Over many years of working as tutors and supervisors to support coaches in developing their practice, we have been struck by the very particular challenges faced by internal coaches. Where coaching used to be largely the exclusive domain of external specialist coaches, internal coaching is increasingly professionalised, with internal coaches taking lead roles in shaping coaching practice in organisations.
The fundamental skills of an internal coach may be the same as those of an external coach, but coaching is more than just the application of a set of tools and skills to a client. It involves working in and with the unfolding relationship between coach and client. And the relationship between an internal coach and their client is complicated.
Our intention in this article is to explore why this is, and whether current development really attends to the particular challenges and opportunities experienced by internal coaches and, if not, what might really help.
Relational coaching: our informing philosophy
Social existence is nothing if not relational, so what is there not to understand about ‘relational’ in a coaching context? However, we are not just talking about the importance of a ‘good’ relationship.
The relational ‘turn’, as it tends to be generally described in psychotherapy,1 and which we have translated into our coaching method, refers to the move away from a rather instrumental view of coaching – in which the client changes as a consequence of the coach applying the most appropriate skills or ‘tools’ – to a ‘relational’ perspective.
The ‘relational’ perspective suggests that it is in the crucible of the relationship between coach and client that change emerges. Coach and client are engaged in a process of reciprocal influence, so the coach must be fully involved; to attempt to withhold him or herself in the interests of impartiality or detachment, merely attenuates the creative possibility inherent in the process of fully relating.
We’ve found that this presents a particular challenge for internal coaches, who most often have another role in the organisation than that of coach to this client; they know things, and live in the same system as the client. So the question that frequently arises is: how much of ‘me’ do I bring? How much of my experience in the system do I share?
The ‘relational’ approach requires coaches to be capable of self-awareness and reflexivity, to allow themselves to be subject to the process of relating, rather than to be in control of it; precise outcomes cannot be forecast. In this way, relational coaching is a risky enterprise, and we think this sense of risk is intensified for the internal coach, given the inevitable dynamics of power and hierarchy that exist in organisations.
The challenges and opportunities for internal coaches
In many ways, the experiences internal coaches bring to supervision are similar to those encountered by external coaches, but tend to be amplified by their special position within the organisation.
How do I bring myself fully into the relationship?
This is a question often asked by internal coaches because they realise that, as they bring themselves fully into the relationship, they are also bringing their knowledge and experience of the same organisation. In our view, this gives rise to three kinds of potential difficulty:
There is an obvious danger that in expressing their own views of a client’s context, through, for example, their prior knowledge of employees or co-workers, or their experience of the organisational power dynamics, coaches may ‘lead’ the client to a way of thinking and addressing whatever issue they are bringing to the session, and therefore to an extent disabling their client’s own thinking.
It is an axiom of coaching that it is intended to enable and develop our clients’ capacity to think and act for themselves. We might infer from this that offering any kind of perspective or suggestion would be contrary to this principle, but if internal coaches are to bring themselves fully into the relationship, how can they withhold such a large part of their natural, human response to a client’s problem? We think we have a resolution for this dilemma, which we will come to later.
Another possibility is that, as we listen to our client’s story, we find it resonates with our own experience, and our empathy becomes, in effect, sympathy. We risk losing part of our potential value as a coach, which is to come to the coaching encounter ‘without memory and without desire’, as Wilfred Bion put it.2 He went on to suggest that our desire to help our client may distort our judgment; we are inevitably prejudiced by our own experience. This must be particularly challenging for internal coaches, who share experience of the organisation with their clients.
This is the opposite pole. As coaches, we might be so determined not to bring our own prejudices to the situation, that we take a rather detached role, withholding a large part of our responses, so that our client does not even experience our empathy. Another axiom of coaching, taken from Carl Rogers,3 is that empathy is one of the core conditions of an effective helping relationship.
So how can internal coaches bring themselves fully into the relationship when they feel they know too much? We would like to propose a way of bringing your experience of your client’s ‘system’ in a way which avoids the traps outlined above by becoming a co-inquirer alongside the client.
We take the view that participatory action inquiry, or ‘co-inquiry’, with its emphasis on reflexivity, and ‘thinking together’, is most appropriate to the practice of relational coaching.
If we take the view that organisations are social processes in a broader socio-economic context, rather than mechanistic entities in an economic system, we become interested in the communicative processes and dynamics, which in effect constitute the process of organising. We come to realise that organisations are social and hence relational through and through.
