‘Psychopath’ or ‘Narcissist': The Coach’s Dilemma, By Paul Babiak, PhD

Posted by Paul Babiak

Coaches are sometimes presented with a client whose narcissism, self-centeredness, arrogance and insensitivity to others makes them wonder if they are, in fact, dealing with a psychopath. Some clients may arrive with notice from their organizations that they are 'snakes in suits.' How can you tell if your client is a psychopath? How can you be sure?

A proper diagnosis is a complex affair. Psychopathy is a personality disorder, which we now know comprises 20 traits—some readily observable and some not—as measured by the Psychopathy Checklist (PCL-R), a forensic assessment instrument developed by Dr. Robert D. Hare. Identification is not straightforward or easy, and requires in-depth interviewing of the subject, verification of behavioral data as contained in written records (360 degree feedback and personnel files for the case of the corporate psychopath; criminal records for those incarcerated) and much experience. It is also customary to seek a second opinion or bounce your suspicions off a seasoned colleague when making this determination.

Psychopathy vs. Narcissism: Two Personality Disorders Often Confused
Both psychopaths and narcissists, unfortunately, come across as self-absorbed, arrogant and insensitive—making differentiation difficult. However, there are some clues to the difference that the coach can look for.

The Psychopath
The most obvious traits of the psychopath are charisma, charm and a grandiose sense of self-worth, all somewhat positive traits. Many people actually like and are attracted to psychopaths whom they have just met, only to discover conning, manipulation and deceit—the dark side of this disorder—down the line. Unfortunately, in business coaching situations, it is quite common to find a blend of these traits among executive clients—in the form of self-confidence, assertiveness and influence skills—and to misinterpret them.

The Narcissist
Narcissism is a personality disorder, one of ten documented in the psychological literature. The common understanding is that narcissists are 'in love with' themselves and see the world as revolving around their thoughts and needs. To narcissists, the world is their audience, and everyone they meet—and everything that happens—is centered on them. Thus, we describe narcissists as self-centered, selfish, demanding and self-absorbed; yet, they can also be quite charming as well, having learned how to please their audience. True narcissists make up only about one percent of the general population—the same base rate as psychopaths. They are drawn to careers that allow them to receive the attention and power they crave, and to exert influence over others, reinforcing their perceived self-importance, the same as the psychopath; hence, it is not surprising to find a large number of both drawn to executive-level jobs.

The 'Normal'
The diagnostic problem (and subsequent coaching problem) is further complicated by the fact that most 'normal' (non-narcissist) executives also possess some feelings of superiority, entitlement and need for attention. But, these are typically at moderate levels and, while they may be viewed as narcissistic, they can better be described as narcissistic tendencies, rather than full-fledged narcissism. In fact, some degree of ego strength and self-efficacy is a good trait among executives and can lead them to success.

Clarifying Muddy Waters
How is the business coach to avoid the confusion? If you suspect your client has psychopathic tendencies, look for other signals. To separate the narcissist from the psychopath, one must go further into the traits and characteristics that they do not share. Of the 20 psychopathic traits and characteristics of the psychopath, those that can be gleaned in the context of a normal coaching session include:

Pathological lying:

Psychopaths can and will lie about many things, even those things you or I would not waste time lying about. Lying can often be uncovered through the many inconsistencies in their 'story' as it evolves over the course of a coaching engagement. If you tape record your sessions, try to follow their patter as it twists and turns in response to your questions and challenges. At some point, it no longer sounds like resistance, but rather game playing. While the psychopath will talk a good game about integrity and honesty, his or her behaviors will speak of pathological lying.

Emotional poverty:

Psychopaths are unable to feel, express or even understand normal human emotions (there is physiological evidence supporting this). Thus, they will be unable to express the range of emotions (except anger and rage) you would find in others. Even though some successful psychopaths can mimic some emotion, they do not do a good job of it. Many display a very flat affect while describing events that others would be hard-pressed to discuss without some emotional display. Or, they will overact the emotion, going beyond what is 'normal' for any given emotional situation. Look for remorse and empathy; you won't find them in the psychopath. They are cold inside and have no conscience as we understand it.

