Defining quality in coaching
4th August 2022
Written by Professor David Clutterbuck and Professor David Megginson. Highlights my own.
Coaching sometimes seems like Keats’ rainbow – the more we try to define it, dissect it, classify it and demystify it, the more we diminish it and lose its essence. One of the concerns both of us have about so much of the coaching literature is that it represents attempts to confine coaching within the partisan wrappings of a particular school, philosophy or approach. Such narrow and sometimes self-serving perspectives seem to us to be completely at odds with the essential ethos of coaching – enquiring, open, inclusive, subtle and multi-perspective. This perspective has been called ‘relational coaching’ by Erik de Haan and colleagues (de Haan, 2008).
At the same time, we accept and encourage the notion of quality in coaching, even though we may struggle even more in defining what that, too, means. Ingredients in a definition of quality of coaching might be posited to include:
Our observations of many coaches in and out of action in the context of coach assessment centers suggests that it may be easier to define what does not define quality – for example:
Our reflections to reconcile the spontaneity, dynamism and variety of coaching with the need to maintain standards lead to the conclusion that simplistic classifications are likely to be divisive and of dubious validity. What’s needed is a conceptual framework that reflects the evolution of complexity in coaches’ way of thinking about themselves, their clients and the context, in which they operate.
A possible solution may lie in the context of maturity. In the sense of the development of human beings, a number of authors have proposed models of the evolution of maturity. These models broadly assume that changes in the structure of thinking about oneself and the world, with which we interact, evolve slowly and in recognisable, sequential patterns; that higher levels involve a greater degree of awareness about the individual’s environment, and greater complexity in how they interpret their environment; that evolving through one level is an essential precursor to the next; that cognitive and socio-emotional responses at earlier levels may remain open and available, even though the individual’s “centre of gravity” is at a higher level; that people evolve at different rates; and that only a small proportion of the population become centred in the highest levels of maturity. These models tend to emphasize either cognitive-reflective processes or ego-development (Bachkirova and Cox, 2007), meaning “the development of self-identity and maturing of interpersonal relationships”. Key authors here include Torbert (1991), Wilber (2000), Cook-Greuter (2004), Beck & Cowan (1996) and Kegan (1992).
As Bachkirova and Cox express it: “What is particularly important in relation to development of coaches is that each stage enriches individual capacity for reflection and effective interaction with others. Their ability to notice nuances and details of situations is increasing. The resultant self-awareness gives them a better opportunity to articulate, influence and potentially change these situations.” Otto Laske (2006, 2009), who has built in particular upon Kegan’s approaches, maintains additionally that in a coaching context the relative maturity of the coach and client are significant in the relationship dynamic. Most importantly, if the coach is less cognitively or socio- emotionally mature than the client, this is likely to have a significant and negative impact on the quality of the coaching process. Chandler and Kram (2005) make a similar point with regard to the related activity of mentoring.
Our own interpretations of coach maturity are not based on empirical research, but we hope they will stimulate such research and serve as a starting point for debate. Our model derives from observation in a variety of contexts, but particularly within coach assessment centers, where it is possible to benchmark coaches against consistent criteria, and hence to reflect on characteristics and thinking patterns exhibited by coaches of different levels of demonstrated competence. It is important to emphasise here that we are not equating maturity and competence as the same construct. However, it is reasonable to conclude that they are closely related.
The four levels are models-based, process-based, philosophy or discipline-based, and systemic eclectic. Models-based coaches are often very new to the field and seek the re-assurance of a closely defined approach that they can take into any situation they might meet. This type of coaching is characterised by mechanistic conversations, where following the model is more important than exploring the client’s world. It is about doing rather than being and tends to be about coaching to the client than coaching with the client; and about the coaching intervention, rather than the coaching relationship. The dangerous myth that a good coach can coach anyone in any situation appears to stem from this very narrow perception of coaching.
Process-based approaches allow for more flexibility. They can be considered as a structured linking of related techniques and models. The coach has a number of specific tools to use in helping the client’s thinking, but the toolbag is still relatively limited. Solutions focus, for example, assumes that the client’s immediate need is to find a solution, but in practice, many clients simply want to build a greater understanding of their situation and/or to come to terms with a problem that is inherently insoluble. Yet there are many coaching situations where the emotional engagement between coach and client provides the most powerful resource for change.
