“Coachability” – a reflection

I’m hearing the word “coachability” a lot more recently in my supervision groups. For example, “I should have gone with my instinct and turned the client down – he’s not coachable.”

There are two schools of thought around this. One is that no-one is uncoachable. The issue is whether this coach is the right coach for this client. This perspective focuses on the ability or other characteristics of the coach. For example, a sociopathic manager, who views the coach as just one more person to manipulate, may be more responsive to someone with significantly higher status than themselves.

The other is that we need to be more specific about what we mean by coachability. A definition I offer is inability to engage substantially with coaching process. This inability may derive from multiple factors, but one of the key factors may be the ability or inability to be self-honest. Without introspection, change is only external, while coaching relies upon internal change to create external change.

Another factor may relate to intent, on a scale from benevolent to malevolent. A high narcissist, whose self-image is built around reputation for philanthropy, may achieve an alignment between self-interest and other-interest. They may therefore be coachable, where they perceive the relationship to be useful in achieving their objectives. A narcissist or sociopath without that balance is likely only to engage with the coaching process at a superficial level, cherry-picking where he or she can obtain an advantage, but not addressing any fundamental issues.

The word substantially in my definition provides a pragmatic distinction. What that means in a specific context will vary considerably. That’s where the coach’s personal judgement comes in. There’s no universal measure we can apply, but we can consider:

  • How ready is this person to engage with the coaching process?
  • Given the scale of the likely positive change that the coaching may stimulate, is this a good use of the coach’s skills and time? (For example, in some cases, a small change in a powerful individual may have a positive effect on many other lives than the clients’ own.)
  • Will coaching this person serve the greater good? (For example, is it ethical for a coach to support the career progress of a malevolent sociopath? Or could we help a malevolent sociopath become a philanthropic one?)
  • To what extent might my liking or disliking the person be affecting my judgement?
  • To what extent are the characteristics I see in this client their own, rather than those of the climate, in which they are nested? (I have seen managers with abhorrent behaviour change radically when transplanted into a more humane environment.)

In summary, it’s all more complicated than a simple decision of “coachable or not?”. Which is one very good reason for coaches automatically to take situations, such as this, to supervision.

© David Clutterbuck 2023




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