Friday, March 16, 2007

Coaching –panacea or placebo?

I’m struggling with training’s fondness for ‘coaching’. By ‘coach’ I mean someone who helps you achieve their goals, who questions but avoids giving advice. I’m not at all convinced that the personal reports I hear of its effectiveness amount anything more than the famous placebo effect.

Horoscopes work because they’re true!
That’s right, it’s a paradox - let me explain. The psychologist Ross Stagnar famously gave a group of 68 HR professionals a personality test, then gave them all an identical response, with phrases culled from that day’s newspaper horoscope. When asked if the test had ‘nailed’ them, many were very positive about its diagnostic ability. In other words, horoscopes are true because they are so general they apply to almost everyone who reads them. Unfortunately they are also trite.

Graphology also works!
Another psychologist, Kreuger did a similar test with graphology. He asked students to assess a personality diagnosis based on their own handwriting. They were amazed at its accuracy despite the fact that he had given them all the same report. The content that seems to appear to be most personal, but in fact is the most general, is the idea that the person is, deep down, fragile and insecure, yet they put on a front to appear strong and robust.

Coaching as placebo
Could it be that coaching and other aspects of training simply do the same. Placebos work, not because they actually have a causal effect, but simply because the patient believes they work. Does coaching simply state and confirm trivial truths and APPEAR to work?

Non-directive coaching has a similar appeal. But are we simply seeing people as patients to be counselled into healthier states of mind. Managers are portrayed as dysfunctional beings, who, if only they saw the way, would become caring masters, loved by all they manage. As Frank Furedi claims, we seem to be ‘redefining personal difficulty as a pathology’. Do we really think that we can short-circuit the human condition by simply asking ‘open questions’? Or are we just suckers for a little attention and a personal, challenging, but ultimately empty, chat? Discuss (without, of course, asking any closed or leading questions).


Anonymous said...

"By ‘coach’ I mean someone who helps you achieve their goals, who questions but avoids giving advice."

This is why your following commentary is so flawed - your basis is flawed.

Have you ever coached anyone, or am I correct in believing you've simply READ or absorbed a crap definition of coaching? I would assume the answers are no and yes. Oh how unfortunate you are...

Care to engage in a debate? Let me know - I'm ready! :) Just clarify all your basic assumptions first, then I'll engage.

The Knight Hooded one

James said...

The HR experiment you describe is based on a much older experiment it's called the Forer effect. Wikilink below:

Clive Shepherd said...

I can understand your scepticism about the non-directive approach (Rogers et al) and its widespread adoption in counselling, coaching, etc. However, the term 'coaching' doesn't imply any particular approach. A sports coach may employ some non-directive tactics at times (my tennis coach sometimes says 'what do you think you did wrong there?'), but clearly they can be very directive as well.

I like coaching both in principle and in practice as a way of improving the skills of both beginners and experienced pros. Clearly with a 1:1 ratio it's going to be expensive, but sometimes you have to make the investment - typically alongside other methods.

I also have time for the non-directive approach, used appropriately, i.e. when the learner is in a position to answer the questions because they have knowledge/experience to draw upon. Being non-directive stops the learner becoming dependent on the coach, forces them to take responsibility and think for themselves. I also believe that people are much more committed to decisions that they make/insights that they arrive at for themselves.

On a similar line, I also like inductive questioning in self-study e-learning and so do students. Used well it is engaging, maintains their attention and build on their existing knowledge.

Anonymous said...


Coaching is a fantastic learning methodology when the learner needs to develop a new mindset to achieve their goals and either already has the knowledge and skills they need or can easily acquire them through other means.

E-Learning is a fantastic methodology when when the learner simply wants to acquire knowledge and possibly some skills (depending on the learning context). I'm not yet convinced you can change the way you think by interacting with Web content however please go ahead and convince me.


PS I am not sure I understand your concerns about the "Placebo Effect". Expectations theory is central to the concept of coaching. Coaching works because the coach supports the client in focusing their attention on achieving their goals. If you give me some medication and it helps me focus my energy on getting well and I do get well, why should I care about the active ingredients?

Donald Clark said...

Clive - I was referring to the non-directive Rogers inspired coaching, often distinguished from menotring/tutoring, on the grounds that it is non-directive.

On the placebo effect. I agree with the point made that one doesn't have to know how medication works to get well. However, if you know it's a placebo, the entire game changes and the effect disappears.

If non-directive coaching is at heart a placebo, it won't work for people like me, who know that it the mechanism.

There's also the issue of whether the coaching community realise that its efficacy may be down to the placebo effect. Docytors know when they'r prescribing placebos as medicines or in clinical trials. I'm not sure that's true of coaches.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm Donald,

Perhaps I didn't express what I wanted to say about focus and attention very well.

A lot of coaching theory is based on the idea that the brain is hard-wired. If we want to change the way we think, the brain literally cannot "erase" existing programs like a computer can. The brain can however (over time) create new pathways by making new physical/chemical connections - provided sufficient attention is paid to these new pathways.

There is lots and lots of hard science on this one. I'd suggest you check out Geoffrey Schwarz and David Rock. They are are interesting duo (neuroscientist and coach).

A coach supports learning and change by focusing your (and your brain's!!) attention on creating new wiring or "mental maps".

I hope that's more helpful.


Anonymous said...

There appear be some important misconceptions on all fronts regarding coaching here and the placebo effect. A couple of comments:
1. Focussing attention on outcomes is not the same as the placebo effect. The placebo effect is about improvement found where no improvement is warranted due to the intervention alone.
Focussing attention on goals is part of a coaching intervention and it is both theoretically and practically designed to be efficacious. Research has shown that intensive cognitive processing and the deployment of attentional resources toward goals enhances goal achievement. (See Locke and Latham 1996).

Secondly, the idea that a lot of coaching theory is based on the idea that the brain is hard-wired is nonsense.

There may come a day when we know enough about the way the brain works to connect neural pathways to behaviour at a meaningful level. But we are decades away from anything like that. The brain is a massively complex organ which we we haven't even begun to understand. What we do know is that there is no simple one to one correspondence between neural structures and behaviour.
The majority of scientifically savvy people recognise that the connections some are trying to draw between neuroanatomy and behaviour change are extremely speculative, and seriously logically and empirically flawed. While it makes for interesting reading and appears to be "scientific", we simply do not know enough about the neural substrates of behaviour and learning to talk sensibly about coaching from a neurological perspective.

Coaching is an effective method of facilitating change. This cannot be be proved by pointing to experiments showing nerve cells growing in petri dishes in response to electrical stimulation. However, a growing number of well conducted empirical studies are being published that do give direct evidence of the efficacy of coaching as a behavoural change intervention.

Unfortunately, when people overstep ethical and professional limits, by making claims that cannot be adequately supported, or failing to inform people of the speculative nature of their claims, coaching is brought into disrepute. Worse still, people are innoculated against seeing the good coaching has to offer in terms of imporving people's lives.