We are offering a radical suggestion that an organisation is not a ‘thing’, but a constant, self-organising process of gestures and responses between people. The members of this process of organising are all participants in creating a social process that continuously evolves into an unknown future.
Human sciences, in search of objectivity, have privileged abstract, conceptual knowledge and have tended to exclude tacit, intuitive knowing for being too subjective. Consequently, important ‘data’ about relational dynamics, culture and the emotional ground of an organisation are often excluded from change or problem-solving processes.
Action inquiry, however, typically draws on experiential, intuitive, and tacit knowing, and a coach is thus engaging their client in a process of inquiry, encouraging them to identify those who might have a stake or an influence on the topic in question, pay attention to their own feelings and intuitions as well as their cognitive sense making.
An external coach usually has to rely on their client’s description and construction of their problem, but an internal coach is likely to be able to bring their own perspective, as we discussed above. We are suggesting that if this is brought into the coaching conversation in the spirit of inquiry by the coach as co-inquirer, it potentially broadens and enriches the client’s field of inquiry and their possible courses of action. Of course, it has to be done with skill. The coach:
- would offer their experience as a contribution to the inquiry, with the caveat that ‘this is just my experience and carries no more weight than yours’;
- needs to be aware of their potential biases and prejudices and declare them;
- needs to hold their perspectives lightly and avoid any attachment to them. Part of the discipline of an inquiry process is to remain constructively self-critical and continuously willing to examine one’s own assumptions.
There is always the possibility that the coach has information which, because of the onus of keeping confidentiality owed to other parts of their organisation, they are unable to divulge. This is a complex issue, made more so by the reality of hierarchy and power, which leads us to our next section on contracting.
Contracting in our lived reality
It is not our intention to review all aspects of contracting practice but to focus on the particular importance of the context of contracting for internal coaches.
Although contracting is never simple, it is much more complex for internal coaches. Let’s take a look at two of the main tensions:
Hierarchy and power
Both coach and client are embedded in an organisational hierarchy in which either one may be senior to the other. If the coach is senior to their client, the client may, subconsciously, assume that the coach could have some influence on how they are seen in the organisation, and hence on their career. The client may therefore feel constrained about bringing anything to the coaching sessions that might reveal what they see as some ‘weaknesses’. Conversely, they might tend to highlight their competencies and achievements in the hope that their coach might promulgate their qualities.
If the client is senior to the coach, the coach might feel inhibited in challenging their client’s behaviour or ways of thinking. Also, the coach might, even subconsciously, want to show their skill and value to a more senior person, and as most coaches know, as soon as they get caught up in trying to demonstrate their competence, they lose their ability to fulfil another of Rogers’ core conditions, namely authenticity.3
Hierarchy and power are part of the lived reality of all organisational life, and they cannot be wished away by expressions of good intent. They must be raised at the contracting stage of the coaching relationship so that client and coach can decide together how to deal with them. Having an open conversation in the first place is the most important thing, and then agreeing to notice them as they may arise, when either party feels they are influencing the relational dynamic between them, is also critical. This is not as easy as it sounds, because acknowledging how one might feel inhibited or even diminished by a power dynamic, can induce embarrassment.
This is why it is so important that internal coaches have both good training and good supervision, because they will need to take the lead in raising these kinds of issue and enabling their client to do the same.
We take it as read that one of the ethical principles of all coaching is that it must privilege the wellbeing of the client; but that immediately poses a dilemma, both for the external and internal coach. By ‘client’, are we referring to the individual recipient of the coaching or to the organisation that is both paying for it and expects to benefit from it? This dilemma is well covered in the literature, and usually resolved by the device of the ‘three-way contracting conversation’.
However, this assumes rather a lot; firstly, that such a conversation happens at all, as often it is some internal department that sponsors coaching, and the client’s line manager can be minimally involved.
This tension is potentially exacerbated for the internal coach. They need to have thought through and discussed with their client how they raise and deal with potential clashes of interest between the client and the organisation.
Working ‘in the system’
Most coaches work with managers/leaders whose main job is to enable and organise others, which is in effect a ‘social’ role. We could argue that all organisational tasks are ‘social’ in the sense that all organisational work is ‘joint action’.
