaches to critically review our impact and responsibilities.

The challenge for coaching

The leadership gap is not simply a function of the “VUCA“ (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world presenting a more intractable context for leaders. Leaders today seem peculiarly averse to adapting to the challenges, and coaching does not seem to be helping.

Granted, we may do necessary work supporting individual leaders to be resilient and creative to the unreasonable demands of their working lives. But coaching, as a practice, is not bringing critical perspectives at a systemic level. It is appropriated by corporate cultures for narrow, instrumental purposes and coaches – consciously or not – end up colluding with the prevailing assumptions about leadership instead of developing leaders to meet these broader systemic questions.

It’s not hard to see how this happens. Coaches, bringing an ethos of non-directivity, will often approach assignments assuming a stance of being apolitical, bracketing out of discussion the dynamics of power in society that shape the context in which the coaching occurs. Their main focus is on the agency of the individual. There may be an orientation to the organisational system. But there is a fear of introducing the wider, external political context and lack of confidence about how to do so.

To imagine that it’s possible to be apolitical in relation to the networks of power in which we operate is a form of wilful blindness to the dominant ideologies that have become so entrenched they are perceived as common sense or the natural order. These ideologies may be empowering or constraining, and may have beneficial or adverse impacts on society. To assume an apolitical stance is to align with them uncritically, to keep them invisible when our role as professionals is to shed light on them – as we would other other potentially limiting assumptions.

The limitations of coaching with neutrality

Perhaps because current global crises have become so palpable, some coaches are beginning to break with the apolitical stance and explore how to bring societal questions into the coaching relationship. I have spoken to a number for whom the spur has been the environmental activist movement, Extinction Rebellion (XR).

For Linda Aspey, the journey was rapid. While she had had a lifelong interest in the environment and was politically informed, she was radicalised by listening to a radio programme about the dramatic decline of butterfly populations. “Eighty-nine per cent of butterflies have gone in the Netherlands,” she says. ”I couldn’t believe the enormity of it. I burst into tears and spent the whole weekend looking online. I felt a rage that I did not know this stuff, that we’ve allowed our system to grow at the expense of other species.”

She found her way to XR, trained with them in non-violent direct action and public speaking and then took the summer off to train the trainers. As a coach who describes herself as “on the far side of non-directive,” she is now questioning the shibboleths. “I wouldn’t collude with a client on bullying. So why collude about climate change? These are extraordinary times. We need to look at long established best practice and ask, ‘What’s our role now?’” She discloses her XR connection in chemistry meetings and this enables her to start a conversation about climate change in the coaching relationship when relevant. “It’s like saying I’m a coach who is trained in psychodynamic therapy.”

She is finding there are ready openings to discussing climate change in the coaching room. Clients are worried about what kind of environment we will leave to our grandchildren, about supply chain issues or working with polluters. She exemplifies a growing realisation among practitioners that when we work with the whole person in coaching, their civic identity intersects with their working one. As Hetty Einzig has put it in The Future of Coaching:

“Coaches and the leaders we accompany belong to the world beyond the organisation and thereby have a role as citizens, with rights and responsibilities to play their part. So how, when and in what ways can we work together with our clients to awaken that wider responsibility, as an integral part of their professional development?”

Libby Davy founded a network of coaches that supports activists in XR. She was working on the ground during the October protests in London, helping participants reflect on what was happening as the fortnight of action unfolded. She is influenced by a paper by Jem Bendel that argues that we are beyond the point of averting climate crisis, so our challenge is to adapt to its implications, including the collapse of civilisation. Beyond XR, Davy is focussed in her coaching practice on what she calls “gigs with impact”: clients who are thinking about the regeneration that can follow systems collapse. “It’s not about sustainability any more.” She is sceptical about coaching neutrality. “It’s best to be upfront about one’s biases,“ she says, ”It’s not ethical to go into a conversation unless you’re prepared to put on the table the challenges as you see them – that within five to ten years, we’ll have food and water shortages and rioting.”

Zoe Cohen is pessimistic about coaching’s engagement with the climate crisis. She found she had more of an impact getting arrested at last year’s XR protests in London than she does through coaching. The sacrifice it represented communicated to people her seriousness, and she has had more penetrating conversations as a result. She was disappointed with the profession’s engagement with the open letter on climate change that she, Aspey and Alison Whybrow promoted and says she despairs of coaches talking “pretentious crap” about complex challenges, while “making money helping unsustainable businesses grow unsustainably.” Cohen wants coaches to inform themselves about climate and ecological science as part of their CPD.

