an exploration with Jelena Pavlovic and Dusan Stojnov
When Jelena and Dusan sent me their proposals for a the new coaching trainings they were designing at the School of the Serbian Constructivist Association in Belgrade, we began a fascinating email conversation about the poiltical and cultural context of coaching:
I am delighted to hear that you are planning to offer training in PCP coaching practice. I have encountered a range of new coaching approaches which have left me wary. Some have been characterised by use of psychometrics and standardised diagnostic tools, by a focus on goals, targets and measurement, and/or by a series of prescribed directions and ‘homework’.
By contrast, I feel PCP has real strengths in foregrounding individuality, personal agency and creativity, in highlighting the resources that help us take intelligent risks, and in exploration through experiment.
Much learning & development activity in the UK is now focused on fitting people for business needs, and I am very concerned to maintain the individual’s own construing as our start point rather than a set of prescribed competences to ‘coach’ towards. The political context of coaching is still something of a ‘background’ issue here and not often debated. What issues are you currently engaging with as you prepare your programme?
Here is a paradox that interests me:
First is the dominance of the medical metaphor in public discourse on counselling and therapy, which is our background.
The medical metaphor implies the idea of “healing” and “treatment” which is done to the client. This is often what clients expect from psychotherapists – to provide treatment to make them feel better. This means it is sometimes easier for people to give their agency away and let the “doctor” do the work. Helping people to be “constructivist clients” is in opposition not only to the medical establishment, but also to public images of therapy. Being a constructivist therapist for me often implies the initial apologetic tone: “You know, we are not really like that”.
On the other side, it seems that the sports metaphor prevails in public discourse on coaching.
The very term “coaching“ is easily associated with the sports coach. Just like a sport or game, coaching is described as achievement oriented, to help people learn the “game” better and keep them up “in shape” with the final aim to score better. Agency is now back with the person, who is expected to maximize his or her potential. However, rules of the “game” or the underlying social context become extremely important – organizational arrangements, vision, mission, power lines etc. Does being a constructivist coach imply a persuasive tone: “You know, we can do that too”?
This is a paradoxical position because we have the technology for developing individual potential, but we are ideologically often not very well matched with organisations. And it is probably at this point that we face dilemmas. Coaching as a technology for increasing personal effectiveness or maximizing potential is at risk of becoming a project of:
- finding the right solution for person’s or organization’s worries
- following a strict set of rules that are unreflectively followed
- prescribing the categories of universal success and non-success
- producing “over-agentic” persons who expect to continually develop and play a constant “match” with the self
Constructivist philosophy and theoretical elaboration gives us some of the resources for avoiding those risks. Constructivist coaching invites us to some of these:
- combinations of loose-tight directions
- invention of personal “categories”, “codes” and “rules”
- experimenting with alternatives
- tolerating a sense of abandoning the well known routes and routines
- courage and what Mary calls “taking intelligent risks”
- discovery of personal styles of adapting to whatever
It is worth noting that coaching is essentially a “Western” product – at least it is how we look at the geography here. It was developed in Western Europe and the USA and continued to live most of its life there. In this geographical context it is a “tool” for implementing a strategic approach to education, life and probably everything! If we translate it to the Serbian context (or the Balkans), you find a lack of strategic approach to anything, or perhaps you find statements of strategy which are absolutely not supported with appropriate actions.
So, what happens to coaching as a “tool” when it becomes “imported” from hyper-regulated societies to hypo-regulated societies? That is an interesting experiment and a part of my PhD – an adventure, that is for sure.
Here are some of my reflections so far:
There is some trouble with the very term of coaching which is not easy to translate, and therefore it is not translated into Serbian (nor any of the Balkan countries) which opens up two possibilities :
1. to use “coaching” as a foreign word and risk being seen as not patriotic enough (this is not hypothetical, it has happened to me);
2. to use some descriptive phrase in order to avoid the risk and resistance people may feel towards something that is a “Western” product – I personally chose this option. The phrase I use when I present what I do is “reflection and experimentation”.