Philosophy or discipline based mindsets tend to offer a wider still portfolio of responses to client needs, because they operate within a broad set of assumptions about helping and human development. They can still be applied mechanistically, however. What prevents them being so is the coach’s ability to reflect on his or her practice, both while coaching and after each coaching session.
The fourth, most liberating mindset is the systemic eclectic. These coaches have a very wide array of ways of working and a toolkit amassed from many sources, both within couching and from very different worlds. They have integrated this into a self- aware, personalized way of being with the client. They exhibit an intelligent, sensitive ability to select a broad approach, and within that approach, appropriate tools and techniques, which meet the particular needs of a particular client at a particular time. This relates to what Webb (2008) calls coaching for wisdom.
Observation of and discussion with a sample of systemic eclectic coaches suggests that:
Table 1: A comparison of the four levels of coaching maturity in coaching conversations
|Coaching approach||Style||Critical questions|
|Models-based||Control||How do I take them where I think they need to go?
How do I adapt my technique or model to this circumstance?
|Process-based||Contain||How do I give enough control to the client and still retain a purposeful conversation?
What’s the best way to apply my process in this instance?
|Philosophy-based||Facilitate||What can I do to help the client do this for themselves?
How do I contextualise the client’s issue within the perspective of my philosophy or discipline?
|Systemic eclectic||Enable||Are we both relaxed enough to allow the issue and the solution to emerge in whatever way they will?
Do I need to apply any techniques or processes at all?
If I do, what does the client context tell me about how to select from the wide choice available to me?
Observation in coach assessment centers gave us the basis for proposing an approach, which does more closely parallel other models of maturation. Areas where mature coaches demonstrate that they have reflected deeply include:
Although ontology has developed specific meaning as a genre of coaching practice, in the more generic sense of coaching as “being about being”, mature coaches tend to reflect more deeply on the nature of the interaction between themselves and their clients. Their reflections lead them to an understanding of this interaction that goes far beyond textbook explanations of the coaching process, whether these derive from models-based, process-based or discipline-based approaches.
They integrate their learning from such sources, with reflection on their experiences with clients, to develop and articulate a unique and personal perspective of the coaching dynamic. Some parallels can be drawn here with Kegan’s stages of adult maturity (1992). Absorbing values and beliefs of others – accepted wisdom – whether consciously or unconsciously, is perhaps typical of Kegan’s level three. As they mature, coaches question these “given” beliefs and begin to develop their own, self-authored perspectives, based on their own experience and reasoning. This suggests Kegan’s level four. Some go a step further, challenging their own self-focused assumptions, embracing uncertainties and letting go of any sense of needing to exert control over the conversation. For example, they may see coaching as a process of shared meaning making, in which the client’s values and perspectives have equal validity to their own.
One of the most pernicious myths about coaching is that coaches need no contextual knowledge of the client’s world. Whether born of self-aggrandizement or a mechanistic view of coaching, this is manifestly untrue, on two counts – client safety (and hence ethicality) and efficacy. In sports coaching, it is important to know enough to ensure that the client is not led to adopt behaviors, which might be detrimental to themselves. Similarly in the business world, a coach working with top managers, who has poor knowledge of corporate governance rules, poses a risk both to the client and to him or herself.
From an efficacy perspective, the coach has to have enough contextual knowledge first to demonstrate empathy and build rapport and credibility with the client. Secondly, construct questions that stimulate significant insight.
Coach assessment observations show clearly that the most effective coaches ask questions and make supportive comments that demonstrate:
Of course, having too close an understanding of the client’s world also has its downsides. In particular, it leads the coach instinctively to come up with their own answers and suppressing these may divert attention from listening to the client. Mature coaches work to give up a directive, “I’ve been there” approach. It seems, from observation, that the most effective coaches are often those, who have enough knowledge to contextualize questions, yet are able to maintain a deep, curious and constructive naiveté.
