Does insight into coachee context matter? Part 2 – drawbacks

Last time in Part 1 we looked at benefits for coaches of having insight into coachee context, along with  5  questions that could help us build up a wider picture of a coachee’s situation. This time we’ll be looking into potential drawbacks to having wider insight.

psychedelic silhouette The  5  questions we asked last time were aimed at information gathering about the organisation. This time we’re looking at the coach him- or herself. Could there be potential shortcomings or blind spots in a coach’s approach to what he or she knows about a coachee’s context? What could be the results? And most importantly, how can we as coaches strategise to avoid these deficiencies, minimising the drawbacks to having wider insight into coachee context whilst maximising the benefits?

What are the potential drawbacks to having wider insight into coachee context?

A key duty of a coach is to maintain objectivity during a coaching intervention, even whilst striving to see things from the coachee’s point of view. Maintaining objectivity is what enables a coach to act as a faithful mirror in reflecting back to the coachee and challenging where appropriate, in order to facilitate learning and change. A careful balance needs to be maintained, therefore, between insight into the wider coachee context and identification with the coachee her- or himself.Blue woman's head

Below I’ll be considering  3  potential psychological pitfalls a coach can fall into, as well as ways of avoiding them. Deeper insight into coachee context needs to be gained alongside engagement in a robust parallel process of self-reflection and strategising, aimed at uncovering how that deeper insight might impact on the coach’s own approach to the coaching intervention – as well as the psychological predisposition he or she brings to it.

The  3  potential psychological pitfalls are:

  • misinterpreting the coachee’s situation
  • collusion with the coachee
  • collusion with the organisation

1. Misinterpreting the coachee’s situation     Having prior insight into coachee context can sometimes lead coaches to interpret the coachee’s ‘story’ purely in the light of the coach’s own understanding of the organisational setting. This could lead to misdiagnosis of the real issues due to narrow concentration on what the coach judges to be important.

A reflective practitioner can avoid such a scenario through a conscious process of broadening his or her view to encourage an exploration of, for example, the coachee’s interests and experience outside work, and/or the coachee’s own particular psychological makeup.

2 Stylised people talking2. Collusion with coachee     The coach may be aware of wider developments in the organisation which could lead him or her to lose objectivity in the coaching relationship. This loss of objectivity could in turn lead to over-identification or even collusion with a coachee caught up in those developments. What might be the result? Possibly failure to challenge unhelpful coachee attitudes/behaviours, failure to pick up on limiting self-beliefs that are negatively impacting coachee development, or even openly sympathising with the coachee whilst portraying the organisation itself in a negative light.

A reflective practitioner needs to be aware of and sensitive to possible triggers in her or his own psychological make-up, as well as the circumstances in which they might be activated. Problems might then be anticipated, giving the opportunity to decline the engagement if appropriate, or to formulate strategies ahead of time to avoid such problems. If loss of objectivity occurs during the course of coaching, warning signs can be picked up, allowing the coach to consider what course of action to take next.

3. Collusion with the organisation     Unless care is taken, prior insight into wider organisational context and stakeholder attitudes may predispose a coach to identify too closely with organisational or stakeholder needs to the detriment of the coachee, especially where the organisation (or even a particular stakeholder) is sponsoring and/or paying for the intervention. Woman surrounded by arrowsFor example, if an agenda of ‘fixing’ the coachee is internalised by the coach even before coaching commences, it is unlikely that objectivity will be established in the coaching relationship. A coach might interpret the coachee’s ‘story’ in light of what he or she already knows of the organisational narrative, leading to lack of empathy with the coachee and a tendency to dictate the direction of the coaching (however subtly) towards a conclusion which the organisation or a particular stakeholder desires. Where this is to detriment of the coachee, a real problem arises.

Reflective practitioners need to think through the implications of such ethical dilemmas carefully well beforehand, and to be very clear on their own motivations. At the very least, a robust preparation and contracting process should be in place which can flag up and clarify problem areas before the coaching commences. Where there is a clear risk of a possible conflict of interest or loss of objectivity, the coach should think very carefully whether or not to take the assignment on.

So, if insight into wider coachee context is gained without a parallel process of self-reflection, problems can occur. Insight that should have been of benefit can turn into a considerable drawback. The answer to this dilemma is not the maintenance of ignorance. Rather, it is the designing by coaches of processes that encourage self-exploration, and the designing of strategies which ensure the independence and objectivity necessary to the delivery of an ethical and professional service. Self-knowledge, clarity and a reflective approach can take us a long way…

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