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Potential obstacles to coaching

Dr. Simon Moss

This piece was extracted from a forthcoming book, in which Dr Simon Moss is a co-author.

Overriding intuition

Coaching, despite its potential value and utility, can sometimes damage the motivation, engagement, decision making, creativity, and ultimately the performance of the client. In particular, three subtle, and often unrecognized, complications can impede the progress and satisfaction of clients.

First, the coaching process--the clarification of problems, the identification of solutions, the formulation of plans, the accountability of behaviors, and many other procedures--can stifle the intuitive inclinations of clients. That is, individuals sometimes apply their intuition and instincts to reach decisions and guide behavior. They consider their subjective, visceral responses whey they decide which course of action to pursue. They act naturally, effortlessly, and seamlessly when they interact with other individuals.

On other occasions, individuals consider issues more rationally, logically, and carefully. They utilize formal rules and algorithms to decide how to act. They apply specific principles and theories to improve their interactions with other individuals.

When managers engage in coaching, they might become more inclined to invoke these rules, algorithms, principles, and theories--disregarding their intuitive inclinations--at work. They might apply the rule to "Always pursue every media opportunity". They might utilize the algorithm to "Count the number of costs and benefits of each option before you reach a decision". They could apply the principle "Try to smile whenever you interact with a client", and so forth.

Indeed, scientific research does confirm that coaching fosters a reliance on rules, principles, and theories. Coaches often highlight discrepancies between the existing status or behavior of their clients and the aspirations these individuals could achieve. They might assert, "You could become more respected if you pursue every media opportunity", implying they are not optimally respected already. The could maintain that "You would be more persuasive if you smiled when interacting with clients", intimating their influence is limited. These discrepancies have been shown to evoke mental states that, in turn, induce a reliance on logical or rational rules and principles.

Unfortunately, this undue reliance on formal rules and principles often compromises their flexibility and behavior. They become less sensitive to subtle complications. They might decide to pursue a media opportunity, even if the journalist is often disparaging rather than approving. They might choose a course of action that generates more benefits than costs, even if some of these gains are uncertain, unpredictable, and even unimportant. they might smile to customers who, because of their irate state, perceive this expression as patronizing.

Indeed, a variety of scientific studies have shown that individuals sometimes act inflexibly, inappropriately, and unproductively when they follow rules, principles, and theories. For example, in a study conducted by Vocauer and Turpie (2004), some participants were instructed to monitor their own behaviour closely when they interact with individuals from a minority background. They were encouraged to curb unsuitable, insensitive, and inappropriate remarks or mannerisms.

These instructions and principles, however, did not improve their interactions with these minorities. Indeed, these individuals were perceived as less supportive, interested, and likeable. Their flexibility diminished, and their capacity to interact genuinely, effortlessly, and appropriately declined.

Maintaining motivation

The second obstacle that coaches must negotiate is the transience of any changes. Improvements in the capacity of clients to regulate their anger, to solve problems, to fulfill their goals, or to inspire their colleagues, for example, are often brief--lasting only six months, one month, or even one week after the sessions are terminated.

Coaches, of course, are utterly aware of this issue. They institute an extensive gamut of exercises, practices, and techniques to prevent this regression. Clients might be encouraged to sign contracts with their coach, manager, family, or colleagues, pledging to maintain their discipline and to fulfill their plans. Coaches might impart a series of strategies and tactics, all intended to guarantee persistence.

However, some intractable, unrelenting obstacles often impede these attempts to maintain discipline and persistence. First, the values, objectives, goals, targets, plans, and intentions that appeared so compelling to clients during the coaching session often seem relatively insignificant during the demands of a typical day at work. The inspiring vision they had decided to promulgate to promote engagement, or the mental exerises they had planned to undertake to alleviate stress, seem almost anachronistic a week later.

This problem arises, at least partly, because the values of individuals vary across contexts. During coaching sessions, when clients deliberate over their future--carefully, systematically, and analytically--they are more inclined to value symbolic benefits, such as money, promotions, status, and power. During a typical work day, however, as deliberation evolves into action, clients are more likely to value more subjective qualities, including autonomy, interest, curiosity, challenge, and satisfaction. As their priorities change, the goals they had formulated during the coaching session do seem as urgent or pressing. These goals feel like they are incidental, not essential.

A variety of studies have shown how the values and priorities of individuals change over time. One of these studies was conducted by Van den Berga, Mansteada, van der Pligta, and Wigboldus (2006). Half of the participants completed a task that was intended to evoke a rational, logical, and analytical state of mind--an orientation resembles the mental state that clients experience during a coaching session. Specifically, they were instructed to unearth words that are synonymous with rationality, such as "sensible" or "reason", from a matrix of letters.

The remaining participants completed a task that was intended to evoke an intuitive state of mind instead. This state more closely mirrors the orientation of individuals during a typical day at work. In particular, these participants were instructed to unearth words that are synonymous with this state of mind, such as "intuition", "sense", and "feeling".

