Beyond codes of ethics to ethical maturity

A recent article by Kara Swisher in the New York Times appeared under the headline Who Will Teach Silicon Valley to Be Ethical? Tech companies have been attracting a fair amount of criticism this year over their grasp of ethics. But they’re not alone in finding this area a minefield. The shareholder value view of firms, which has it that their sole purpose is to make a profit, still shapes leadership thinking in most organisations. This infects even those – like the BBC or NHS – that aren’t ostensibly profit focussed but where stripping out cost often crowds out other considerations. Where a reductionist view of purpose prevails, it’s not surprising that questions of ethics may receive scant consideration.

Kara Swisher considers various solutions including companies appointing chief ethics officers, putting in place official systems of ethics or (radical idea) chief executives stepping up to the plate to provide more leadership. She quotes an unnamed ethical consultant who complains that appointing custodians of ethics would be no more than window dressing because “we haven’t even defined ethics yet”.

Running through all of this is an assumption that ethics can be defined to delineate universal principles that clearly determine ethical or unethical behaviour in all eventualities. Coaching has been pursuing this track for some years. Every professional association of coaches has a code of ethics that its members commit to follow. And yet coaches, who are privy to ethical dilemmas more than most in business, must know that ethical choices are highly contingent on the contexts in which they arise. This is the essence of the well-known trolley problem: it’s obviously wrong to kill someone; but what if doing so saves the lives of five others?

Continue reading “Beyond codes of ethics to ethical maturity”

Feedback without tears

How to give feedback is an issue that comes up with increasing frequency in my coaching work. It reflects, I suspect, a normative advocacy of feedback cultures in organisations. This arouses considerable anxiety among people who feel themselves under pressure to provide feedback left, right and centre. They often hold a belief that, if only they could get the recipe right, they could learn how to transmit feedback and move on.

There are some well-meaning intentions behind feedback culture. In particular, it draws on Carol Dweck’s idea of a growth mindset – whereby people welcome corrective feedback as a platform for their development. But the espousal of feedback can also be oppressive because the linear and mechanistic assumptions around “delivering feedback” ignore the complex feelings it can arouse.

While models of providing feedback have their place, the problem with the “recipe” view of feedback is that it ignores how the “delivery” of feedback will be received by the other party. People are not automatons and the difficulty for people providing feedback is that they can really have no idea in advance how it will land. Simply understanding this can relieve some of the stress for those anticipating getting the feedback process wrong.

Continue reading “Feedback without tears”

From toolkits to relationships: getting real about what happens in coaching

The practice of coaching has many antecedents. But one that most eased its way into the corporate world was the analogy between sports coaching and leadership development. Corporations are susceptible to narratives of being world class and winning. So learning from methodologies fine-tuned to get the best out of athletes can be appealing to the corporate leader’s world view. This, for a long while, created an emphasis in the development of coaches on the acquisition of skills and techniques. Coaches would turn up with their “toolkits” and fine tune their clients’ performance in the pursuit of specified goals.

The Theory and Practice of Relational Coaching by Simon Cavicchia and Maria Gilbert proposes a different perspective. It views coaching as a dialogue of discovery between coach and client, one which calls on the practitioner to cultivate awareness and empathic attunement more than it demands technical accomplishment. It’s an approach which is grounded in the insight that all of our experience is socially constructed. There is no fixed thing called an organisation which provides a predictable environment for our working lives. It is enacted every day by its participants and shaped by the different world views that each of them brings by virtue of their biography.

Continue reading “From toolkits to relationships: getting real about what happens in coaching”

The serious business of playing the Fool

fool

It’s a shame that Hetty Einzig’s The Future of Coaching is so-called. Its concerns spread much wider than its title implies. It’s a radical and thoughtful book which holds before us the chaotic nuttiness of the world as it is now and asks what kind of leadership should coaching call forth.

Hetty Einzig takes it as axiomatic that the big challenges we humans face demand committed and creative interventions by leaders. Never mind present concerns such as Brexit or Trump, Hetty reminds us that the broader context is that of a trajectory to environmental catastrophe. She has no truck with the notion that coaches should be neutral facilitators of whatever goals their corporate clients might pursue. Nor does she believe leaders should collude with such ideas. Coaches and leaders alike are citizens in wider society as well as servants of the organisations that employ them. It is the legitimate task of all of us to try to influence organisations to play a constructive role in addressing society’s problems.

Continue reading “The serious business of playing the Fool”

When it’s time to finish coaching

How to work with a coach, part 10

When is it time to finish coaching? And how do you end the relationship elegantly when you feel it’s time to part company with your coach?

