My executive coaching model 2/5 : understanding behaviours systemically

Building a bridge between the individual psyche and the organisational context.

Executive coaching is about asking questions and helping the client find their own resources. That said, there are as many coaching models as there are coaches and I owe my clients full transparency on my approach.

My executive coaching model is built around 4 principles:

  1. understanding  behaviours systemically;
  2. coaching with strategic empathy;
  3. communicating with the whole self;
  4. helping my clients see the world through a different frame. 

Understanding behaviors systemically helps my coachees build a bridge between their behaviours and the organisational context, and see behavioural issues as relations that need to be fixed, rather than individuals alone.

The symptom is not the problem! 

If my worldview were to be summarised into a single belief, I would say that all behaviours, even the most abnormal ones, are a way to adapt to an ongoing context.

Having spent my early consulting years working with the organisational sociologist François Dupuy’s team, who had taught me to look for the rationale to unexplained behaviours in the wider organisational context[1], I was on familiar ground when I discovered the Systemic and Strategic Approach, which, at the psychological level, sees any given symptom as a cog in a system. Reciprocally, other members in the group maintain the symptom by their own interventions, thus maintaining the system’s stability[2]. 

Stable doesn’t mean healthy.

The solution provided by the symptomatic behaviour might be painful, costly or inadequate to at least one member in the group, creating a dysfunctional balance[3]. Nevertheless, all systems strive for stability: every time a member of the group steps away from routine behaviour, the whole group is disturbed and follows regulation processes to regain its initial stability. This phenomenon of homeostasis explains why change is so difficult and places resistance to change in a wider perspective than on the sole individual[4]. 

Although people are driven to solve their problems[5], sometimes, especially when homeostasis gets in the way of an advantageous or accelerated change, well established regulation processes prove inadequate. 

The human brain struggles to find new ways to solve the situation and tends to do more of the same, even when told or taught to do differently[6]. Repeatedly attempting to solve a problem with the same inadequate solution, however logical and helpful it might be in other contexts, compounds the situation and “the solution becomes the problem.”[7]. This is where my coaching takes place. 

My ambition is to help my clients realise that they are not “pawns in a game, but players who know that the rules are “real” only to the extent that we have created or accepted them, and that we can change them.” [8]

 Who is the client for executive coaching?

From a cybernetic perspective, any change introduced anywhere in a system changes the functioning of the whole system [9].

Therefore, it is not compulsory to work with all members of the group, nor with the person whose behaviour is considered most problematic according the group’s norm[10].

My first goal as a coach is to find who is (are) the client(s) for help, i.e. who most wants the situation to change.

In corporate environments, most of the requests come through intermediaries and the coachee is not always asking for anything. This is one of the reasons for which systems thinking is as powerful in corporate environments as in family issues[11]. 

Working with all those who are ready to invest time and effort into change places the responsibility for change on more than one pair of shoulders.

 Unravelling who is asking for what :

  • gives me insight on who plays what role in the current situation and who is ready to participate in trying alternative solutions;
  • enables me to create awareness that behaviours can be seen as interactional loops and that change most often comes through interactions, rather than from individuals alone;
  • requires I find out to which extent the identified coachee is ready to make the effort to learn anything and I do my best to turn them into a proper client;
  • creates opportunities to put some responsibility onto the sponsor’s shoulders, providing them if need be with “guerrilla coaching”, which needs to be framed with skill, for the sponsor doesn’t want to be seen as the coachee[12].

When the latter is not accessible to coaching, there is always an alternative pathway to change through the former, if (s)he accepts to play a role in creating the solution to a problem (s)he doesn’t feel responsible for. This is, in my view, one of the most remarkable strengths of the Systemic and Strategic Approach.

 

How my executive coaching model takes my client’s past into account in a coaching that doesn’t search for causes

Insight about why a phenomenon occurs doesn’t suffice to change it.

Unlike the Psychodynamic Conflict Theory[13], stating that “[Making] the unconscious material consciously available to the person experiencing symptoms [is] likely to produce more complete and lasting changes for the individual than those that do not.” Watzlawick & al. describe their approach as “a search for pattern in the here and now rather than for symbolic meaning, past causes or motivation”[14]. The first observation I share with these authors is that insight aboutwhy a phenomenon occurs doesn’t suffice to change it; the second is that change often happens without insight, through subtle changes in their worldview. It doesn’t mean I completely rule my clients’ past out of the discussion: I take it into account insofar as it shapes their present values, beliefs and behaviours. 

This “here and now” focus has encouraged me to look for connections between the Systemic and Strategic Approach and Gestalt’s present-centered change [15].

 Whereas the former designs specific change goals and strives to remove obstacles, the latter explores what happens for the coachee in the time and space of the session, that will help an unknown future to emerge. I have soon found it helpful to be able to choose between these two approaches according to my clients’ level of clarity and satisfaction with their goals.

 

How my executive coaching model helps my clients to visualise their interactional patterns.

I firmly believe that helping a client see the interactional patterns they are immersed in makes coaching a valuable investment [16].

The whole purpose of the first sessions of my coaching is to frame the problem or desired change in an interactional way. It helps listing attempted solutions, finding their underpinning pattern and starting to instill doubt into the clients’ mind about the validity of their regulation processes to reach their goals. Of course, instilling doubt about regulation processes implies that some unsuccessful attempts have been made, or that some action that should have been taken hasn’t been taken)[17].

Recent developments have brought a major improvement to the initial model with a visual tool: the interactional mapping.

My visual interpretation of a case study presented in Boutan & Aubry’s « Essaye encore! » [18]

To read more :

my executive coaching model 1/5

my executive model 3/5: coaching with strategic empathy

my executive model 4/5: communicating with the whole self

my executive model 5/5: helping my clients see the world through a different frame

References

[1] Dion, S. (1993) ‘Erhard Friedberg et l’analyse stratégique’ Revue française de science politique, Année 43, No. 6, p. 995.

[2] Watzlawick, P. Beavin Bavelas, J. Jackson, D. (1967) Pragmatics of human communication: a study of interactional patterns [Kindle]. p.12.

[3] Wittezaele, J.J. Nardone, G. (2016) Une logique des troubles mentaux: le DOSS, Paris: Seuil. p.95.

[4] Peltier, B. (2010) The psychology of executive coaching, 2nd edn [Kindle]. p. 140.

[5] Leary-Joyce, J. (2014) The fertile void: Gestalt coaching at work, St Albans: AoEC Press. p. 6.

[6] Houdé, O. (2019) L’intelligence humaine n’est pas un algorithme [Kindle]. pp. 136-137.

[7] Watzlawick, P. Weakland, J. H. Fisch, R. (1974) Change: principles of problem formation and problem resolution [Kindle]. p.22.

[8] Watzlawick & al., 1967, p.27.

[9] Watzlawick, & al., 1967, p. 13-14.

[10] Wittezaele & Nardone, 2016, p. 154.

[11] Peltier 2010, pp. 136-137.

[12] O’Neill, M.B. (2007) Executive coaching with backbone and heart: a systems approach to engaging leaders with their challenges, 2nd edn.[Kindle]. P. 134.

[13] Kilburg, R. (2004) ‘When shadows fall: using psychodynamic approaches in executive coaching’ Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, Vol. 56, No. 4, p. 251

[14] Watzlawick, & al., 1967, p. 26

[15] Leary-Joyce, 2014, p. 119

[16] O’Neill, 2007, p. 83

[17] Watzlawick, & al., 1974, pp. 38-39

[18] Boutan, E. Aubry, K. (2017) Essaye encore! Déjouer les pièges relationnels au travail [Kindle]. pp. 89-95