Breaking the Taboo: Coaching's Negative Effects
The new kid in town always needs to go that little bit further to gain acceptance. First impressions matter, and despite what we now know about the power of vulnerability, very few of us will introduce ourselves by listing our flaws and weaknesses. Indeed, an American dating app that has attempted this strategy – presenting the good, the bad, and the ugly of its members – has been less successful than its designers had hoped.
It’s not surprising then that the relatively new coaching industry has spent the first few decades since its inception putting its sparkliest foot forward. Today, a coach looking to justify their fees could draw on a veritable cache of solid scientific research to support coaching’s myriad benefits. Somewhat harder to locate, however, are the studies that bring to light the potential negative effects of coaching. It is this fact that makes a recent literature survey on this topic all the more interesting.
Published in 2018, the article looks at nine recent studies (yes, the pickings were indeed slim) on the negative effects of coaching, and presents some fascinating results. While the majority of negative effects were classified as being low to medium intensity, the majority (67%) of clients reported at least one negative effect of coaching. These included decreased relationship quality with their supervisor (18%), with colleagues (16%), with employees (13%), and with family (10%). Equally interesting is the fact that 29% of coaching clients reported a decreased experience of meaningfulness of the job, and 32% reported having decreased job satisfaction due to their coaching experience.
Negative effects for coaches were reported in even higher numbers. Over the course of their careers, coaches reported being emotionally exhausted (74%), feeling pressure because of high expectations (68%) as well as insecurity (80%) and stress (61%). Loneliness (21%) and anger (73%) were also reported as direct effects of coaching others, while 43% reported having difficulties in maintaining boundaries. Further, contrary to popular perception, 70% felt underpaid, and 68% reported disappointment about ineffective coaching.
If these statistics seem shocking, it is probably because of their stark contrast against the shiny façade usually presented by those working in the coaching industry. Meanwhile, other, more established helping professions such as psychology, mentoring, and supervision are generally understood to be more complex entities, having been held under microscope so that their “ugly” sides may be revealed, and subsequently normalised.
In truth, the reasons for such negative effects are generally fairly simple. For clients, the catalyst is often reflection. The moment we are given the space to think and reflect on our lives, and the permission to start questioning and pushing back on aspects that are not necessarily working for us, discomfort ensues. Relationships become challenged. Homeostasis – that is, the status quo of our lives and our systems – is temporarily broken, so that new ways of thinking, behaving, and being together are able to take shape.
For coaches, the simple truth is that we are human. These are the realities of working in a helping profession – one in which we are required to build a safe container for the reflective practice of our clients, and in which we are expected to produce real and tangible results. Adding to these pressures is the fact that a majority of coaches today are sole traders, working not only in the role of coach, but also of accountant, PR officer, and marketer (to name but a few). Knowing that we are not alone in our occasional feelings of overwhelm, loneliness, anger, self-doubt, stress, frustration, and insecurity is incredibly important for our own psychological health.
Yet engaging in this shared experience is only one reason why it is so vital that we, as coaches, break the taboo of acknowledging coaching’s negative effects. Another obvious reason is that a greater awareness of these facts can only lead to better outcomes for all involved – clients, coaches, and organisations. How can we address issues if we are unaware of them?
For example, the research highlights the importance of the coach/client relationship, and the impact this has on coaching outcomes. Far more than the motivation levels of the client, the quality of this relationship is the key determining factor. Understanding this encourages us as coaches to engage in the practices of supervision, self-reflection, and transparency with clients; all of which are vital to building understanding and perspective, and fostering trust and rapport.
I think it’s safe to say that the coaching industry is now established enough to shed its insecurities about acceptance, and start allowing for some vulnerability. Examining its ‘uglier’ side – shifting focus from the white teeth to the smile lines – can only add to its depth, and thus bolster its professional standing. After all, coaching is blessedly not a dating app.
Smiley-face survey Image by Mohamad Hassan on Pixabay