Working in organisations

Siobhain O’Riordan and Stephen Palmer


This chapter aims to offer the reader understanding about the role and purpose of coaching and coaching psychology in many organisations. Initially, we will define what we mean by coaching in this context, outlining the background and some of the typical themes.

We will also explore more broadly how coaching is used within the world of work, discussing a range of applied topics and coaching approaches. This will be positioned within an evidence-based context offering links to psychological theory, concepts, and evidence that inform this area of coaching psychology practice.

Key learning points of this chapter will be to:

  • • summarise the background context to coaching in the workplace;
  • • explore the psychological theories and approaches that inform the field;
  • • explain the setup of coaching in organisations, including themes such as internal and external coaches, contracting, programme design, and working with sponsors and stakeholders;
  • • discuss themes such as diverse types of coaching within organisations (e.g., performance, leadership, executive); and
  • • summarise the role of psychometrics within a coaching psychology context at work.

Key themes, introduction to theory, and basic concepts background

Today, coaching is delivered within many different professions, industries, and settings. This includes high-tech business, media and advertising, local/ national government, retail, law, transport, education, health, military, and voluntary sectors. From entrepreneurs, micro-businesses, small-medium size enterprises (SMEs), to large scale organisations—all make use of coaching services. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) tells us that “Coaching and mentoring are now used by employers as a widespread development tool” (2019). In parallel, Whybrow and Nottingham (2019, p. 424) assert that in organisations “... coaching is viewed as a powerful developmental intervention”. Whybrow and O’Riordan have also previously highlighted that in organisations “... coaching may be part of a survival strategy for some, whereas at the other end of that continuum, coaching may be seen as a means of optimising individual and organisational performance and innovation” (2012, p. 204).

Coaching within organisations is often understood within the framework of performance, leadership, or executive coaching. There are many different descriptions of these terms in the literature and, in recent years, the approach has moved beyond focusing solely upon problems with the employee’s skills or competencies to their job performance. In simple terms, enhancing performance through coaching at work can now be better understood as “... helping individuals to increase their ability to perform under pressure” (Kaiser, 2019, p. 130). Emphasising the role of the organisation within this coaching context, professional executive coaching has been described as “... a purposeful partnering relationship between three parties—the client (individual coachee, group or team), an experienced coach, and the organisation—where the expectations between the three parties are explicitly understood and collectively communicated” (Future of Coaching, 2017, p. 1). Lai and Palmer (2019, “Current challenges in executive coaching research”, section 2) observed that executive coaching is “... a coachee-centred learning and development intervention that aims to maximise the coachee’s potential, motivation and improvement”.

In practice, there are lots of different ways individuals, teams, and groups can benefit from coaching at work. Coaching in organisations has moved beyond a deficit model or “just-in-time” performance coaching interventions. At present, coaching engagements can range from early career development topics to senior talent development. Areas can include performance-focused topics such as skills improvement/development, tackling perfectionist tendencies, procrastination, stress management, building resilence, delegation, and managing pressure at work. More developmental work could involve growing confidence, building leadership qualities, building gravitas, tackling imposter syndrome, and supporting coachees to flourish at work. Supporting organisational-based learning, encouraging action, and developing self-efficacy for the coachee are other common areas of coaching in the workplace.

Key themes

In comparison to life or personal coaching where the coachee is also the paying client, working with organisations introduces additional dynamics into the coaching process. In particular, this work typically includes factors beyond the coachee—such as stakeholders (e.g., the coachees’ manager and others connected to the organisation) and sponsors (e.g., the procurer of the coaching service or organisational client). Lee and Frisch (2011) suggest that “Because of the role of sponsors in initiating coaching and supporting positive outcomes, managing their involvement is an important responsibility for coaches” (p. 64). Thus, attention to the setup of the coaching process is important within this setting. We will explore this aspect of the process later in the chapter.

Many organisations today are striving to develop a coaching culture within their workplace. This is important considering observations made by Whybrow and O'Riordan (2012, p. 204) who suggest that “... there are strong parallels between emergent change at the organisational level and language of coaching at the individual level”. More recently, Whybrow and Nottingham (2019, p. 424) explain that “A coaching culture may be noticed as: purposeful conversations and proactivity, greater dialogic enquiry, curiosity, reflective listening, ongoing feedback and palpable energy”. Organisations working towards developing their coaching culture may, for example, aim to promote learning, build effective performance environments at work, develop the quality of leadership resources, encourage and develop innovative and creative approaches, and/or provide a safe supportive and confidential coaching conversation space (Whybrow & O'Riordan, 2012).

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