The missing piece in supporting internal coaches

By Martin Vogel and Hetty Einzig

All professionals need to make time regularly to reflect on their work and how they are developing in the role they play in the workplace. This is good professional practice not just to keep their expertise up to date but also for their own wellbeing. It stops us falling into habitual ways of doing things and habitual patterns of overworking or reacting to pressure that may be unhelpful for us and for those we work with. This is even more imperative if your job involves working with others.

Supervision is a means of providing just such reflective space. It’s considered normal best practice for professional coaches to have regular contact with a supervisor to review their work, their practice and their sense of being in the world. In complex and fast-moving organisational settings, where corner-cutting and groupthink can lead to questionable practices, supervision provides a space to find one’s ethical ground.

It’s not just about reflecting on client interactions. Good supervision should help a coach maintain their energy, or regain it when depleted.

How supervision is sourced matters

If supervision is well-established in the commercial market for executive coaching, it is less clear that organisations developing internal coaching networks understand the supervisory piece of the coaching value chain. If supervision is provided at all, it is often an internal intervention like the coaching itself – which means that coaches and supervisors are all employed by the same organisation. They are like goldfish swimming within the same bowl, unable to see the water they swim in.

When coaches and supervisors are collectively embedded within the same system, they share the same incentives and blind spots. It is essential for good practice for internal coaches, just as much as professional coaches, to find ways to gain greater perspective on their work and context. Organisations are susceptible to wilful blindness. The organisation’s culture is often part of the problem that coaches and clients need to explore. It needs someone from outside the culture to ask the question that can’t be articulated internally but leads to the heart of the matter.

Many of those who lead coaching networks understand this yet haven’t got round to establishing a healthy supervision strategy. This constitutes a risk to the validity of their coaching provision. Coachees are not best-served by coaching provision that is relatively closed to the world beyond the organisation. The MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements exemplify how quickly norms in society evolve, leaving managers in organisations floundering as new values surge in like a tsunami. External supervisors bring necessary perspective precisely because they link the organisation with the world outside. 

Not just external but ecosystemic

Supervision at its best takes account of these broad factors which constitute the context of coaching together with characteristics distinct to the individuals within a coaching relationship. We describe this as taking an ecosystemic perspective. With respect to internal coaching, ecosystems supervision combines enquiry in depth into who we are as individuals and as practitioners with exploration in breadth of the organisational, societal and environmental considerations which shape the coach’s and coachee’s world and working life.

The idea of the ecosystem originated in the realm of ecology. But the analogy with natural systems is now widely drawn in disciplines such as psychotherapy, economics and sociology. The psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner applied the term ecosystems in the 1970s to draw attention to the large number of environmental and societal factors affecting child development.

Organisations likewise don’t live in a detached bubble. Work, home, markets, societies are all interconnected in a myriad obvious and subtle ways. We are all part of many ecosystems. We create boundaries between, for example, work and home to help us navigate but, in truth, boundaries are fluid and porous if they really exist at all. Becoming more fluent in understanding this will help us shift our linear ways of thinking and being in the world to reflect the reality of life. The Covid-19 pandemic has taught us how complex the world is, how impacts happen dynamically in unpredictable feedback loops, and how interdependent we all are, with each other, across continents, and with our environments.

It has never been more essential to embrace the reality of complexity rather than collude in the pervasive fantasy of simple solutions. The world as we knew it, even at the start of last year, has gone. We are learning to work in different ways, with most of our interactions now virtual. Some relationships exist entirely online. Teams are managed increasingly at a distance. Travel is curtailed, offices emptied, businesses on hold. All this in a context of continuing uncertainty around the pandemic, tanking economies, fragmented states, democratic principles in peril, unpredictable political leaders, and an insistent backdrop of a deteriorating environment, biodiversity loss and rapidly accelerating climate emergency. The intense pace of change and the instant reactivity of social media serve to further fan the flames of fear, anxiety and distress. 

What is it like?

We need to think differently to cultivate healthy and creative ways to meet these challenges.

Working ecosystemically provides a way. It is a collaborative and experimental encounter of mind, body, feelings and spirit. These qualities are not readily admitted into organisational settings. But awareness of them is fundamental to good coaching practice since they are qualities that are shaped by and, in turn, shape the ethos of the organisation. Internal coaches who develop ecosystemic thinking can contribute to creating reflective and adaptive organisational cultures.

In ecosystems supervision, we pay attention to how the organisation in which coaches and their clients work influences what is happening and how the individual players influence the organisation. We pay attention to relationships, links and patterns and encourage plurality of perspectives. This helps coaches to do the same for their clients and the organisation. We disrupt the institutionalised ways of engaging with each other in organisations. Business cultures privilege rational analysis, but this is only one frame of perception that draws heavily on left-hemisphere thinking. Non-verbal means of exploration – such as drawing, constellating or working with found objects – access right-hemisphere creativity, helping coachees access a different way of understanding themselves, their clients and their workplaces.

Above all, ecosystems supervision helps coaches face into the difficulty of our time with elegance and compassion. This enables them to hold the difficulty for their coachees as they explore their challenges. Given the uncertainty and anxiety that we face in the coming year and beyond, this is among the most valuable of contributions anyone can give to their organisation. If you run an internal coaching network, make it your new year’s resolution to think through how to resource your coaches for this precious role.

Originally published at Trusted Coach Directory.

Martin Vogel and Hetty Einzig are holding a webinar on ecosystems supervision for HR professionals and those who lead internal coaching networks. 3 March 2021, 08:30-10:00. More details.

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