I see these dilemmas as pointing towards the need to construct a new professional identity – a new role which would be a helping profession, a liberated profession, an earning profession and also profession which is using the energy, the push and the discursive privileges of the mainstream! What to call this new identity? I do not know, it is still too early to try to name it
Coaching as a technology for increasing personal effectiveness or maximizing potential is at other risks beside those Jelena has mentioned:
- a risk of perpetuating the same mistakes from other psy-sciences (spamization of research, tailoring research to fit Mr. and Mrs. Average; developing hermetic coded language understood only by committed followers; etc.)
- becoming another business venture and throwing unprepared psychologists into the context of vehement and stormy market conditions.
Jelena, you have mentioned not getting trapped in organisational ideologies. And of course we do not want to be ideologically trapped. Sometimes however, the organisation is the client rather than the individual – we need to feel comfortable working within the corporate values and priorities in the same way that we work within an individual’s own system.
Perhaps this raises the question of which organisations a coach will feel able to work with and which industries or work settings we will be happy to take clients from. We continually confront issues of who we are serving and to what purpose. Are we developing the person in their own right, or fitting the person to the organisation?
Both options are potentially positive interventions - people value coaching that helps them adapt to a job they need and it is important to achieve a good ‘fit’ with what is required of them even when this differs from their personal values. Not everyone can pick the best compatible position, many just need a job. But it is perhaps important for coaches to be thoughtful and explicit about whose interests are being served, and who indeed is the primary client.
There are many ethical and power issues confronting coaches in the world of work, and not least is the question of what exactly are we contributing to, and how we accommodate that within our own system, personally and professionally?
One of the most important insights for me in this conversation is something about “organizational ideologies”. Jelena says that we should be aware of not getting trapped in organizational ideologies. And Mary says we have continually to confront the issues of who we are serving and for what purposes. I guess that this is (at least from my perspective) becoming more and more a Foucauldian issue! I guess that it is simply impossible to escape ideological matters – if we agree that ideologies are all around us and that almost every discourse can be equalled (more or less) with an ideology, than I guess that ideologies (stronger or weaker; better or worse; material or spiritual) are inescapable. So we have to become aware of the discourses in which we are existing as subjects and the positions they offer. The only way to form a resistance and to oppose dominating discourses with alternative ones is to become aware of their work, their presence, their impact on our life, what is this discourse trying to achieve and for whom.
I want to contrast ‘business’ and “charity” metaphors.
Talking of charity, I am aiming at a very specific mixture of socialist/early Christian ideologies: being happy with what life brings, being modest, doing good, working hard and being rewarded by spiritual rewards, not money and other material soul-spoiling temptations. I guess that the charity position is one in which people are disciplined by a certain discourse based on values of hard work, ethics and modesty (very much approved by the state) which is disturbed when they hear that the other side who are not helping, nor doing any noble and competent work, are making so much money.
As for business, It is very difficult to talk about here. Transition is fast and implacable. We do not see companies being concerned with their workers welfare. We see ruthless companies closing, sacking, not paying etc. – or at least this is the majority of newspaper stories.
These are interesting contrasts. I am aware that some people make a good living by their ‘helping’ work, and some people in the commercial world are not primarily motivated by the financial reward, though they may be paid well.
Some high-profit companies I have worked with (high-tech for example) have been very genuinely people-focused and wanting their staff to enjoy their job and develop their talents. They have often compared very favourably with some ‘charity’ or public service settings where staff have been neglected and sometimes exploited.
So tell some more of the story in Serbia, because I think your business context will be a huge part of the work you will be confronting in your coaching programme.
