Author, speaker, agent provocateur for senior leaders and their teams That People Thing
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Should everyone get their own coach?

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Coaching apps can certainly have their benefits, promoting wellbeing in the workplace and personal development, but what are the issues with providing a 'one-size-fits-all' coaching app to your employees? Can they effectively replace in-person, targeted coaching? 

23rd Apr 2021
Author, speaker, agent provocateur for senior leaders and their teams That People Thing
Columnist
Share this content
Prince Harry has a new job. 
 
He’s the Chief Impact Officer at a USA based coaching company called BetterUp. Their mission is to put coaching into the pockets of workers and professionals via video chat and text. I’m sure they will thank me for publicising them on this platform (they must have known that this appointment would be great PR). 
 
But I don’t want to talk about Prince Harry. I want to talk about giving everyone a coach. 
 
You might expect me to say this is a great idea. After all, I am a coach and I believe in coaching. 
 
Here’s the problem. 
 

Abdicating responsibility for culture

Coaching addresses the inner world of the coachee. It creates time and space for reflection, raising self-awareness and considering how to bring about change. A great coach will share resources and insights which help the coachee grow. Coaching helps people through tough times and gives them strategies which enable them to change the environment in which they work (if they have enough influence). 
 
But coaching does not replace taking a systemic approach to fixing what’s wrong with a company. 
 

Putting the responsibility of wellbeing onto the employee

I’m seeing too much of this at the moment. When we talk of resilience we put responsibility for coping on to employees. 

When we talk about meditation or drawing on wellbeing resources provided by the company, we put responsibility for mental health on to employees. 

When we say “Here’s an app. If you want help, just text your coach” we’re putting full responsibility for addressing challenges on to employees. 
Coaching does not replace taking a systemic approach to fixing what’s wrong with a company.
Over the pandemic I’ve run a few sessions for companies who have wanted to get staff together to connect, deepen relationships and talk about their stresses with colleagues. Attendance starts strong and trails off fast. The feedback from attendees is excellent. So do you know why they stop coming? They don’t have the time. 
 
Coaching culture
 

The problem with 'one-size fits all' coaching apps

Equally, I work with an organisation who has invested big bucks in a platform which provides all manner of self-help tools and resources. At the end of a recent meeting the big boss told staff “If you’re feeling overwhelmed by any of this, check out the wellbeing resources on the intranet site”.
 
When you put responsibility fully on to employees you abdicate responsibility as a leader to understand the lived experience of your people and what you need to change at a systemic level. 
 
By all means have apps and online resources, but that is not job done. The real job for HR is to address the conditions that make it hard for people to do their job and bring their best to their work. I’m not suggesting success is that your wellbeing hub is no longer required. Even in a healthy organisational culture it makes sense to support wellbeing. 
 
But if people are struggling to stay on top of their workload, if they’re not feeling heard by their manager, if they don’t feel they can get to the heart of problems so they just need a sticking plaster to get through another week, then providing them all with a coach-by-text is not the answer. 
When you put responsibility fully on to employees you abdicate responsibility as a leader to understand the lived experience of your people and what you need to change at a systemic level.
Before you buy a one-size-fits-all coaching app…
 
As HR professionals trying to sell solutions to the board, an app that uses algorithms to connect people with the right coach for them seems like a win-win. It seems scientific which appeals to decision-makers who don’t really ‘get’ coaching. It seems democratic. After all, why should only those at the top have access to coaching? It seems efficient. Staff can get support without ‘wasting their manager’s time’. And it builds on the trend for training and development to be available online rather than requiring face-to-face attendance at a workshop or coaching session. 
 
But be wary. 
 

1. Coaching works best when it is personal

When the coach and coachee build rapport and trust and when the coachee really feels heard and understood as a human being, they can really grow. This applies whether the coach is an external professional, the employee’s own manager or a colleague from somewhere in the business. 
 
Yes, you can have a useful text exchange with a coach you’ve never met, but that is not what’s going on behind the closed doors of a really impactful coaching meeting. Creating a coaching culture creates a learning environment. Giving everyone an app does not. 
 

2. Coaching works best when there is a multiplier effect

When I coach senior leaders it is a big investment by the company in their growth. That is justifiable because when senior leaders evolve they improve the conditions for everyone they come into contact with. They can change the environment for a large number of people. 
 
Further down the organisation the impact of coaching is more personal. The person’s shadow is not as great and therefore the multiplier effect is reduced. The value of coaching is more limited, which is why it doesn’t make sense to employ expensive coaches to do this work. 
 

3. Coaching without perspective tends to reinforce a person’s perspective rather than challenge it

We all know that moment when we want some advice and we scroll through our mental contacts list of who to ask, rejecting person after person because they will say something we don’t want to hear. 
 
Well, that happens in coaching too. 
 
Coachees are usually the blameless hero of their own story. The problem is always someone else’s behaviour. The topic they want to talk about is always one which they can get their arms around rather than something that’s hard to express or would be more comfortable to ignore. 
 
A skilled coach asks coachees harder questions than they wanted to answer, guides them towards the real issue rather than the presenting issue and challenges the story the coachee is telling; putting ownership back on them rather than on a person who isn’t in the room. An app can’t do that. 
 
We want our employees to have a great experience in our company and to democratise resources which used to be exclusively for those at the very top. But before you hand a sticking plaster out to everyone, make sure you’re addressing the causes of the wound. 

This story is discussed in more depth on The Human Revolutionaries Show with Blaire Palmer and Natasha Wallace on Apple Podcasts. Each week Blaire and Natasha explore a business story through an HR lens (including this one) and share their opinions about leadership, culture and wellbeing at work.

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By Chris Woodman
27th Apr 2021 10:05

Hi Blaire, good article. I couldn't agree more. We have developed an approach with our coaching platform, Coaching on Demand, that involves working with the HR person and the coachee to select the right coach and have a clear remit. The platform is just the distribution channel and helps the client manage the coaching and measure the quality. It is not 'tinder coaching' as I have heard some platforms called where the coach is selected via AI. There is going to be some interesting changes to the coaching industry over the next two or three years, many of them good, but it is important to focus on the purpose and quality of the coaching - not farm it out, Best Chris

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