October 16, 2021

Business coaching: a fad, paradoxes

Resorting to coaching seems to be a real fashion phenomenon. For the past ten years or so, companies have increasingly called on coaches to support their managers, whatever their position in the hierarchy.

From now on, as soon as someone changes jobs, takes on a new function (an engineer who becomes a manager, for example), or as soon as he encounters a difficulty in his activity, we consider coaching.

Proof of this success in figures, the International Coaching Federation, the oldest international federation of professional coaches, had 1,500 members in 1999, 16,000 in 2011, and 42,700 in 2020, in 140 countries.

For some critics, this would be the consequence of the suffering engendered by the pressure to perform capitalism. Other researchers believe, on the contrary, to identify a good use of coaching.

But what is coaching? Our recent research work explores the following paradox in particular: despite the difficulties in defining the term and in finding a theoretical basis for it, the practice turns out to be extremely framed.

The interviews and observations that we conducted invite us to resolve it by considering that coaching turns out to be both a helping relationship that unites the coach with the person he supports, and a commercial relationship between this same coach. and the company that purchases its services. Which is not without suggesting new issues …

Each his reference

For the researchers who study it, coaching appears to be a very heterogeneous practice, and difficult to define. A coach explains to us:

“Coaching is defined negatively. This is not therapy, this is not training, this is not counseling. At the same time, it’s a bit of all that. “

The sources of which the practice can be claimed turn out to be plural and they often have nothing to do with each other. Socrates, Montaigne, Freud, but also Jung, Eriksson, the Ballint or Lacan groups and even the Gestalt or the Palo Alto school… Each professional seems to have his reference.

Establishment of a contract

Such a diversity of inspirations should lead to a practice taking on a multitude of approaches. However, it is not. On the contrary, this practice is extremely framed.

Thus, after making sure that the coachee commits voluntarily and not at the request of his hierarchy, the course begins with the choice of a coach by the accompanied. This choice is made after an interview with the future guide, on the basis of trust.

It gives rise to the establishment of a contract. A professional explains:

“We define at the outset the why of the relationship, why we are going to meet. I have my coachee define what he expects. It takes mutual commitment around a contract and trust. Contract, commitment, trust. “

The contract also provides, in addition to the objectives to be achieved, the end of the relationship:

“My vocation is not to stay in people’s lives, although I love to hear from you. It is part of the healthy posture of being a coach to be there at a certain point and to disappear from people’s lives. It is part of the presupposition that the person has all the resources. “

The course continues with a number of sessions fixed at the start, with exercises between each. Some are held between the coach and the accompanied employee only, some involve a representative of the company. The latter is present in particular during the concluding session during which it is assessed whether the objectives set during the first session have been achieved.

A condition to be certified

The precise and strict codes of ethics which are drawn up by professional associations also participate in the supervision of practice. They relate in particular to the confidentiality of exchanges. The coachee remains in fact a person to be protected. Moreover, the same coach does not support two people united by a hierarchical relationship.

During our interviews, several coaches thus underlined an ethical concern:

“When drafting the contract, a coachee sets a goal: ‘I want people to do what I ask them to do.’ There, I refused. The goal was manipulative. He thought about it, and he said. revised its objective. We finally worked together. “

Because of the ethical issues that can arise, difficulties and dead ends that can occur in the relationship, a coach should normally be supervised. All coaches certified by an association are, and it is also a condition of certification.

Akerlof’s problem and coaching

How can we understand that this helping relationship can be so framed when its foundations seem so disparate? We must undoubtedly look for the commercial nature of the relationship.

We do not have reliable figures, but it is likely that 90 to 95% of coaching is done at the request of a company. For a firm, the question is: how to be sure to call upon a quality service?

The conclusions of the work of economist George Akerlof on information asymmetry can be applied to the case of choosing a coach.
Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

This is the classic problem of information asymmetry, raised in the 1970s by economist George Akerlof. His example is this: If I buy a used vehicle, how can I be sure the seller isn’t trying to rip me off? He indeed has information that I do not have about what he is giving me. Ditto for the company which grants itself the services of a coach: how to be sure that it is really good?

The problem arises all the more in our case as exchanges with employees will be confidential, and as more and more professionals are offering their services.

Decisive framing

The question can be rephrased in this way: how to bring together supply and demand around a price? The market relationship, in order to simply exist, had to be structured around three fundamental elements.

The first is the training of coaches. Some prestigious schools, like HEC, now offer specialized courses in this area. Then come the certification and, above all, the framing of the relationship.

A coach explains why this last element is particularly decisive:

“We are in a tripartite relationship, the company that pays, the coach, and the coachee. For things to run smoothly, a framework must be put in place so that the company is reassured. “

Thus we understand how a practice so difficult to define can be seen at the same time so framed. However, this is not the only paradox surrounding this growing phenomenon.

Victim of his own success ?

Two developments are in fact emerging and could upset both the market as it is structured today and the practice itself. It is thus open to wonder if coaching will not be a victim of its success.

A professional explains the first of them to us:

“Big theme today: become a manager coach. As if there were no longer any hierarchical relationship… ”

The leader would thus coach his team, more than he directs it. But wouldn’t there be a contradiction here? By definition, coaching is a non-hierarchical relationship. How, then, could it be confused with a managerial relationship?

During an interview, a second evolution, expected and feared, was also mentioned: that of artificial intelligence. His ability to provide real-time information on what is going on in the relationship, to suggest questions, to allow the coach to verify or refute his intuitions, to help him think about the way he leads one session, could well also bring about a profound change in practices.