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Executive Coaching

A Contextualised Approach to Coaching

The remarkable growth in the popularity of coaching can be explained in part by the dramatic changes in organizations in all sectors of the economy, according to Claire Huffington. For example, there has been extreme turbulence created by the revolution in information technologies and the transmission of knowledge, globalisation of markets and hence competitive pressures, and increasing levels of risk created by these changes—among other factors.

Executive Coaching; systems-psychodynamic perspective, ed.Halina Brunning, 2006, Karnac, Londen / New York.

Setting the Scene

Executive coaching involves a one-to-one relationship between a consultant or coach and a client, usually a senior executive leader or manager, which aims to further the effectiveness of the client in his or her role in the organization.

Therefore it is a dyadic task relationship, but with an important difference, for example, from psychotherapy, in that it is a relationship in which there is always an implicit external context in view. This is the organisation in which the client comes, in which he or she works and which pays for the coaching. In other words, in all the exchanges that take place between the client and the coach, there is always a third party in the wings. This ‘third party in the wings’ is present in at least two ways:

  • as an internal reality in the mind of the client and the coach, and
  • as an external reality out there, to be engaged with or not

Therefore, what the client says or does and what this elicits in the coach, as he or she listens and observes, needs to have reference to this omnipresent, sometimes hidden, third. What I am referring to here is the client and coach’s shared experience of the organization through the client-coach relationship.

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Emotions in Organisations: disturbance or intelligence?

Using case material from a senior exective in information technology, David Armstrong advances the view that a great deal can be learned about the organization from the individuals’ emotional responses to working within the organization. This is a conceptual shift from focusing on emotions as a source of disturbance in organizational functioning to regarding emotional experience as a rich source of information about the organization.

Clare Huffington, David Armstrong, William Halton, Linda Hoyle, and Jane Pooley, Working Below the Surface: The Emotional Life of Contemporary Organizations, Karnac Books: London, 2004. Chapter 1, pp. 11-30.

“ ... If one has the stomach to add the breakages, upheavals, distortions, inversions of all this chambermade music one stands, given a grain of goodwill, a fair chance of actually seeing the whirling dervish, Tumult, son of Thunder, self exiled in upon his ego ... “
~ James Joyce, Finnegans Wake1

Stating the obvious

Every organisation, this included, is an emotional place. It is an emotional place because it is a human invention, serving human purposes and dependent on human beings to function. And human beings are emotional animals: subject to anger, fear, surprise, disgust, happiness or joy, ease and unease.

By the same token, organisations are inter-personal places and so necessarily arouse those more complex emotional constellations that shadow all inter-personal relations: love and hate, envy and gratitude, shame and guilt, contempt and pride—the several notes of Joyce’s “chambermade music”, a wonderfully apt phrase for the emotional choreography each of us weaves, consciously or unconsciously from our encounter with another, or with others.

To this inter-personal music I would add the emotional patterning of what Wilfred Bion referred to as our inheritance as a group species: the simultaneous mobilization of work group and basic assumption mentality: dependence, fight-flight and pairing (Incidentally, it is worth recalling that Bion did not see group mentality as dependent on experiences in groups. It was wired in from birth, or indeed from conception, as much a factor in our internal worlds as in our external engagements—something we brought to that engagement rather than something generated from it, ab initio).

These are, to my mind, propositional truisms. With the possible exception of Bion’s characterization of group mentality, they state something obvious that one hardly needs to be a psychoanalyst or psychologist to recognise and acknowledge. Emotions are constitutive of organisational life because they are constitutive of all human experience. (Recently, neuro-scientists have suggested that they may indeed be constitutive of consciousness itself).2

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Reflexive questions in a coaching psychology context

Clare Huffington and Carola Hieker co-authored this article for International Coaching Psychology Review discussing how reflexive questions can be used by coaching psychologists and executive coaches who want to enhance their skills in asking effective questions.

International Coaching Psychology Review, Vol. 1 No. 2 November 2006, pp. 47-56.

How do we know what questions to ask when we are coaching and at what time? In this article, the authors focus on the application of questioning techniques from systemic family therapy (Tomm, 1987, 1988) linked to a change management framework from neurolinguistic programming (Dilts 1996) which has been applied in both therapy and organisational consultancy settings. The relevance of techniques from systemic therapy to coaching psychology is that they link one-to-one work to the whole system or organisation where the coachee works.

Executive coaching involves a one-to-one relationship between a coach and coachee, usually a manager or leader who wishes to become more effective in their role in the organisation. The coach is usually external to the organisation and he or she may bring expertise in terms of experience of management and leadership; psychological knowledge and therapeutic practice, in the case of coaching psychologists; or knowledge of that organisation’s particular business (O’Neill 2000). The coach’s role, however, is to start with the experience and issues brought by the coachee and to facilitate their own analysis and solution of problems in a process of “assisted self-exploration” (Huffington, 2006). As Gebelein et al. (2001) say, “coaches do not develop people; they equip people to develop themselves.”

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