Our social responsibility as coaches

The responsibility to keep informed about the world is not prominent on coaches’ development agenda. So how can we bring systemic awareness to our clients if we are not reflecting ourselves on the economic, social and political contexts that shape our world? This is especially important in the era of fake news, when we risk our worldview being shaped osmotically by viral memes. It’s important for coaches not just to inform themselves but to be fastidious about their sources.

The Jem Bendel article that is influential among climate-conscious coaches was rejected for peer-reviewed publication and is questioned by ecology scholars, who consider it too aggressive in its assumption of imminent social collapse. This is by no means the only source which informs the position of the coaches who spoke to me. However, if I’m honest and even as a politically engaged coach, I find their singular certainties challenging – not their call on coaches to declare a climate and environmental emergency but the gaps in the discussion about how democracies will make the social and economic transformations to resolve the crisis. If coaching aligns too closely with the scenario of imminent and inevitable systems’ collapse, we risk encouraging rage, despair and apathy when environmental scientists insist purposeful action can still make a difference. But the scale of action required entails trade-offs so demanding, it is difficult to imagine the current level of democratic debate mobilising informed public support.

XR – though it calls on governments and media to tell the truth – tends to dissemble about these trade-offs. Coaching – with its role to foster agency – should be courageous in encouraging mature reflection on the choices available to us. Beyond that, the privileging of climate as a basis for the introduction of a political stance in coaching mirrors the apolitical stance by denying the relevance of other political considerations – including social justice, the strength of democracy and the externalities of business activities other than the environmental.

Simon Western, whose writing synthesises psychological and social perspectives on coaching, speaks of an “apartheid” between perspectives that focus on social justice and those that emphasise the climate crisis. He worries that climate change activists are acting out a social discourse that he calls “the wounded self” – unconsciously enjoying being victims of an “evil other” and thriving on their puritanical righteousness. On the other hand, he says when social justice activists lean into the climate change agenda, they articulate “the celebrated self” – more optimistic and humane. Think Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Green New Deal in America. “It brings business into the game and pays attention to the ecosystem, not just one node of change,” says Western, “It creates hope of change in the system, founded on a belief that humans have the potential to change to zero carbon. Whether we have the will is another matter.”

Redefining non-directiveness

Bringing business into the game is where coaching and politics intersect. The discourses of political change aren’t just happening around organisations, they are piercing them – creating psychological tensions for employees. This has been evident, for example, in the walkouts by Google staff over sexual harassment and the company’s AI work with the Pentagon.

One reason why coaches might be reluctant to make reference to politics is because these discourses of change often have an anti-business tone to them. Western trains coaches in in Analytic-Network Coaching, which equips them to bring politics into coaching conversations constructively. “Instead of being against profit,” he says, “Let’s change business. Businesses are the greatest engines of change. The trouble is that business takes a very narrow view of politics. It ‘gets’ internal politics but is stuck in in-house thinking. If you look at HBR case studies, they’re always fixated on the internal. They never look to the contexts that shape business – war, social change and so on. Business needs vision of the outside. It can’t escape the systems that extend beyond the organisation.”

Political orientations do not need to undermine the non-directive stance. According to Simon Cavicchia, whose writing on relational coaching addresses political dimensions, it is necessary is for coaches to be more reflective about the forces that shape their client encounters. “Coaching experiences are shaped by the discourses in which they occur and vice versa – the happiness imperative, the pursuit of profit, free-market capitalism unreconstructed. If it’s unconscious and unreflective, coaching is vulnerable to being shaped by that particular ideology.”

Cavicchia says it is the responsibility of coaches to have a mind of their own, recognising their biases, while supporting the client to have mind of their own. It’s no good being directive. “Adopting positions that polarise simply shuts down movement and doesn’t allow new meanings to emerge.” Drawing on Adam Phillips, he suggests coaches instead should “have a stab at hinting.” Simon Cavicchia tells me, “A coach’s insight cannot be given, it can only be taken. Otherwise the coach is caught up in advocacy. You need to be able to offer a hint without attachment and discover what people might do with it.” He calls this passionate non-attachment.

Polarisation is one of the most troublesome social trends beyond the coaching room and reason why politics will become more salient for coaches in the coming years. Polarisation elicits deep-rooted fears in people, as the institutions of society are tested and the respectful etiquette of democracy breaks down. Combine that with the social and economic fracturing caused by the financial crisis and the rising sense of alarm regarding climate change and huge waves of migration, and there is a good chance that we will be encountering clients who bring with them into coaching emotions such as insecurity, panic and confusion.

Coaching may not have the answers, but it has the capabilities to help bridge polarisation and promote courage in leaders to address the tests ahead. As Aspey told me, “Coaches understand people and their defence mechanisms. We can help people find their voice and their terror. Help them make a better world.”

A version of this article appears in the January 2020 edition of Coaching Perspectives.

Image courtesy Marcus Spiske.

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