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Madness As Usual


  • Stefan Kühl
  • Thursday, 4. July 2024

On the Emergence of Consultancy for Individuals in Organizations 

The ‘semantic elasticity’ of the term ‘coaching’ is now so great that almost any advice or instruction to individuals falls within its penumbra. ‘IT coaching’, ‘astro coaching’, and ‘parental coaching’ are just a few of the standard offers on the internet.

But it is also not difficult to find instructors for ‘Zen coaching’, ‘relaxation coaching’, ‘flirt coaching’, and – should that last one have proven successful – ‘sex coaching’, or even ‘S&M coaching’. 

Many long-established services for individuals today come along dressed up as coaching or supervision. The tried-and-tested ‘private tutor’ becomes an ‘exam coach’. ‘Marriage counselling’ is semantically jazzed up into ‘coaching for couples’. Soon driving lessons will no doubt be provided by a ‘driving coach’. Even animals are not safe: from fighting dogs to Arab stallions, special coaching offers are available for animals of all kinds and their proud owners. 

The inflation in the use of the concept should not distract us from the purpose of coaching in the narrower sense: the provision of services to individuals within organizations. Of course, some form of consultancy has always taken place within organizations. When a task proved difficult, the advice of superiors was sought. If they were unable to help, one complained to one’s colleagues over lunch. If one had problems with colleagues, one turned to human resources managers. Whether intentionally or not, these conversations often took on the character of a consultancy situation. 

Given that these forms of consultancy have always existed, the question arises as to what makes this new, popular form of coaching different. The short answer is: in the case of coaching, both the consultant (the coach) and the one being advised (the coachee) take up their roles consciously. The role does not emerge on account of the coach’s experience, as for instance in the case of a superior being asked for help. Nor does the process of consultation emerge by chance. Rather, a process is initiated that both sides refer to as ‘consultation’, and in which the roles of the two sides are clearly defined in advance. The ‘consultation’ does not take place by chance during a coffee break or a chat between employees. It is a situation that is, from the very beginning, asymmetrically designed, and it necessarily takes place during a clearly defined period of time so that remuneration for the service can be calculated. 

The creation of an exclusive ‘consultant’ role makes it possible to address certain topics that would not surface in random conversation. After all, spontaneous talk with superiors or colleagues always carries the danger that topics of conversation may collide with the responsibilities of the roles played by the individuals. It is best not to approach a superior, for instance, for advice about whether one should quit, because just mentioning this will have certain implications for matters beyond the immediate question. It can also be difficult to have a ‘consultation’ on career opportunities with colleagues, for one’s ambitions about reaching the higher echelons will often be eyed very critically by those on the same rung of the career ladder as oneself.  

Because the ‘coach’ has emerged as a specific professional role, coaching takes anything but a holistic approach. The focus of coaching within businesses is not the ‘whole person’ but only the activities performed as part of the coachee’s professional role. When looking at someone’s professional role, other roles – within the family, as lovers, or as someone involved in politics – may also be considered, but they are only of interest as a background to the professional role. 

The ‘anti-holism’ of coaching is the crucial difference compared to advice from friends. When providing advice to a friend, it is well-nigh impossible to exclude particular roles. If your friend mentions problems at work, in her love life, or in her neighbourhood, you cannot really refuse to offer a view. The professional nature of coaching, however, consists precisely in the refusal to cross certain boundaries. To put it bluntly, the more coaching develops into a professional role, the more ‘anti-holistic’ it needs to become.

Prof. Stefan Kühl

links in his observations the latest results from research with the current challenges of the corporate world.

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