Blaming others:

This is a very common trait that becomes more evident as sessions go on. While most clients who blame others for their difficulties will eventually 'get over it' and take responsibility for their own actions, psychopaths will not. (Note: If they seem to, watch out for the lying and manipulation as noted above.)

Coaching Approaches to Try
The responses to coaching will be different among these three types, which can also help to clarify who they really are and further guide the coach in his or her strategy.

Coaching someone with narcissistic tendencies involves education and feedback about the negative effects these traits have on others, and helping the client learn how to better manage them. This 'normal' executive (with a healthy amount of ego strength) will, after initial resistance and pushback, move into solution-space, focusing on improving his or her effectiveness both personally and professionally. Perceived competence and self-efficacy are very important to this individual and are useful levers toward improvement and continued success.

True narcissists are more problematic, as helping them often involves delving deeper into the psyche. Underneath the bravado and attention-seeking, they are not all that self-confident or sure of themselves. Rather, they suffer with intense feelings of inadequacy with which their audience helps them cope. Because lack of self-confidence is not often a trait of successful executives, it is imperative that these feelings be hidden from peers, subordinates and coaches. The narcissist will find negative feedback demoralizing and exhibit emotional responses based upon the perceived challenges to his or her personality. Much coaching work will revolve around helping the narcissist resolve internal conflicts and regain the approval of his or her 'audience.'

Venturing into clinical areas while working with narcissists is difficult because it may be out of the comfort zone of the coach. Yet, the prognosis is good if they work with a coach and therapist who focus on helping them rebuild their self-concept in the face of negative feedback. They are often open to and can learn new behaviors which in their minds can help them regain the support from the audience they desire.

The psychopath, on the other hand, while similar in appearance to the narcissist on the surface, is not plagued by such unconscious dynamics. Rather, psychopaths do not need an audience. They are, for all intents and purposes, their own audience. Seeking and demanding power and attention is not driven by a need for reassurance, but by a means to manipulate those in the surroundings; they are consummate game players. The psychopath takes the floor and arrogantly demands respect as a way to manipulate others.

The true psychopath can be expected to react quite negatively to the feedback and begin to attack the organization, its members and ultimately the coach beyond normal expectations in such situations. Eventually though, clever psychopaths will switch their approach. They will mimic more appropriate behaviors and begin to look like they've taken the coaching to heart and are benefiting. They will try to subtly con or manipulate the coach into seeing their own point of view and seek collusion with the coach to help them convince others of their progress. Talented psychopaths—and I argue they must be talented on many fronts to have achieved their current level—want to learn more effective ways to manipulate those back at the office.

Lasting Change or Not?
In general, both 'normal' and narcissistic executives will eventually focus on the real work of improvement, while the psychopath will be more interested in how to use new behaviors to better manipulate (a typical attack pattern is: set someone up for failure, blame him, unseat or defeat him, gloat).

Unfortunately, should the coach take on the challenge, accurately assess the person and the situation, effectively resist manipulation attempts and focus on behavior change, these changes, in my experience, will be short-lived. A 'good report' from the coach is the psychopath's goal, and once attained, it's back to business as usual. And, if it suits his or her bigger purpose (long-term manipulation of the organization), a psychopathic client may ultimately attack the integrity and professional status of the coach.

Clearly, coaching a psychopath is risky business. The executive coach should think very carefully when deciding whether to continue the coaching relationship with someone he or she believes is a psychopath. It may be prudent at times to decline the 'invitation' to play the game, and instead end the relationship.

This article first appeared in Business Coaching Worldwide (February 2008, Volume 4, Issue 1). Copyright © 2011 WABC Coaches Inc. All rights reserved.

If you wish to reproduce this article in any material form, you must first contact WABC for permission.

Improving Innovation: How Coaches Can Help Companies Turn Ideas into Profits, by Kim Benz and Heidi L. Smith, PhD

Posted by Heidi L. Smith

Innovation needs renovation!