All participants then receive extracts of information, characterizing the features of a hypothetical pet. Participants in a rational, analytical state of mind were subsequently more likely to remember symbolic features, such as the cost of this pet. Participants in an intuitive state of mind were more likely to remember subjective, perceptual features, such as the fluffy fur. Their priorities and values were different.

Decline in wellbeing

Despite these shifts in their priorities and the concomitant decline in their enthusiasm, some clients will continue to follow their plans and to reach their targets. Contracts with their managers and pledges to their family, combined with an impending sense of guilt and shame, might compel these individuals to pursue these goals.

Nevertheless, this sense of compulsion often provokes a host of problems and complications. Specifically, the clients will feel compelled to engage in work activities that do not align with their core values-tasks they do not regard as important, interesting, absorbing, or gratifying. They need to suppress their inclinations and preferences, to complete these uninspiring tasks and to fulfill these arduous demands.

This need to inhibit their inclinations demands effort and discipline. Continued effort, over lengthy periods of time, is taxing, sometimes culminating in exhaustion and burnout, and invariably damaging their concentration and performance on other activities.

A vast array of scientific studies has illustrated the difficulties that surface when individuals, to fulfill the demands of coaches, managers, or other authorities, need to suppress their burning inclinations over an extended duration. Their capacity to undertake tasks or to implement plans that demand effort and persistence deteriorates. They cannot concentrate effectively when they complete tasks they have not practiced extensively before. They cannot regulate their emotions effectively, often exploding with irritation and frustration.

As time unfolds, an inexorable cycle can sometimes develop. Increasingly more of their demands, goals, or duties remain unfulfilled, as their persistence wanes and their concentration flounders. More effort thus needs to be mobilized to satisfy these demands, further amplifying their exhaustion and magnifying their decline in concentration. They feel distracted, unable to memorize sequences of tasks.

Misguided advice

The escalation in exhaustion and deterioration in concentration might be warranted if the activities they feel compelled to undertake are, indeed, useful and important. Unfortunately, in some instances, perhaps in too many instances, the advice that coaches impart is flawed, contradicting the latest developments in scientific research.

Many of the trends and fashions in coaching have been discredited by scientific studies. For example, clients are sometimes told to think positively, and suppress any doubts, concerns, worries, and anxieties. They are implored to focus on their strengths, not their weaknesses, and to anticipate success, not envisage failure.

To fulfill these imperative, clients must inhibit some of the feelings and thinking. They must distract themselves from unpleasant emotions and pessimistic thoughts. This attempt to suppress anxiety and frustration, doubt and worry, is initially effective initially. But then, after these individuals are distracted by something else, the suppressed emotions and thoughts return, almost always more intensely than before. Suppressed doubts, frustrations, anxieties, and thoughts have all been demonstrated to be amplified, minutes or hours later.

Yet, some coaches, and indeed many counselors and consultants, continue to promulgate this dictum to think positively and to suppress doubts, concerns, and anxieties. They ascribe the initial improvement in mood, but not the subsequent deterioration, to this practice. They are aware of the benefits, but oblivious to the shortfalls, of attempting to suppress negative emotions and thoughts. And consequently, the reputation of this practice remains untarnished.

Many of the other recommendations that coaches disseminate also generate immediate gains, but future complications, contributing to a wealth of misconceptions. For example, over the last few years, many coaches have embraced the fashion to administer assessment tools: inventories that characterize the personality, motivation, interests, qualities, and limitations of clients. Clients are assigned labels, such as -"AT-", which might indicate they prefer to work alone on technical activities. Alternatively, they might be bestowed a category, such as a -"Critic-", implying they prefer to unearth problems rather than pursue solutions.

Initially, both the coach and the client embraces these labels or categories. These descriptions offer a sense of clarity, as the individuals begin to understand the source or origin of many of their behaviors, tendencies, and preferences. Indeed, some clients even experience a sense of inclusion, not isolation, feeling connected to other individuals with the same label.

Many deleterious but unexpected consequences, however, transpire weeks or months after these labels are assigned. Specifically, after clients are assigned a label, they become more likely to assume the essence of all individuals-their character, temperament, and competence-are fixed rather than flexible. Consequently, they presume their own personality and intelligence is immutable. With practice, experience, and effort, they might be able to change superficially, but their core seems to remain unaffected.

As soon as clients begin to conceptualize their essence as fixed, not malleable, many facets of their performance decline. They perceive criticism as an assault on their character, not as opportunity to improve. They will, therefore, become more sensitive to criticism, denigrating anyone who challenges their behavior or questions their decisions. This inclination not only exacerbates the stress and agitation they experience in a work setting, but also impedes their flexibility, growth, and progress, as sources of information are rejected not embraced.

