System coaching is a coaching process that emphasizes the importance of an organization’s environment or context on leadership development work. It recognizes that certain attributes in an organization’s context like strategy, commitment to development, or prevailing leadership style can have disproportionate impact on coaching outcomes and the coaching work. Further, the systems approach works to achieve alignment between the organizational attributes that inhibit or support change, the objectives of those who are being coached, and the goals of the organization. If successful, proper alignment in the three areas provides dividends for those who participate in the coaching work and the overall system. This alignment is achieved by increasing the likelihood of sustained change and improving the overall developmental climate.
To realize this goal, systems-based coaching requires a coach to identify those elements in the organization’s context that most impact coaching and developmental intentions, incorporate them into the coaching work, and align the developmental objectives with those of the organization. To benefit the system the organization must identify and remediate negative patterns of behavior resulting from context that work at cross purposes from enterprise objectives, and inhibit the ability of those in the system to take advantage of any developmental efforts including coaching.
What do we know about systems coaching?
There is compelling evidence that context influences many aspects of organizational life including organizational behavior (Johns, 2006), leadership (Porter & McLaughlin, 2006), organizational creativity (Shalley & Gilson, 2004), work team effectiveness (Doolen, Hacker, & Van Aken, 2003), quality (Glasgow, Yano, & Kaboli, 2013) and turnover and job satisfaction (Parzinger, Lemons, & McDaniel, 2012). This suggests a clear relationship between certain elements in an organization’s context and desired outcomes. There is solid empirical evidence that coaching – which incorporates system level considerations – increases the likelihood of achieving coaching outcomes in the organizational setting. Additionally, to the extent that the organization has a way to discern these considerations and link them to undesirable patterns of behavior, they create an opportunity to change the pattern at the system level. For example, an organization with a low level of trust in senior leadership might find that this contextual element negatively influences the motivation of individuals to participate in coaching or be resistant to including their supervisor in the process. Once known, an organization can then explore ways to shift behavior by responding to the underlying contextual attribute.
Our emerging knowledge
A study conducted by Partners International focused on isolating key contextual factors. The results of this analysis may provide a roadmap for better application of systems coaching. The study provides two new pieces of information associated with understanding the role of context in coaching: it classifies which factors are most influential to achieve desired coaching outcomes and it identifies those contextual factors most influential to achieving sustained behavior change.
Contextual factors most influential to achieving coaching outcomes:
- Goal orientation of the organization – perceived accountability for achieving agreed upon coaching objectives and degree to which goals are a natural aspect of the culture.
- Control orientation of the learner – perceived ability by the learner to achieve set objectives in the organization.
- Perception of organizational fairness with regards to advancement
- Perceived safety in taking risk or perceived consequences of public failure.
- Level of leadership engagement in the development process
- Organizational developmental mindset. – prevailing organizational attitudes towards coaching.
Contextual factors most influential to achieving sustained behavior change by the learner:
- Level of engagement by the direct supervisor in the process and the level to which there is perceived accountability on agreed upon objectives.
- Level of peer pressure for advancement in the organization.
- Level of organizational accountability on leader competencies and the alignment of coaching work with those competencies.
- The level of a positive feedback culture in the organization.
Two important insights emerge from this study on context. First, coaches universally acknowledge the importance of context in coaching work. While there is a wide variation in how they define context and incorporate it into their coaching engagements, coaches seem to understand that there is a relationship between certain factors in the environment where the coaching work takes place and how likely they are to successfully meet their predetermined coaching outcomes.
An important insight also emerges from the ten (10) factors identified by the coaches as the most influential to outcomes and behavior change. A close examination of the factors points to the importance of an “authentic” developmental engagement environment. How the organization perceives coaching efficacy, leadership engagement in the developmental process, and direct supervisory engagement in accountability for achieving coaching objectives were all prominently identified by coaches a crucial to outcome success.
This suggests that the perceived level of commitment to development across the organization is crucial to coaching work. It follows that a strong and genuine developmental environment makes it more likely that a coaching investment made will be realized. Organizations can set the stage for successful development work and realize a return on coaching investments by simply understanding their climate; specifically, the perceived level of commitment by leadership to development, the feedback experience of employees, and how they would describe the consequences of failure.
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