In a recent Boston Consulting Group survey of 940 executives from 68 countries, 90% of respondents agreed that generating growth through innovation is essential to success in their industries, and 74% plan to increase spending on innovation this year. Yet fewer than half the respondents are satisfied with the financial results of their innovation efforts. The survey represented all major industries, including energy, consumer and industrial goods, financial services, technology, telecommunications, and healthcare.

This paradox—plans to increase spending despite growing dissatisfaction—was evident in responses worldwide. While executives from North America were most strongly represented (53% of the sample) executives from Europe (27%), Asia (14%), and Australia/New Zealand (5%) agreed that fierce competition, coupled with a need to demonstrate potential growth to investors, compels them to increase their investment in innovation despite high risk and low rates of return.

In these trying times, intense pressure to generate profit through increasingly fast-paced innovation cycles will likely lead some executives to seek expert assistance. Business coaches can help companies improve the innovation process by understanding where this complex process most often stalls or breaks down completely. Opportunities abound for business coaches to improve innovation worldwide in small and large, product- and service-oriented companies from every industry.

First, coaches must understand that innovation is more than creativity. While creativity involves the production of new and valuable ideas, innovation is turning ideas into profits—innovation impacts the financial bottom line. A simple diagram describing the innovation process is provided below.

At each stage of the process, creativity must be directed towards the tasks that are appropriate to that particular stage. Coaches can assist in this effort by more explicitly defining each stage, suitably aligning the team to facilitate the process, and assessing progress and results.

Innovation begins with idea generation. At this stage, coaches can help direct creativity toward the generation of a volume of novel and diverse ideas, including helping companies identify and cultivate both internal and external sources of ideas. While small companies may be focused on internally generated ideas, they may benefit from systematically tapping into external sources, such as market trends, customer needs, and supplier-identified innovations. Larger companies may be focused on their competitors and customers, and may benefit from building a process for employee involvement at this stage.

Often, companies have more than enough new ideas, but struggle with transforming those ideas into profits. They may have difficulty evaluating and selecting ideas for further development. When executives have difficulty deciding which ideas to pursue, they may pursue all ideas simultaneously. This "shotgun approach" decreases time and resources allocated to development of any one idea which, in turn, decreases the chance that the project will be successful. In this high-risk, low-return environment, coaches may help companies identify criteria and adopt decision-making strategies to determine which projects are pursued and how they are resourced.

Once a company decides to develop an idea, concept variations must be iteratively refined and tested until the innovation is ready to be introduced in the marketplace. At this stage, coaches can help direct creativity towards solving problems in development or execution—moving from a focus on divergent thinking to a focus on convergent thinking. Truly creative minds can figure out how to solve extremely challenging executional problems, thus keeping the innovation process from breaking down.

In small companies, parts of the development, testing, or marketing process may require outsourcing if internal expertise is lacking. Large companies may leverage business allies to outsource tasks such as statistical analysis of consumer data or parts manufacturing and assembly. Identifying necessary expertise is crucial, and business coaches may facilitate critical business-to-business connections. While companies may be most comfortable keeping innovation "in-house," outsourcing only after initial testing and development, companies that outsource earlier and smarter may benefit tremendously by reducing time to market and slashing costs.

Regardless of company size, coaches can help define and manage the stages of the idea-to-cash process to facilitate efficiency and effectiveness. There is no "one-size fits all" innovation process. Rather, the process depends on the type of innovation (industry/product vs. service vs. application) and the functional organization of the people involved.

Aligning people around the innovation process is critical. Regardless of the company's structure (flat, matrixed or hierarchical), communication is key to successful innovation. Conscious effort to increase communication quality and timeliness is especially important in organizations with complex structures and complicated functional relations. Coaches can help companies build cross-functional project teams or strategies for sharing and evaluating project progress across functions (e.g., supply chain, R&D, customer service, marketing, and operations). Successful innovation requires interaction, and coaches can facilitate connections and exchange of information.

