Does insight into coachee context matter? Part 1 – benefits

Coachees come in all shapes and sizes, weighed down with all kinds of issues. As coaches our aim is to focus non-judgmentally on the particular coachee we’re dealing with at any one time, and that particular coachee’s experience. But to be effective, do we also need a measure of independent insight into the coachee’s context? To be aware of wider influences and potential stresses?

Images on smart phoneThat depends on the type of coaching. It’s possible, particularly in 1:1 life coaching, to work quite successfully with an individual coachee without much reference to wider context. Indeed, some would argue that concentrating solely on the coachee and his or her experience is the coach’s role. However, I’d say in organisational contexts such an approach is insufficient. Somewhere down the line evidence of barriers to change will emerge which might have been foreseen and possibly avoided if the coach had even a little prior knowledge of coachee context.

That’s not to say that having prior insight into coachee context might not have its drawbacks. In this post and the next, my aim is to open up some of the issues to start exploring the pros and cons.

Here in Part 1 we’ll be looking at why insight into coachee context matters and its benefits, before turning in Part 2 to examining potential drawbacks.

Why does insight into coachee context matter?

Individual coachees don’t work in a vacuum. They work in organisations, with all the complications and intricacies that can involve.  Red silhouette amongst arrowsTo be effective, therefore, a coach would do well to get a feel for the ‘atmosphere’ of the particular organisation concerned. After all, whatever the issue and whatever the agreed action points, coachees can only be successful in their efforts to change if they enjoy the cooperation of relevant colleagues and stakeholders, along with the modification and/or coordination of a whole variety of influencing factors that may be at play.

How can we put together a picture of a coachee’s wider context? Here are  5  questions to start the ball rolling…

1. What kind of organisation is this?     Different types of organisation have different types of priorities. Is this a commercial company for which the drive for profits is key? A public sector organisation with a whole variety of boxes to tick and stakeholders to satisfy? Or is it a not-for-profit for which fundraising and/or the pursuit of a particular social cause is the main driver? Clearly these contexts can exert different pressures on those working in them, and an insight into those potential pressures can help a coach interpret the kinds of issues a coachee may present.

Silhouette man on graph paper2. What’s happening to the organisation currently?     If it’s a commercial company, is it in profit? Struggling? Expanding? Contracting? If it’s a public sector organisation, is it achieving its targets? Is its funding being cut? Is there ongoing restructuring? Has legislation or ‘politics’ changed parameters? Coaches who have some understanding of recent events and influences can better contextualise what may be happening for the coachee and her or his immediate setting.

3. Is the management structure ‘flat’ or hierarchical?     Each of these types of management structure imply differing levels of autonomy and decision-making capacity for employees at different levels. And they are attractive to different types of people. Insight on this can help a coach determine whether problems coachees may be having could be down to the type of management structure in which they are working.

4. What is the leadership and management style?     Is this management by ‘discipline’ and ‘command’, or is there a ‘coaching style’ of management? Which behaviours generally seem to be rewarded and which aren’t? Is this a ‘long hours’ culture, or does it offer flexibility in achieving work-life balance? Thinking through answers to such questions is important. It’s all very well agreeing action points with a coachee, but is the coach aware of potential barriers to their achievement? Some the coachee would be expected to foresee, but there may be other obvious factors beyond the remit and knowledge of the coachee, which nevertheless could be profitably factored into her or his planning.

Faces in circle5. Who has really requested this coaching intervention and why?     It’s common in an organisational setting for a coaching intervention to be of interest to numerous stakeholders in addition to the coachee. These might include the line manager, an HR partner, a Learning & Development representative, the actual sponsor. What experience does each stakeholder have of coaching, and what does each one think ‘success’ will look like in this case? Do some parties think the coachee needs ‘fixing’? What is the history of previous coaching interventions (if any), and are there any hidden ‘politics’ being played out in the current scenario? Are the stakeholders willing to make the changes themselves that may be necessary to support a successful outcome for the coachee? Where there is going to be a three- or even four-way coaching relationship, such issues need clarification right at the start before coaching begins, so that consensus is reached and clear agreed goals can be identified.

So, there can be distinct benefits to having insight into the wider coachee context. Seeking answers to questions such as the above can help a coach put the coachee’s ‘story’ and experience into perspective, as well as flag up potential pitfalls to avoid, especially in terms of possible mismatches of expectation between stakeholders which could derail the success of the coaching process itself.

Having considered benefits to having insight into wider coachee context, next time in Part 2 we’ll be teasing out potential drawbacks. What might they be, and how can we ensure their effects can be minimised?

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