Executive Development: Coaching or Therapy?

This blog is a bit longer than some, but we believe its length is required to properly address the topic. We examine the normal and natural needs that arise in the course of executive development, and the proper ways of differentiating and addressing them. Enjoy!

Coaching and Therapy

Those of us trained as psychologists and who serve a professional and managerial population in an organizational setting most often characterize our developmental style of engagement as coaching. Presumably, this better suits the presenting situation: A generally healthy, well-educated, and well-compensated person with no obvious or acute psychosocial impairments that limit his or her functioning at home, at work, or in everyday community life. Their focus is on growth, thriving, success.

We usually reserve the term therapy for the clinic. In that setting, clients, often called patients, present with acute symptoms of distress and psychosocial dysfunction. Most commonly, these clinical issues concern depressed mood, anxiety, and strained or disrupted relations in their personal life. Usually, the client (patient) has struggled and tried to resolve their symptoms for some time before presenting for "treatment." Their focus is on coping and recovery.

Beyond Simplistic Dichotomy

Notice how dichotomous this categorization of needs is, two starkly different presenting situations. We might further differentiate them by their contrasting qualities of a) strength versus vulnerability and b) power versus impotence as applied to the client as a person and to the relative standing of the client in the client-psychologist relationship. Paradoxically, however, progress in either mode of intervention (coaching or therapy) calls for flipping these assumptions. Let me explain.

For the person presenting in a state of vulnerability, beleaguered and beset with problems that cause them to feel powerless, the goals of the psychologist must include helping the person to regain a sense of potency and build his/her strength. It's about bolstering the person's coping resources. Sympathy, empathy, compassion, and supportive encouragement must be accompanied by an explicit belief in the person's potential to change, to "step it up." However modest at first, the person must be challenged.

In the case of coaching clients, advancing beyond their present level of adaptive functioning requires confronting their self-limiting patterns of thought and feeling (i.e., fears and inhibiting beliefs). So, we must unmask unconscious defense mechanisms that serve to sustain false feelings of invulnerability. In a rather insistent but empathic and supportive manner, we thereby help the client recognize what blocks their progress. The client must tolerate feelings of impotence and vulnerability along the way.

Of course, the true nature of human existence is that people seldom if ever fall into such neatly described categories: a) the ever-rising and aspiring high achiever, on the one hand; or b) the impotent and disheartened, struggling to cope with everyday life. It’s been estimated that at any given point in time approximately 10% of the executive population might be struggling with clinical impairments of some kind (substance abuse, relationship issues, depression, etc.)—not always the same 10%.

When Development Becomes an Existential Imperative

The simple truth is that we do encounter personal and professional challenges in the course of life that shake our confidence and that compromise, at least temporarily, our capacities to thrive, excel, and function as well as we might like. In some cases, this becomes obvious to self and others. In some cases, it may be seen but less understood by others: "Allen seems a bit off his game lately" or "What's up with Jane?"

By the time this happens, we (Allen or Jane), at some level, also have an awareness of the struggle that is playing out. Following Carl Jung, I have found that it can be quite helpful at these times to ask ourselves, "What is it that I need to be learning, about my experience, about myself, about what this means?

Achievement-oriented adults may hit these “inflections points” more frequently as a function of the intensity of their strivings. They are points of origin for new trajectories of living, action, and meaning. They reveal themselves as "definitional moments," offering new destinies in an evolving course of identity formation that continues throughout life. To deny the challenge and yield to feelings of strain, fear, or insecurity leads us toward stagnation and inauthentic living.

As infants and children, even in youth and adolescence, we had others who may have been there to help us face these moments. If these early relationships with caregivers and concerned others were sensitive, responsive, at least “good enough,” we may have internalized a script that provides encouragement. Such scripts allow us to experience the awful weight of our freedom and responsibility in these moments while also accessing feelings of hope. The strain and pain awakens us to life as choice.

In any case, the felt need for consolation at these junctures is understandable. We may simply pause, lament, and allow ourselves a revitalizing breath. If our life history has given us a secure base, this may be enough. A resilient quality of our drive may respond: "Damn it, I am beating my head against the wall. This must change!" And we may navigate this moment independently. But when we get seriously stuck, we may need the catalytic interaction of conversation with another. 

This is where help from a clinically trained professional (e.g., psychologist) can be particularly helpful. It is where the needs and goals of coaching and therapy properly overlap. While coaching may address the cognitive and practical aspects of one's skills-based performance and behavior, therapeutic modalities involve a deeper exploration of feelings and fears, and appraisals and re-appraisals of core beliefs about self, others, and relationships that may have been valid (adaptive & functional) earlier in life, but are no longer.

This overlap region, where coaching and therapeutic strategies of engagement catalyze change and growth, may be construed as elective within the sponsoring organization. But for the client who wants to climb to the next peak, to do so by choice, and to do the work and "working through" to get there, it will feel more like an existential imperative. This is where the company of a psychologist is most vital. It adds depth and rigor to the exploration and “rewiring” of longstanding and self-limiting schemas of feeling and belief, which govern our motivations and constrain our freedom. 

Contact Information

As usual, we hope you found this short article a helpful stimulus for considering your own development interests and those of others whom you may be in a position to support and encourage. We are happy to discuss your questions. You can reach the author by phone at 401.885.1631 or by email at bill.macaux@generativityllc.com. Thank you.