Home Concepts Strategy Future of Coaching The Problem of Competence in Coaching

The Problem of Competence in Coaching

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(Based on a contribution to the Sage Coaching Handbook for publication in 2016)

Discourses are employed in order to shape social contexts.  Coaching, located within a business context, is influenced by that context and the main discourse of business management is the ‘rational pragmatic’ (Garvey & Williamson, 2002).  This means that certain ways of thinking and behaving are valued and others are not. For example, the management discourse values a reductionist perspective and is concerned with simplification of the complex and the celebration of the practical.

It is often argued that coaching is radically under theorised (Brunner, 1998; Garvey 2011).  Clearly this is not a problem for the ‘rational pragmatic’ manager because theory is devalued in the managerial discourse as practicality is elevated. However, according to Lewin (1951:169) “there is nothing as practical as a good theory”.  Therefore, whether managers like it or not, there is always a theory behind a discourse.

While there is no single theory that is unique to coaching it is possible to examine the idea of learning theory in relation to coaching. Vygotsky (1978) suggested that learning happens in the ‘zone of proximal development’.  This is basically by ‘hanging around’ with another person and engaging in discussion. Therefore learning is a social activity and not a solo performance and coaching is positioned here as a key social activity.

However, in many organisational contexts what constitutes learning is dominated by the rational pragmatic discourse and this creates a particular model of learning, which in turn leads to a model of assessment. Enter competence frameworks, the preferred model of coaching assessment by many professional bodies.

These frameworks specify ‘what’ should be learned and they construct pre-specified codes, often positioned as learning outcomes or objectives.  Then the learner is taught these and tested to see if they have learned it. This  ‘technicists’ approach to learning is one that we have become so used to that we no longer notice it; it has become a dominating discourse with an overwhelming rationality and practicality.

The problem with the ‘technicist’ approach is that we simply learn what is pre-specified and then feel that we have ‘arrived’ and developed ‘expertise’ or competence.  This approach ignores ‘how’ we learn, which is curious given that learning is a key argument in coaching.

The ‘how’ of learning is a process based approach and is associated with the idea of ‘practical judgment’ (Harrison & Smith, 2001) or ‘reflective skills learning’ (Jarvis, 1992; Schon 1983). Practical judgment has its roots in Aristotle’s ideas.

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