Indeed, a host of other complications often ensue. These clients become less resilient in response to changes in the workplace and rises in the workload. Coaches, however, usually remain either oblivious to these difficulties or unaware that assigning labels to clients might have aggravated these problems.

Misconceptions and fallacies, which often curb the efficacy of coaches, do not always originate from this oblivion towards future complications. Instead, these misconceptions emanate from three main sources. First, because coaches and clients often scrutinize work behavior-carefully, rationally, and analytically-these individuals develop the inclination to justify every decision, judgment, choice, and action. A variety of studies have shown, however, that decisions should not be justified explicitly and considered systematically.

In a typical study, individuals are asked to choose between several options-perhaps alternative vehicles, offices, or food products, for example. Participants who are asked to justify their choice, expressing reasons and explanations, are more likely to select the alternatives that experts regard as unsuitable. In one experiment, for example, these participants were more likely to choose the brand of jam that experts had designated as inferior. These participants are more inclined to focus on only a subset of attributes and qualities, disregarding a sizeable gamut of relevant characteristics and features.

In contrast, participants who are asked to reflect on the options, to relax for several minutes, and then to trust their intuition are more likely to select the optimal alternative. These individuals are less likely to regret their decisions, especially when the alternatives differ on a countless array of subjective attributes, such as paintings or offices. In some instances, the process of coaching dismisses, rather than cherishes, the role of intuition and emotion in reaching decisions and formulating goals.

Second, in the reflective, rational, and analytical milieu in which coaches operate, individuals often overestimate the importance of tangible and symbolic benefits-such as money and influence. They neglect the sense of fulfillment that emanates from challenging and interesting activities. They disregard the feeling of gratification that ensues when individuals engage in novel and creative endeavors.

Many misguided practices ultimately originate from this overestimation of tangible benefits. Some coaches, for example, impose tangible targets on their clients. They might set the target to -"secure $1,000,000 of revenue this financial quarter-" or -"increase employee retention by 10% this month-".

An undue focus on targets can, in many circumstances, compromise engagement, innovation, resilience, and ultimately performance. Instead, managers tend to work more productively, when they attempt to improve their skills, to refine their strategies, or to modify their practices, rather than strive to reach tangible goals. In particular, an emphasis on processes, not outcomes, or development, not performance, enables individuals to feel entirely absorbed in their work. As these individuals become increasingly engrossed, rather than distracted, their creativity improves, their satisfaction increases, and their wellbeing escalates.

Third, many coaches do not adapt their solutions and advice to accommodate the unique needs, motives, preferences, and constraints of their clients. That is, these coaches apply the same practices, exhibit the same style, convey the same advice, and invoke the same arguments, regardless of the goals, concerns, personality, or motivation of the individual. This rigidity sometimes reflects a need to follow the procedures that were recommended by someone else-an author, tutor, friend, or mentor.

Alternatively, this rigidity might originate from another misguided assumption: the belief that courses of action that expedited their own success will also be valuable to their clients. If these coaches amassed an array of formal qualifications, they will often recommend that clients consider further education as well. If they developed an extensive network of contacts, they will tend to advise their clients to attend every social event on offer.

Strategies, tactics, and practices that facilitated the progress of coaches might impede the success of their clients. The courses of action that individuals should pursue-the practices and approaches that are most likely to be effective-will depend on their personality, temperament, values, needs, motives, qualities, and shortcomings. And these characteristics often differ between the typical coach and the typical client.

To illustrate, some coaches embark on this role because they like to form solid, trusting bonds with other individuals. Their pride often derives from the strength and stability of their relationships, not their personal achievements or qualifications. Their confidence, conviction, and enthusiasm all escalate whenever their social networks become salient in their mind-whenever they converse with their friends, email their customers, or reflect upon their contacts. As a consequence, many coaches encourage their clients to focus more attention on their own social networks.

Many of their clients, however, exhibit a very different inclination. Managers and executives often derive their pride from their independence, not from their social networks. These individuals frequently seek to augment their authority, influence, reputation, and autonomy, striving to be recognized as unique and proficient.

Recent studies have highlighted the complications that arise when these clients focus heavily on their social networks. In particular, rather than boost their pride and enthusiasm, their confidence diminishes and their motivation thus declines. Their sense of independence and autonomy-their key motives-is curtailed. And hence, coaches who advocate the behaviors that accelerated their own progress might damage the success of their clients.


Jostmann, N. B., & Koole, S. L. (2006). On the waxing and waning of working memory: Action orientation moderates the impact of demanding relationship primes on working memory capacity. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32, 1716-1728.

Van den Berga, H., Mansteada S. R., van der Pligta, J., & Wigboldus, D. H. J. (2006). The impact of affective and cognitive focus on attitude formation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 42, 373-379.

Vocauer, J. D., & Turpie, C. A. (2004). Disruptive effects of vigilance on dominant group members' treatment of outgroup members: Choking versus shining under pressure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87, 384-399.

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