Ultimately, executives' dissatisfaction with innovation may stem from inadequate assessment. In fact, fewer than half the executives surveyed carefully track return on innovation efforts. Assumptions about the causes of process derailment may be inaccurate. It is difficult to identify problems without good measurements, and meaningful metrics are hard to find.

Although companies can measure time-to-initial-sales, number of new product launches, development costs, and overall revenue increases, they have difficulty tracking specific costs of innovation and tying them to resulting profits. When projects start and stop, costs are shared across functional units with separate budgets and different executive leadership. The time frame for measuring financial success is not obvious, so metrics are hard to come by. Smaller companies may have an advantage here; the relationship between innovation expenses and profits may be easier to evaluate when efforts are focused around only one or a few projects and a simpler organizational structure facilitates information flow.

Few creative ideas make it from concept to marketplace, and fewer still produce significant, sustainable, bottom-line results. Companies must continually re-evaluate the expected project returns to decide wisely whether to continue development, effect a product launch, or abandon a project and shift resources to more promising projects. Business coaches may assist executives by building skills needed to identify important sources of information, articulate decision-making criteria, and deal with inherent uncertainty.

Even expert coaching will not eliminate the anxiety and frustration associated with trying to predict the next big breakthrough and get it to market faster and more cheaply than the competition. However, innovation offers opportunities for business coaches to make significant contributions to business people and business profits.

Andrew, James P. "Innovation 2005." March 25, 2005. Boston Consulting Group. Available at http://www.bcg.com/publications/publications_search_results.jsp?PUBID=1312.

Copyright © 2011 WABC Coaches Inc. All rights reserved.

If you wish to reproduce this article in any material form, you must first contact WABC for permission.

Coaching the C-Suite in Times of Crises, By Professor Errol P. Mendes

Catastrophe hit one of the most respected companies in the U.S. on September 30, 1982. Tampered capsules of Extra Strength Tylenol had caused the deaths of three individuals from cyanide poisoning in the Chicago area. Then four more people died from the tampered Tylenol produced and marketed by Johnson and Johnson, which was the leading over-the-counter pain medication at the time. It was also the most profitable pain medication for the company and contributed approximately 15 percent of the company's revenues.1

When notified of the Tylenol-related deaths, the corporate leaders had little information to go on. They did not know if the seven deaths were just the start of many more. This would depend on how widespread the tampering had been throughout the U.S. They did not even know whether the tampering had been done during the production of the pain-reliever, in the distribution systems or in the stores just in the Chicago area. As a precaution, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had issued a nationwide warning about the use of the pain-reliever, but had not asked Johnson and Johnson to do a recall or order all sales to be ceased.

What the corporate leaders at Johnson and Johnson did know was that there was a "cost-benefit" case to do as little as possible as a recall would result in lost production, destruction of existing stock of 31 million bottles of the medication and other losses amounting to over $US100 million, with little chance of insurance covering the tampering effects and a potential loss of the 37 percent of market share for the drug. The corporate leaders at Johnson and Johnson did know that whatever they did the news of the tampering would affect some of the company's hard-won market share and could result in a sizeable drop in the value of the company's shares, which it did almost by 15 percent amounting to approximately $US1.24 billion.

The corporate leaders at Johnson and Johnson with alacrity dispensed with a cost-benefit analysis to avoid a recall. They had plenty of precedents to follow from corporations from the U.S. and around the world.

For example, one could point to the Ford Motor company's behavior regarding the exploding Ford Pinto in the late 1960s and early 1970s that, in whole or in part, caused the deaths of several owners of the car. These deaths involved the explosion of Ford Pintos due to a defective fuel system design. It is alleged that Ford used a cost-benefit analysis, including assigning a value to the lives of various categories of potential victims in its decision not to upgrade the fuel system based on this analysis. This cost-benefit approach to dealing with corporate crises is often termed the utilitarian approach.

