Why Group Coaching is a Misnomer

A mere Shell

In the current global economy, we all need to economise, to maximise the use of our resources: to do more with less, so to speak. The rise of Lean and Agile practices bears testimony to this, applied as they are in service industries (Law, Financial Services, Auditing, IT, HR, Marketing) as often now as in their previous home turf of production.

What concerns me is not the need to minimise waste (muda), inconsistencies (mura) and overburdening (muri) in a system, but rather the way that genuine depth of support and accountability can be lost through economising in coaching processes. At its heart, non-sport coaching concerns listening that goes beyond summarising, choices offered to the coachee and empathy that demonstrates understanding.

The environment in which “group coaching” thrives is often one in which an expensive LDP or MDP has been sold by a business school or “training” organisation and coaching has been added, in  support of learning objectives. In other words, it is mostly a perceived value-add to entrench specific content, rather than to coach the individual towards chosen excellence. The type of listening demonstrated by the coach (really a facilitator in this context) is constrained by the need to include every person, manage “equal air-time” dynamics (specifically a lack of individual dominance) and to help the group gain clarity regarding specific concepts or matters. This does not allow much freedom to explore what is of interest to the individual, nor to probe for depth and ensure effective execution and personal application, surely one of the core goals of coaching. There will also be little “flow” (Csikszentmihalyi) or “self Two”(Gallwey) brilliance emanating from such sessions.

Choice is imperative in coaching. It makes no sense to drive home a personal agenda or “model”, particularly in a diverse context, where cultural and social norms will contribute to “nuanced” communication. Choice may be seen in offering options to focus a session on, given formal feedback, agreed agenda items and/or based on matters arising from the conversation at hand. Choice is also reflected in the coach being wary of imposing his/her ideas, opting to ask for permission when giving feedback or introducing content. This choice logically carries over into the coachee’s accountability to act on issues identified and elucidated in the coaching process. And a process it is, requiring trust, safety, confidentiality and a “growth mindset” (see Carol Dweck’s seminal work on this).

Empathy requires a demonstration of understanding – a cognitive activity primarily, rather than an emotional one. Sympathy feels for the person, where empathy feels with them, imagining what they might be experiencing or needing. Empathy most often leads to asking questions to clarify whether this is indeed the experience of the individual and to the testing of  hypotheses, as Downey suggests in Effective Modern Coaching. Coaches need to be aware of emotion (in self and in the coachee) and to permit choice as to how this is dealt with. Acknowledgement is often sufficient, and understanding is demonstrated by working through practical ways to make a difference in a situation: one of the aims of the “O”(options) leg of the famed “GROW” model authored by Myles Downey and the Alexander Corporation (inter alia) many years ago. Very little of the above is possible in a group setting.

I fear that what is mostly sold as “group coaching” is, in fact, small-group facilitation – in itself valuable, but hardly coaching. Coaching has incredible value in enabling individuals to overcome interference – personal, interpersonal and organisational inhibitors of potential. It’s not too late to structure MDP/LDP processes to include more impactful coaching practices, and to reduce the “classroom time”, allowing blended learning and online assistance to work their cost-reducing magic. Of course, this does mean a shift in Leadership Learning as a business.

And it is overdue.