Although the socialist project in Yugoslavia from 1945 to 1990 has failed in economical and political terms, it did not fail in every way. I think that it has succeeded in making a ‘socialist person’, educated using communist idealist principles of equal distribution, free health care, free housing, social security, secure job seeking and finding, and above all – charity as one of the main principles governing human relationships. (Of course, as long as you do not mess with the political issues.) The main fuel for this position was the discourse of the just, liberating and promising society, and it has given rise to some wonderful positions: optimism, ardour and enthusiasm. Even if we were living in a very poor country, we were also living in a rich zeal.
Ruthless business and decadent capitalism were the opposite pole of this. The more you believed in the charity position, socialist issues (and who cannot believe in fraternity, liberty, equality?) the more you developed a belief that your efforts will be rewarded somehow – just do the noble job. And this position has made a lot of intellectuals very vulnerable and pauperized in this transition. They did not learn how to take care of themselves – the socialist and charity discourse reinforced the message that somebody will take care of them – perhaps the state. I think that this was not so with capitalist countries, and that personal responsibility is something which has being taught from very early periods of life. So making money is not a sin towards the people in need, and it is probably a well learned lesson for the responsible ones.
It seems that Serbia was almost a unique case where socialism was not equated with poverty and oppression, but with “care of the state”: everybody had a secure (or better: lifelong) job, everybody got a house for free, there was no crime etc. On one hand, I guess we (or at least parents and grandparents of my generation) were privileged to experience this world of ultimate care of the state. On the other hand, this experience nurtured what Dusan calls the “socialist person”, who expects exactly this sort of society to emerge again.
And then we had a decade of poverty which was expereinced as an “injustice” – for some strange reason all that welfare was gone. The last decade (2000-2010) also known as the “transition”, is the context in which the story of coaching emerged.
So, the background cultural constructs were: state will provide everything (1945-1990) vs. loss of the state (1990-2000). The transitional period probably meant learning (and even more – opposing and screaming against) the move towards personal responsibility of the capitalist sort. Some people learned quickly, some rejected the possibility of learning. The outcome: a 20% unemployment rate with unofficial estimates of over 1 million jobless people (out of a total population of 7 million).
In the transitional period we had foreign companies entering our market and employing people. We learned about human resources, performance appraisals, employee development. I guess majority of working people in Serbia are still not very familiar with these terms. Partly because they are nonexistent in the public sector which employs a quarter of all employed persons, and partly because of an intelligent resistance to ‘corporate bullshit’!
I guess the number of people-focused companies in Serbian circumstances is very low, which does bring to life Mary’s question of “which organizations a coach will feel able to work with”, and what the coaching programme contributes to if it is proposed by the organization not the individual.
With all the cultural “luggage” from past and all the transitional resistance of the present, doing coaching in Serbia is probably not the same as doing coaching in UK. Probably like eating kebabs in UK is not the same as eating kebabs in Serbia :).
I agree, the politics and cultural context of coaching are now centre-stage in our conversation. (I agree about the kebabs also!). This has been a fascinating exploration.
You have answered for me a very significant question. I have enjoyed our earlier conversations about a constructivist approach to coaching, and your proposal that PCP may be one of the best and most comprehensive theories for the purpose, all of which have been excellent to see. But I have been puzzled by your presentation of your move from constructivist psychotherapy to constructivist coaching as a change of major proportions needing justification and defence. Constructivist coaching is well-established for many practitioners world-wide (including myself), and psychotherapy never ‘owned’ PCP!
But I can now see that your particular move from psychotherapy to coaching raises three very interesting and culturally complex issues –
1. The construction of the individual (cared-for/dependent v autonomous agent)
2. The construction of the coach (charitable low-paid helper v professional well-paid businessperson)
3. The cultural context (serbian-style transition from paternalistic socialism v rampant anglo-american individualism and ‘the personal brand’)
If we combine these points with
- a Foucauldian analysis of the power relationships, competing ideologies and political purposes of coaching, and
- the potentials and limitations of various commonly-used metaphors (sports, military, medical, managerial etc)
we will have some enormously interesting work ahead!