This social dimension to the role of leaders is becoming increasingly acknowledged as capabilities like ‘emotional intelligence’ (EI, EQ) appear on competency frameworks.
What is less well understood is the ‘systemic dimension’ to social process.
The notion that an individual is in control, and so can largely be held responsible for their performance, rests on another assumption, namely that organisations are characterised by linear cause and effect, so that a manager can more or less determine, by his or her actions, a particular effect. How else could we justify a performance management mechanism that seeks to relate the achievement of predetermined objectives to a manager’s actions?
A ‘systemic’ perspective, on the other hand, assumes that organisations are characterised by non-linear dynamics, in the sense that an organisation consists of multiple interactions that are mutually shaping each other simultaneously.
As leaders, we shape and are shaped at the same time, so a leader does not act in isolation. However competent they are, their success or otherwise will be a function of the systemic dynamics, so being able to ‘read’, anticipate and work with systemic patterns are critical to a manager’s ‘success’.
An external coach can only infer the systemic dynamics from listening to, and being with, their client. They listen to their client’s experience and ‘constructions’, and they experience their client in the room, so the coach may pick up emotional cues about the systemic dynamics.
An internal coach, on the other hand, lives in the same ‘system’, and there are some obvious advantages and disadvantages of this. The main disadvantage is that they may project their experience of the system onto their client, thus over leading their client.
If we were to ask a number of people their experience of an organisation’s systemic dynamics, they are likely to be both similar and different. The more people we ask, the more we are likely to pick up the similarities, so the potential advantage of having two people inquiring into their shared experience of an organisation’s dynamics, is that they are more likely to be able to make sense of the ‘patterns’ that tend to repeat themselves in which the client is embedded, and hence to anticipate the likely consequences of any moves that the client may choose to make to resolve a complex problem.
Practical implications for the internal coach
- It is important that the internal coach has a working understanding of the systemic perspective, as this is one of the most valuable contributions that he or she can bring to a coaching encounter.
- It may well be that this perspective will be unfamiliar to their client as it is rarely included in leadership education programmes, so some ‘education’ may be needed.
- The most important thing is to work with the ‘co-inquiry’ method described above, starting with an exploration of how your client experiences their context.
- The coach offers, if appropriate, their own experience of the ‘system’.
- Together, they look for patterns, and develop some possible hypotheses about the dynamics of the situation.
- Together, they explore options that might ‘break’ the pattern.
We believe that coaching is one of the most helpful and important ways of supporting organisations in current times: responding, for example, to issues of stress and mental health and also to the need for rapid sensemaking in the light of significant organisational and societal challenges.
Our view is that internal coaches are uniquely positioned to support their clients (both the individual and the organisation) in responding creatively to these challenges. But to realise this potential, they need to see themselves as specialists in working as internal coaches – and not the same as (or even less than) external coaches.
In our experience, internal coaches face specific challenges and opportunities. The most exciting and challenging part of their reality is that they exist in the same system as their clients, which can create dynamics around role, power, knowing what they know, prejudices, as well as sensations and awareness from their being in the system.
We think co-inquiry and working with a systemic view are key to making the most of the role of internal coach. Internal coaches, who have long asked themselves, ‘how do I “bracket” or keep in check all my prejudices and experience?’, in the service of the client, might instead lean into their shared experience of the system with the client in a spirit of co-inquiry.
This requires skill, training and support – and perhaps just a little tempered radicalism!
Bill Critchley was founder and director of the Ashridge MSc in Organisation Consulting, and the Ashridge programme in coaching for organisation consultants. He has coached many chief executives and senior leaders in their role as leaders of change, and in their quest for personal development. Bill supervises other coaches, and is also a psychotherapist.
Ann Knights has developed and led accredited programmes for internal coaches in the public, private and humanitarian sectors of the UK and overseas for the past 20 years. She is a member of faculty on the Ashridge Master’s in Executive Coaching and the Ashridge team coaching programme.
1 Clarke S, Hahn S, Hoggett P. Object relations and social relations: the implications of the relational turn in psychoanalysis: London: Karnac; 2008.
2 Bion W. Notes on memory and desire. The Psychoanalytic Forum 1967; (2): 272–3 and 279–80.
3 Rogers CR. The necessary and sufficient conditions for therapeutic personality change. Journal of Counseling Psychology 1957; (21): 95–103.