Ford had the ability to retool its assembly lines and improve the fuel system to lessen the chances of explosions from rear-end collisions, but chose not to do so because it would have cost $US11 per car. Company analysis had shown that such an improvement would have resulted in approximately 180 fewer burn deaths (others had estimated approximately 500 deaths), 180 fewer serious burn injuries and 2,100 less destroyed cars potentially along with their occupants. The company then assigned (based on a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimate, a product of pressure from the automobile industry) an average value of $US200,000 to each death, $US67,000 to each serious burn injury and $US700 per automobile. Ford then used these cost estimates to decide that since the total cost of potential liability damages of $US49.5 million was less than the redesign costs of $US137 million, it would not redesign the exploding Pinto fuel system. When the slew of liability suits went to civil trials in the U.S., it became obvious that juries in these trials would not buy the cost/benefit analysis of Ford and were prepared to issue multi-million dollar verdicts. Ford eventually settled and hoped that its defense in this notorious case of corporate violation of human dignity would remain sealed in court documents.2 Some have surfaced.3

More recently we have seen examples of a major drug company like Pfizer refusing to countenance any plans to pull its highly profitable and popular painkiller Celebrex off the market, despite data showing that patients using the drug in a long-term cancer study had more than double the risk of heart attacks.

In contrast, the corporate leaders at Johnson and Johnson ordered a recall of all Tylenol containers and their contents. The corporate leaders stated they were unwilling to risk the lives of any further individuals no matter how small or widespread the tampering actually was. The corporate leaders at the company also decided not to put the medication back on the shelves until the company had developed tamper-proof production of the medication and its bottles. For that, the company rightfully has earned longstanding praise for ethical corporate leadership. Within five months of doing the right thing in the Tylenol crisis, the company had recovered 70 percent of its market share for the medication and the overall brand and reputation of the company itself skyrocketed over the succeeding years right up to the present.

The Johnson and Johnson response and the contrasting behavior at Ford and Pfizer present case studies for coaching the C-suite on ethical decision making in times of crisis.

The C-suite at Johnson and Johnson based their actions on the company's mission statement written in the mid-1940s by Robert Weed Johnson. It stated that the company‘s responsibilities were to the consumers and medical professionals using its products, employees, the communities where its people work and live, and its stockholders. Following this mission statement meant that public safety came above all else.

What lessons can coaches of the C-suite draw from the Tylenol crisis? Scholars in moral philosophy and ethics could postulate that the C-suite in Johnson and Johnson followed either expressly or intuitively universal ethics principles proposed by one of the main architects of Western moral philosophy and ethics, Immanuel Kant. Taking his approach to ethics in his seminal work4 titled Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant would have coached the C-suite in companies dealing with a crisis such as the Tylenol tampering that their decisions and conduct should be the basis of a "universal law" for all other moral actors in similar situations. Taking this approach to the Tylenol tampering, the leaders at Johnson and Johnson may well have thought that if it is wrong for any company to endanger the lives of consumers with mass marketing of a contaminated or defective product, no matter how profitable it may be to do so, then it is wrong for Johnson and Johnson to do so.

The "universal law" of Kantian ethics would also advocate that the "categorical imperative" of moral action is not treating human beings as means to an end, but as an end in themselves. This is the core of the content of the concept of "human dignity." Human beings have an intrinsic value beyond any cost-benefit analysis. There can never be a moral cost-benefit analysis that allows corporate leaders and their corporations to unjustly exploit or endanger employees, customers and local communities exclusively as means to corporate profit or in the case of the Ford situation as a means to save expending resources to remedy a defective product or not risking corporate profits and reputation by recalling a potentially dangerous product. In the latter situation there is a contrast between the behavior of corporate leaders at Johnson and Johnson and Pfizer.

One wonders whether the corporate leaders at Ford had personal moral misgivings about refusing to upgrade the fuel system of the Ford Pinto, thus violating a Kantian universal law on defective products, yet the cost-benefit or utilitarian analysis forced them into not doing the necessary upgrade.

