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Evolution of coaching in the workplace

Our CEO and experienced executive coach, Andy Chandler, spoke to People Management to explore how coaching in the workplace has evolved since he entered the world of work more than 30 years ago. Ahead of International Coaching Week, he considers the notable shift in the landscape over recent decades. With coaching now more accessible than ever, Andy breaks down the progression towards recognising the potential of coaching as a catalyst for individual and organisational growth, as well as an invaluable tool to navigate the complexities of the modern workplace.

As a member of Generation X, my journey into the world of work began in the late 1980s, an era marked by profound global events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the thawing of the Cold War. At that time, I don’t recall ever hearing the word ‘coaching’.

It wasn’t until the 1990s, during my time working for a 200-year-old retail business, that I first encountered coaching. The business faced escalating competitive pressures from a disruptive newcomer. So, under the direction of the HR Director, all middle and senior managers were sent on a journey into coach training, albeit through what I now recognise as a rudimentary “sheep-dip” approach.

The training we received followed a rote-style methodology, akin to coaching by numbers. It was a ‘follow the method and all will be well’ type approach. That being said, I remember being intrigued by how different questions and the way they were sequenced could help mine and others’ thinking. I began to feel the gentle stirring towards an approach that has continued to stay with me to the present day.

However, beyond these initial training sessions, explicit instances of coaching remained scarce for me. The idea of being coached by an external coaching professional or developing internal coaching capability was a distant prospect, relegated to the realms of speculation rather than practical implementation.

As the 1990s progressed, glimmers of progress began to emerge towards a new era for coaching. The formation of professional coaching organisations including the International Coaching Federation in 1995 and the European Mentoring & Coaching Council in 2002 provided tangible evidence of coaching’s relevance and significance in the professional sphere.

By the dawn of the new millennium, the question “What is coaching?” had begun to give way to: “How can coaching help us?” Organisations, recognising the potential of coaching as a catalyst for individual and organisational growth, embarked on a quest for answers, seeking to harness the transformative power of coaching to navigate the complexities of the modern workplace.

In 2009, my odyssey with coaching took an unexpected turn with an encounter with an external professional coach. Tasked with navigating the turbulent waters of a large-scale organisational merger, I found myself grappling with uncertainty and apprehension. My coach gave me a few psychometric tests, told me where I fell short of my peer group on various leadership metrics and provided some book recommendations. It felt distant, clinical and frankly neither relevant nor helpful.

I called a halt after three sessions and was disillusioned and disorientated by my experience. I felt that what I had experienced was more akin to mentoring with lots of telling but very little opportunity for me to develop my own thinking. I still meet people to this day whose early experience of coaching in the workplace was not coaching as many of us understand it today.

It was not until five years later that my perspective on coaching underwent a profound milestone, as I embarked upon an accredited coach training program with Barefoot Coaching. Faced with a growing sense of unease about my career trajectory, I took my first steps on a journey of self-discovery. As it turns out, this is still a very common reason why many people seek coach training.

The ensuing decade witnessed a seismic shift in the role of coaching in the workplace, as many organisations transitioned from a state of ignorance to enlightenment regarding the potential and power of coaching. From the integration of coaching into leadership development initiatives to the establishment of internal coaching programs, coaching evolved from purely a peripheral curiosity to something more central to an organisation’s culture.

Here are some of the ways that I think coaching has evolved in the workplace over the last two decades:

Focus on Individual Development: Earlier coaching often had a more generic approach, focusing on broad skill development or performance improvement. Now there is greater emphasis on individualised coaching tailored to the specific needs and goals of each coachee – both in and outside of work.

Technology: Technology has revolutionised coaching, making it more accessible and efficient. Online platforms, virtual coaching sessions, and mobile apps have made it easier for employees to receive coaching anytime, anywhere. It still feels true to say that coaching is skewed towards middle and senior managers – but technology is truly opening this up to colleagues across organisations.

Performance Feedback: Traditional annual performance reviews are giving way to more frequent and informal feedback loops. Coaching now happens in real-time or on a more regular basis, allowing for immediate course correction and skill refinement.

Inclusion of Neuroscience and Behavioural Psychology: Coaching practices increasingly draw from insights in neuroscience and behavioural psychology to better understand how people learn, change habits, and perform under pressure. This has led to more effective coaching techniques and strategies. After all, coaching really is the practical application of psychology.

Shift to Coaching Culture: Rather than viewing coaching as a remedial measure for underperforming employees, organisations are embracing a coaching culture where coaching is seen as a fundamental part of personal and professional development for all employees, including leaders.

Rise of Internal Coaching Programs: Many organisations are establishing internal coaching programs and training managers and other employees to become certified coaches. This not only improves coaching accessibility but also fosters a culture of support and development within the organisation.

Integration of Well-being and Work-Life Balance: Coaching now often addresses issues related to employee well-being, stress management, and work-life balance. Barefoot regularly runs programmes on subjects which many years ago would have seemed incongruent with coaching such as grief, loss and change, and coaching skills for parents and family life. Organisations are now recognising that supporting employees in these areas leads to higher engagement, productivity, and staff retention.

A Greater Focus on Diversity and Inclusion: Coaching now pays more attention to diversity and inclusion, ensuring that coaching is accessible and relevant to employees from diverse backgrounds and experiences.

One to Many Coaching: whether that’s group coaching or team coaching, there has been a significant shift towards this in the workplace over recent years driven by a combination of effectiveness but also the reality that it can be an extremely cost-effective way of introducing coaching into the workplace.

Today, coaching in the workplace stands at a crossroads, poised to embrace the opportunities of the digital age while confronting the challenges of an increasingly complex and interconnected world. With the advent of technology-enabled coaching platforms and the rise of remote work, coaching has transcended the confines of physical space, offering a lifeline of support and guidance to employees navigating the uncertainties of a rapidly evolving landscape.

Article originally posted on People Management read here. 

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