Defining and demystifying coaching

By Jessica Jarvis

The term ‘coaching’ has come to refer to many different activities. Although this guide focuses on the use of coaching in organizational settings, it can be used in many other situations. Its early use in the business world often carried a remedial connotation – people were coached because they were under performing or their behavior was unsatisfactory.

These days, coaching is more usually seen as a means of developing people within an organization in order that they perform more effectively and reach their potential. Confusion exists about what exactly coaching is, and how it is different from other ‘helping behaviors’ such as counseling and mentoring. A variety of niche types of coaching have also developed as the term has been popularized – life coaching, skills coaching, health coaching, executive coaching, to name but a few. In part, this may have arisen as a result of some practitioners taking advantage of a popular new term and applying it to their general services. Consequently, coaching has suffered from a degree of mis perception and misrepresentation. To make things worse, people often use the terms interchangeably so that one person’s life coaching is another’s developmental mentoring. Many organizations use the terms to mean specific things in their own organizational contexts and others choose the terminology that seems most acceptable within their organization. The result is that the same definitions are being applied to a variety of terms. These problems around terminology are illustrated in the 2004 training and development survey results, where 81% of respondents agreed that ‘there is a great deal of confusion around what is meant by the term “coaching”.’

There is lively debate about this topic by academics and practitioners alike, which has led to a certain fixation about the need for agreed definitions. While this debate rages, more and more terms emerge and there seem to be almost as many definitions of coaching as there are practitioners. The fact that Europe and the US interpret the words slightly differently adds further to the confusion. A selection of definitions of coaching are provided in Table 6, but these are merely a handful of those in use.

In this Guide, we simply try to illustrate and explain the key differences between some of the common terms that are currently being used. We will then concentrate on suggesting ways for practitioners to ensure they have secured a good understanding of what exactly coaches mean when they describe their services.

Definitions of coaching

Parsloe (1999)

A process that enables learning and development to occur and thus performance to improve

Whitmore (1996)

Unlocking a person’s potential to maximize their own performance

CIPD coaching courses definition

The overall purpose of coach-mentoring is to provide help and support for people in an increasingly competitive and pressurized world in order to help them:

• develop their skills

• improve their performance

• maximize their potential

• and to become the person they want to be

Clutterbuck (2003)

Primarily a short-term intervention aimed at performance improvement or developing a particular competence

Starr (2003)

A conversation, or series of conversations, one person has with another

Downey (1999)

The art of facilitating the performance, learning and development of another

Concise Oxford Dictionary

Defines the verb ‘coach’ – ‘tutor, train, give hints to, prime with facts’

Caplan (2003)

A coach is a collaborative partner who works with the learner to help them achieve goals, solve problems, learn and develop

Hall et al (1999)

Meant to be a practical, goal-focused form of personal, one-on-one learning for busy executives and may be used to improve performance or executive behavior, enhance a career or prevent derailment, and work through organizational issues or change initiatives. Essentially, coaches provide executives with feedback they would normally never get about personal, performance, career and organizational issues

Grant (2000)

A collaborative, solution-focused, results-oriented and systematic process in which the coach facilitates the enhancement of work performance, life experience, self-directed learning and personal growth of the coach

Some generally agreed characteristics of coaching in organizations

Although there is a lack of agreement about precise definitions, there are some core characteristics of coaching activities that are generally agreed on by most coaching professionals:

• It consists of one-to-one developmental discussions.

• It provides people with feedback on both their strengths and weaknesses.

• It is aimed at specific issues/areas.

• It is a relatively short-term activity, except in executive coaching, which tends to have a longer time frame.

• It is essentially a non-directive form of development.

• It focuses on improving performance and developing/enhancing individuals skills.

• It is used to address a wide range of issues.

• Coaching activities have both organizational and individual goals.

• It assumes that the individual is psychologically healthy and does not require a clinical intervention.

• It works on the premise that clients are self-aware, or can achieve self-awareness.

• It is time-bounded.

• It is a skilled activity.

• Personal issues may be discussed but the emphasis is on performance at work.

Broadly speaking, from the CIPD’s perspective, coaching is developing a person’s skills and knowledge so that their job performance improves, hopefully leading to the achievement of organizational objectives. It targets high performance and improvement at work, although it may also have an impact on an individual’s private life. It usually lasts for a short period and focuses on specific skills and goals.

Source : Coaching and buying coaching services. A Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development Guide. By Jessica Jarvis. 2004

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