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How to Avoid a Dysfunctional Coaching Culture in the Workplace

The spectre of unintended consequences is often the downfall of organisations working on changing their culture.  This is just as true for organisations seeking coaching as “the way we do things around here”.  For many, coaching is seen as ‘soft and fluffy’ but the way you ask people to coach can  create a dysfunctional culture which leads to the hard edged business reality of falling profits and unproductive employees. 

It’s all about the content

Laying the foundation for a healthy coaching culture sets you on course for success.  Let’s assume that you already have the three essentials covered at the start of your journey:  clear outcomes; positive unwritten rules; productive behaviours.  The context is now clear.  The rest is the content - the practical coaching tools and specific behaviours you want employees to demonstrate.  How will you ensure that coaching interactions are healthy and productive?  What do you need to look out for to ensure a fully functioning coaching culture?

Woolly boundaries

One of tell-tale signs that all is not well is when managers and employees think that the solution to everything is coaching.  For example, poor performance that has been left unaddressed by the manager.  Coaching may well be appropriate downstream but the first thing to tackle is the poor performance.  Once the ground rules have been re-established, the underlying cause of the poor performance can be addressed.  Coaching may be the answer, or it may be that something else will be more beneficial.    Creating a coaching culture doesn’t mean that the only tool in your tool kit is coaching.   Be clear about how coaching fits and aligns with all your other policies and procedures. 

Coaching, Counselling, Consulting or Therapy? 

Poor contracting within the coaching process is another tell-tale sign of dysfunction.  Every trained coach will already have an answer off pat about the difference between these approaches above.  The contracting process makes it clear what will be covered in the coaching and what won’t as well as the right to call a halt to the process if either party feels uncomfortable with where the coaching is going.   Contracting is something that should happen in every coaching conversation – regardless of whether it is coffee break coaching or full blown coaching sessions.  That way there can be no doubt.  Ensure that you have a good system in place to help those people seeking alternative help, for example, an employee assistance programme, and support the coaching process in having these types of conversations up front. 

Losing perspective

Coaches who don’t have an outlet for their questions and issues can sometimes get into difficulties with more complex coaching situations and this can create dysfunction both for the individuals and reverberate through the organisation.  Seeking supervision to keep you on the straight and narrow is customary in private coaching practice as it is the place to raise issues of contracting and boundaries as well as a forum for exploring questions of ethics.  It is also a great way to continue your coaching development since part of the process is about learning.   How could you offer supervision within your organisation? 

Bearing in mind the confidential nature of the coaching you might want to include something in your coaching policy that anyone operating as a coach –manager or internal coach – will be required to participate in supervision.  And as we’re on the subject of confidentiality, give thought to how you will contract around issues of misconduct, illegal activities or potential addiction issues that might come up in the coaching sessions.  Including this caveat in your confidentiality agreement means that issues likely to be harmful to the individual or the organisation are excluded from coaching.    

Thinking that ethics aren’t important in coaching

Operating ethically as a coach cements the climate of trust and is the final piece of the jigsaw in dysfunctional coaching cultures.  There are many questions of an ethical nature that crop up in coaching.   One of the most common is about the relationship between the coach and the coachee.  If you as an internal coach have a close relationship with a manager and are asked to coach their team you should consider potential conflicts of interest.  Could the team think that you are driving a hidden agenda on the manager’s behalf?  Whether real or imagined, being aware of potential conflicts of interest is crucial in ensuring the ethical application of the coaching process.  The unintended consequence of not doing so can undo months, if not years, of hard work in developing your coaching culture. Will the climate you create through coaching be one that is seen as fair and just?  And how will employees know? 

Pay Obsessive Attention to Systems

Avoiding a dysfunctional coaching culture means paying close and constant attention to how your employees apply their coaching practices: contracting, boundary management, demonstrating ethics.  The path to the coaching culture Holy Grail is through assessment, evaluation, monitoring and a robust support system.  A high functioning coaching culture pays obsessive attention to these systems.  To maintain the culture you worked hard to create you have to keep it well nourished.