Systemic eclectic coaches give themselves permission to do less, with resultant great efficacy. In classroom experiments, we have artificially limited the number of times coaches can speak, to only once in every 10 minutes, on average. In almost all cases, coaches’ and coachees’ perception of the quality of the dialogue and, in particular, of the questions asked, is higher than under normal conditions. Our observation of systemic eclectics is that they are almost miserly with their questions, giving the client maximum time for reflection before they will nudge them gently along in their thinking.
Although all the major coaching professional bodies require member coaches to have some form of coach supervision or mentoring, remarkably few coaches seem to have developed a mental model that embraces supervision as a core activity in their practice. For many, it appears to be a tick the box requirement, with little proactivity and little practical relevance to their development as coaches. Peer coaching, in particular, can become a collusive, self-congratulatory activity.
We have very little evidence with regard to how coaches at different levels of maturity approach supervision, but we can posit that there might be differences in:
We suspect – but do not yet have evidence to support – that mature coaches would tend to have more developed, more proactive approaches to coach supervision and mentoring. Certainly, in assessment centers, more mature coaches tend to give clearer, more specific responses to all of the seven issues above. From comments by systemic eclectics, we glean a number of possible differentiators, which include:
What might a mature approach towards self-development as a coach look like? Based on a small sample of systemic eclectics, they might exhibit:
You don’t have to be a psychologist to recognise phenomena such as projection, dependency or sociopathy. But you do need at least some understanding of psychological and behavioural processes. Assessment centres have, however, revealed some very dangerous coaches, who have little appreciation of boundaries. For example, the coach, who claimed to have done 4000 hours of coaching, but could not think of a single occasion when he had met a boundary issue!
Common to all theories of maturity is a sense of progression. Inherent in the concept of wisdom is the use of reflection to raise awareness of both current and precursor states. Integral to the assessment centre design is a description of the coach’s learning journey – how they make current sense of their evolution towards their current level of practice. For many, the learning journey appears to have begun and ended with a certificate or other formal recognition as a coach. Their practical experience with clients has largely reinforced the “given” knowledge, rather than inspired them to question it.
Further along the maturity spectrum, we extrapolate, coaches are able to articulate critical shifts in their awareness of themselves as coaches, of the coach-client relationship and of the coaching process. A little further along again, they are able to describe – albeit often with hesitancy – where the journey appears to be taking them. It seems that, as with other maturity models, they are aware that the centre of gravity of their maturity level is shifting and they are searching for client opportunities, insights and pivotal conversations that will assist that movement, even if their vision of where it will take them is still somewhat hazy.
It is arguable that all coaches are better suited to some clients and situations than others. Key factors here may be:
Coaches bring different kinds of life experience, and corporate buyers tend to place a higher value on coaches who have client credibility by virtue of their own experience at senior executive level. (However, assessment center data suggest that a high level of experience in management, when not accompanied by a high level of coaching maturity, represents poor value for money and may sometimes do more harm than good.)
For many coaches Rogers’ (1961) conception of a fully functioning person may describe the coach’s perception of what it means to be human. Many ex-executives have a much more business–like model. Whatever model one has, it is useful to articulate it, so that clients know where the coach is coming from and the coach realises that views or hints about what the client might do or aspire to, come from a position rather than appearing out of thin air.
So how can and do coaches mature into systemic eclectics? One ingredient is likely to be time. Malcolm Gladwell (2008) summarises research into exceptional performance in a range of activities from business to sport and suggests that it takes 10,000 hours to achieve mastery in any field. Certainly, all the systemic eclectics we have observed have been involved with coaching – or with related disciplines – for a good many years. But putting in the hours does not automatically create mastery – there has additionally to be an immense amount of reflection, experimentation and adaption of practice.
For systemic eclectics, we observe that the learning they acquire shows them how much more they could learn. It’s like climbing a mountain – the higher you ascend, the bigger and more distant the horizon. Feeling comfortable with this diminishing perspective of one’s own importance and competence relative to what might conceivably be possible, requires a great deal of personal maturity, we suspect.
If there is one characteristic of systemic eclectics, which can potentially be learned and used by coaches at any level of maturity – and can possibly speed the transition between levels – it is this ability to savour where you are, to contextualise it and to be able to look both forwards and backwards along the path. Accepting and valuing your current state may be the critical component in achieving the next level of maturity.