Often, decisions about ending are determined in advance. There’s frequently an understanding that the coaching is a finite arrangement. This is partly philosophical: an assumption (not necessarily valid) that a client risks becoming dependent on their coach. Partly, it’s budgetary: the number of sessions is determined by the funds available. Whatever the reason, your coach will likely have a well-rehearsed model for bringing the coaching to closure.

Continue reading “When it’s time to finish coaching”

If your coaching isn’t going well

How to work with a coach, part 9

Sometimes coaching disappoints. But it’s a sign of the determined positivity that grips much of the coaching business that this isn’t well acknowledged.

As Steven Berglas, a psychiatrist turned executive coach noted in 2002, purveyors of coaching have an interest in inviting prospective clients into a story of readily attainable transformation. Coaching contracts are mostly short-term. This is ripe ground for clients forming misguided expectations of a quick fix. Coaches might reinforce this with an emphasis on behavioural change, the linearity of which defies the complexity of human experience. Because coaches mostly hold to a professional ethos of facilitating a neutral process, they can implicitly absolve themselves of responsibility when the product doesn’t deliver.

How do you know when coaching isn’t working? You might find yourself going through the motions: turning up for the sessions but not really engaging with the endeavour. Or you might be engaging wholeheartedly with the sessions but feeling that the process as a whole is not producing the outcomes you had hoped for.

Continue reading “If your coaching isn’t going well”

Working with your coach

How to work with a coach, part 7

How should the working relationship with your coach develop? It’s worth thinking about this if you want to get the most out of your coaching. Clients sometimes take a while to realise that it’s not the best strategy to sit back and let coaching happen to them. Coaching is a two-way street and it pays to lean into it.

Martha Stark, a psychotherapist, has described how there are implicitly three possible models at work in professional helping relationships. Which do you imagine yourself to be in as a coachee?

Continue reading “Working with your coach”

Going deep in conversation with insight dialogue

If I’m working with a group that is highly committed to improving the quality of relationship between them, I might reach for Insight Dialogue.

This is actually a meditation practice developed by Gregory Kramer, a meditation that is conducted in relationship with someone else. Its essence is that it interrupts the normal routine of conversation with deliberate pauses and reflections, so that we might connect with the perception that we hold that might otherwise lie just beneath conscious awareness.

Continue reading “Going deep in conversation with insight dialogue”

Mindfulness plus narrative awareness equals critique

mindful revolution
Time for a mindful revolution?

This is the third and final part in my series on being and doing in coaching. In Part 1, I explained how I draw on mindfulness and narrative awareness in my work. In Part 2, I discussed the symbiotic link between being and doing, and the challenge to bring more of a sense of being to our doing.

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with the critique of organisations that we have developed here: the idea that organisations could be less toxic places to work and could play a more positive role in addressing society’s problems. I don’t want to rehearse those arguments again but instead look at how they come out of the approach to coaching that I have been describing in this series. If coaching is, as I maintain, a way of facilitating unfamiliarity, it follows that it is potentially disruptive of the received wisdom in organisations – the things that are so taken for granted that it’s otherwise almost impossible to question them. By putting a premium on connecting with our embodied wisdom, our gut instincts and nagging doubts, it creates space to acknowledge the ways in which the things organisations ask of us might make us uneasy.

Where does received wisdom come from? Narrative theory tells us that it is shaped by the dominant culture of the age. In our age, the common sense is defined by neoliberalism: the idea that the market is the natural way to do things and, if we live with the consequences of the market, this will be better for everyone in the long run. More than that – and more pertinent to this conversation – it’s a common sense characterised by hyper-rationality in which the insights that comes from emotion, values and embodied wisdom count for little.

Continue reading “Mindfulness plus narrative awareness equals critique”

Your first session with a coach

How to work with a coach, part 6

6 iStock_000003102856Small

When you begin work with a coach, the first session can have a significant influence on the how the coaching programme as a whole plays out. It is the coach’s responsibility to facilitate a constructive session. But, for a client, it can by useful to understand the potential dynamics of your first session. This can help you both to evaluate how your coach is doing and to optimise your contribution to making the coaching a success.

For many coaches, their main objective in the first session is to establish rapport with the client and the foundation of a relationship based on mutual trust and respect. You might be forgiven for bringing a little scepticism to such aspirations. Is there any kind of professional who wouldn’t claim to aspire to trust and rapport with their clients? Coaching is different, though. Professions such as lawyers, doctors, architects even many kinds of therapist, are trading on the expertise that they can apply to fixing a client’s problem. This implies a degree of inherent disrespect for their clients – that is to say, a conviction that the client lacks resources to address their issue. Coaches’ expertise is not applied to solving a client’s problem but to helping the client find their own strategy or solution to whatever challenge they face. In short, they trust the client’s resourcefulness, the client’s expertise in their own situation.

Continue reading “Your first session with a coach”