In a letter to the editor, Jackie Gnepp takes issue with an article in the June, 2002 issue of HBR, written by Steven Berglas. Berglas argues that executive coaches often ignore psychological problems they don't understand. He urges companies to consider using psychological evaulations and psychotherapeutic interventions as part of the executive coaching process.In her letter, Jackie offers a different perspective on the place of psychology in coaching...
HBR addresses an extremely timely issue in “The Very Real Dangers of Executive Coaching.” As a licensed psychologist and professional executive coach, I share Steven Berglas’s concern that today’s executive coaches lack the expertise to identify the psychological origins of performance problems. And I worry that many of them—the former athletes, lawyers, consultants, and even many of the graduates of the new and proliferating training programs for coaches—will get in over their heads trying to address their clients’ psychological issues once these become apparent.
That said, here’s my perspective on executive coaching: It is not, nor should it be, psychotherapy. Rather, it is a relationship whose aim is to help the client (and, by extension, the client’s organization) achieve a mutually agreed upon set of goals to develop and improve performance. In my own practice, I have found that executives most commonly seek coaching in the areas of problem solving and decision making, persuading and influencing, managing their time, resolving conflicts, delegating responsibility, building and leading teams, empowering others, communicating effectively, giving and receiving feedback, and making important presentations. Could a client’s problems in one or more of these areas reflect an unconscious conflict? Certainly. And a coach who recognizes the conflict and knows how to work with it will have more impact than one who doesn’t. But do clients’ needs for performance enhancement reflect the sort of deep-rooted psychological problems that only psychotherapy can fix? Rarely. Managerial skills and talents need to be relearned and remastered at each new level of accountability and visibility, as expectations, performance demands, and responsibilities increase. To pathologize an executive’s or organization’s healthy desire for performance improvement would be a grave mistake.
To avoid the dangers of executive coaching, Berglas recommends that companies require executives to undergo psychological evaluations prior to coaching and hire mental health professionals to review coaching outcomes. This measure strikes me as impractical and one that most executives would view as a violation of their privacy. Fortunately, it is also unnecessary. Growing numbers of consulting psychologists have the requisite expertise in psychology and executive coaching. Many of us are not only highly trained in individual psychology, interpersonal relationships, group dynamics, and organizational behavior, but we are also experienced at helping executives make those personal and professional changes that produce better business results. By providing a psychological perspective on issues of management, leadership, strategy, and corporate politics, we can help executives achieve their goals in ways that build on their strengths and motivation, that balance their interests with those of the organization, and that hold them accountable for their actions.
The promise of executive coaching is its potential to deliver high-impact results to the executive and to the organization, far in excess of its cost. The dangers that Berglas cites can be avoided by hiring competent professionals with expertise in psychology, familiarity with the world of business, and the ethical standards to work within their realm of expertise and to honor the trust placed in them by both the company and the executive.
Jackie Gnepp President Humanly Possible® Oak Park, Illinois