Is coaching supporting injustice?
Leadership Coach, Front of Room Leader and Systemic Change Guide

ARTE has released a critical documentary on how positive psychology and coaching has turned happiness into an individual responsibility. Thus it is distracting attention from structural, economic and social inequality, as well as from personal trauma. For me it raised the question: Is coaching supporting injustice? It’s thought provoking, and you can watch it here in many languages: Glücklichsein um jeden Preis. (To be happy at all cost.) To bottom line the ideology they point out rests on:

You’re the master of your destiny

Every challenge is an opportunity. No problem is too big for you to overcome. You can aspire to anything and achieve everything. You have what it takes to be more happy, right there inside of you. You just have to activate it, and positive psychology gives you the tools for that, because it studies how outliers become more happy than the average persons. By emulating what they do, you can too become happy, successful – the master of your destiny.

Oprah would be the perfect poster girl for the belief that everyone can climb from the lowest of lows to the highest highs, while staying a “good person”. The adversity she mastered entails a broken family and a history of sexual abuse, if being a black woman in a racist and sexist world weren’t enough to brave.

That documentary got me thinking and I can recommend watching it.

Are coaches contributing to numbing?

Recently, the Guardian published this article: “I’m a psychologist – and I believe we’ve been told devastating lies about mental health”. Here the author Sanah Ahsan challenges the wide spread belief that we’re in the midst of a “mental health crisis”. She argues cogently that we find ourselves not so much a mental health, but in a real crisis, in world full of uncertainty and trauma.

To medicate external problems out of people in distress is to depoliticise their distress. For instance:

“Antidepressants aren’t going to eradicate the relentless racial trauma a black man is surviving in a hostile workplace”.

Nor are they going to solve the economic crises that the pandemic and now the Ukrainian war means for many families. They will not put a stop to the ever more visible repercussions of climate change. Therapy will not put an end to the experience of going to school whilst growing up in poverty with unmet basic needs. In a nutshell, the author speaks to the widespread problem of treating symptoms instead of addressing causes. This article is worth reading. It goes far deeper and wider than what I can capture here.

What’s the role of coaches in all of this?

This piece is about therapy, so I could lean back as I’m a co-active coach. After all, one of the co-active cornerstones is that “everybody is naturally resourceful, creative, and whole”. I could wash my hands of medicating healthy people. But here’s the thing: People self-select and either go into therapy or into coaching. Therapists and coaches draw from the very same pool of people, and our work is not that dramatically different. Nor are our clients. It’s not as if the “broken ones” go to therapy to get fixed while the “go getters” engage a coach to conquer the world. I imagine that mostly that self-selection is based on the present self-image as well as on a financial consideration, based on health insurance and personal means.

The ARTE documentary on positive psychology strikes even a little closer to home. It specifically takes apart the thinking behind and the economic function of positive psychology. It points out how very successful coaches like “Awaken the Giant Within” author Toni Robbins have built a million dollars industry based on self-motivation. But again, while I take insights from positive psychology, I am not a coach who expects her clients to just get up and do it, because circumstances and personal history do matter.

I don’t want to put a band aid on deep wounds

But those two pieces have been sitting uncomfortably with me as a coach. I’m also a trained social historian with a passion for my former research field of social inequality. I’ve always been fascinated by how the privileged classes keep power structures in place while propagating an ideology of the Western meritocracy: Everyone can get anywhere, if they just have the brains and a bit of discipline.

As a coach I don’t want to merely provide a way of coping to people who struggle in an unjust environment, be it their job, community or family. That wouldn’t differ much from prescribing an anti-depressant. So these two pieces really make me wonder what is the work of a coach, and what isn’t.

What I am trying to do as a coach is to support people

  • As they find out what is personally meaningful for them, what they deeply care for. We dig into personal purpose and values, and what it takes to make more space for them if needed.
  • In recognising choices and realising that they don’t have to say yes to everything. Seeing things from more than one perspective and then choose with self-authority what they want to create.
  • When they need to heal old and new wounds. Coaching isn’t just about goals. On the contrary, processing emotions and limiting beliefs that stem from bad experiences is important. Not to forget the positive things. I often need to stop them to celebrate, when they brush over their achievements and want to rush on to take the next hurdle.

When I go through this list, it sounds close to thinking that everyone holds their fate in their own hands. And mostly my coachees come with problems and inner experiences that they can indeed work on. They can tune into their inner knowing, shift perspective and build empowered momentum for change. Coaching can be very liberating in that sense.

So is coaching supporting injustice?

Ever so often there is something that as coaches I think we just have to name for what it is: a problem which is larger, structural, hard to grasp and worth fighting against not individually, but collectively. Something that’s outside of the coachee.

For instance, in more than one coaching relationship, a woman has told me how her male board colleagues accuse her of being aggressive and wants coaching around that. That’s not an internal struggle. The fact is, that male coachees never come to me with that feedback. I’m not willing to coach that away with a bit more perspective, a little mindfulness and a good dose of emotional regulation, nor with the silver bullet of Executive Presence.

I cannot coach away sexism, and I don’t want to contribute to trivialising it. Yet I still want to help the person at hand to process the effects of it on them and to figure out what to do. As coaches, we can help people to find strategies of countering such behaviours towards them. We can support them in connecting to their self-value and self-compassion in the face of being ignored, belittled, labelled, etc. We can support them with brainstorming on strategies, like finding allies, creating networks, speaking up. By doing these things, is coaching supporting injustice?

It’s not black and white

A good psychotherapist doesn’t simply medicate someone with depression, but looks at the whole person and their life circumstances. Most coaches, I hope, don’t mental training away what’s not a mental, but a societal problem.

We coach to empower and to evoke transformation, but it’s important to understand that not everyone starts the race with the same high tech running shoes. Some are barefoot, and mental training is not going to change the fact that they have experienced or do experience more adversity in life than others and have less options to just go ahead and change their circumstances.

For me as a coach, it is therefore important to bring compassion and curiosity, not impatience and judgement. If a coachee doesn’t get to the ground of what ails them in one session or hasn’t done what they committed to doing in our last session, we just take a look at that with curiosity and compassion.

After all, if life was that simple, who would need a coach?

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