The Coach on the Couch

This post was contributed by Dr Andreas Liefooghe, Reader in Organizational Psychology and Programme Director for the Postgraduate Certificate in Coaching, launched this week. 

The rise of executive and other forms of coaching is arguably one of the most significant changes in the work context so far this century. Prior to 2000, professional helping relationships were clearly linked to the tasks and operations of the organization, mainly in the guise of consultants. Care of the personal kind, when it happened, had a whiff of failure – no-one would admit to seeing a counselor, far less a psychotherapist or psychiatrist. So the idea that conversations in a specific professional relational context can help someone has finally shifted from Viennese couches to executive boardrooms.


Of course, the name helps.  Coaching, derived from sport, has a much more macho feel than the more feeble counseling. Primarily, the focus is on ‘reaching your full potential’, ‘increasing your performance’, ‘finding solutions’. Coaching carries no stigma, unlike counseling with its progression from madness to neurosis to ordinary unhappiness.

Once the sole preserve of the executive classes, coaching has now been democratized and is accessible to most levels in organizations. The focus has shifted for coaches, too. Largely gone is the soul-searching about whether coaches deliver coaching or therapy. It has been replaced by angst about which accrediting professional body will legitimize their actions.

There is still, of course, the niggling doubt as to why coaching should be necessary in organizations. Is there not enough help already? Why does this helping relationship need to be outsourced, and in such numbers?

Helping others

We believe the answer to this might be found in social psychology. Rather glumly, experiments from the sixties and seventies provide evidence that when we would expect people to help, they actually don’t. The famous Good Samaritan experiment demonstrated that, ultimately, we see ourselves as more important than others, particularly when pressed for time. As Darley and Batson (1973) put it, morals are a luxury when the speed of life increases. In today’s fast-paced organizational cultures, helping others may not be efficient.

Instead of a more positive picture, Organizational Citizenship Behaviour (OCB) research sets out why investing more time cultivating OCBs makes commercial sense. Also referred to as contextual performance, this field of study maps the extent to which altruism, civic virtue, sportsmanship, courtesy and conscientiousness are manifested at work. One important predictor of OCB is leadership – if there is a good relationship between the leadership and the employees, more examples of helping behaviours will be found, and higher performance levels (Motowidlo, 2011). And it is perhaps here that an executive coach can make a difference.

Coaching – a menace or a miracle?

Neither. Coaching can promote understanding, facilitate change, and develop potential, amongst others – but it would be wrong to claim it is a silver bullet to organizational helping and performance. Coaching is not a unified approach, and many different things manifest themselves under this moniker.

Edward Wray-Bliss (2013) writes of the deification/demonification of CEOs, and how they become the absolute Good and Evil. These attributions, while flawed, help organizational members make sense of a complex environment. Executive coaching in this context is no exception. Loh and Kay (2003) warned of the coaching menace, where coaching was seen as the silver bullet, and delivered by individuals with dubious credentials to people who didn’t need this macho sports-metaphor at the company’s expense. On the contrary, others see the miracle of executive coaching as further evidence of the well-deserved, god-like status, imbued with machismo, of the Glorious Leader. Indeed, in the late nineties one of the first CEOs I coached mentioned that I came third only to the private jet and his chauffeur…

The Post-Graduate Certificate in Coaching

Given that coaching is perhaps one of the most important organizational developments in the last decade, we decided it was important to spend more time reflecting on its impact. This one-year programme is designed for both established coaches who want more structure to their work, and to help those new to the field build a strong grounding. As you would expect from the Department, we emphasise rigorous academic theory and practice, combined with skills development and reflexive practice.


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