One major downside of coaches advising the C-suite on taking the Kantian approach to moral actions in times of crisis is that it focuses too much on the motivation for individual or collective action and not at all on the consequences of such action. The opponents of Kantian moral reasoning in the C-suite would expressly or intuitively prefer a consequentialist or utilitarian basis for their worldview. The main architects of this analysis of moral conduct were John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham.5 The simplest form of their thesis argues that consequences that produce the greatest good for the greatest number are the only way to judge the morality of human actions. One could argue that Johnson and Johnson could also have followed a more humane utilitarian approach in the Tylenol crisis and arrived at the same decision to recall the medication. In this moral framework, the company would consider not only the greatest good for Johnson and Johnson, but also the protection of the potentially very large numbers of actual or potential users of the medication if the tampering had been widespread and possibly the even larger numbers of the public whose family members or close relations may have been affected. Certainly a cost-benefit analysis under this more utilitarian approach demands a recall, while at the same time preserving the human dignity of those who could suffer from not ordering a recall.

But what if police authorities had managed to find the individual who had effected the tampering and coerced (another area where Kantian ethics and utilitarian ethics would do combat) a confession that only a dozen bottles had been tampered, but the person who had done the tampering and the distributor of the medication had no idea where those bottles were now on sale to the public? Some, but not all, applications of utilitarian analysis of moral action would support the refusal to order a recall as the good done by the medication to millions of users outweighs the grave harm done to the potential users of the dozen tampered bottles of Tylenol. One can only wonder if Pfizer adopted this utilitarian approach in refusing to take Celebrex off the market.

If decisions of the C-suite rest on this basic utilitarian approach to moral conduct with such potential grave consequences for the few that are sacrificed for the good of the many, then it violates the basic notions of human dignity that have been espoused by leading moral philosophers of Western civilization such as Immanuel Kant. However, a more humane form of utilitarian ethics could in many circumstances arrive at the same ethical outcome as discussed above.

The ultimate task of corporate leaders in times of crises according to, both the Kantian and the more humane utilitarian approach, is to utilize their power to promote and protect the human dignity and the greatest good of all those who are involved or affected by their operations if at all possible. I suggest that the main goal of coaching ethics in the C-suite is to demonstrate that the exercise of corporate power in times of crises is really only ethically responsible when it takes into account both the human dignity and the greatest good, if at all possible, of all those affected by its operations.

1 For details of this paradigm example of swift corporate moral and ethical action see the following: http://harvardbusinessonline.hbsp.harvard.edu/b02/en/common/item_detail.jhtml?id=583043 and http://www.mallenbaker.net/csr/CSRfiles/crisis02.html (accessed February 10, 2008)

2 See the Mother Jones article on the exploding Pinto case that caused an outcry in the U.S. at http://www.motherjones.com/news/feature/1977/09/dowie.html (accessed July 21, 2007)

3 See the Ford calculation memo on value of lives versus an $US11 per car cost at http://www.motherjones.com/news/feature/1977/09/death.html (accessed February 10, 2008)

4 Zweig, Arnulf, trans. Hill, Thomas E. Jr., and Arnulf Zweig, eds. 2002. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

5 A variation of utilitarian thinking that could have a greater moral content is rule-utilitarianism. This variation advocates first ascertaining the best rule or rules of particular conduct. This is achieved by ascertaining the consequences of following one or more particular rules. The rule that produces the best consequence is therefore the best rule that should be followed. Proponents of rule-utilitarianism included John Austin in The Providence of Jurisprudence, (1892) and John Stuart Mill in Utilitarianism.

This article first appeared in Business Coaching Worldwide (June 2008, Volume 4, Issue 2). Copyright © 2011 WABC Coaches Inc. All rights reserved.

If you wish to reproduce this article in any material form, you must first contact WABC for permission.

Where’s the Evidence? First Steps into the Literature By Dr. Annette Fillery-Travis

Research: Let's take a minute to reflect upon what that word means for us as coaches. Do we think of it as remote from practice, constrained by a set of rules and 'paradigms' that leave us cold, or is it a wonderful opportunity to explore, update and deepen our practice?

As a professional researcher and coach, I have supervised many coaching practitioners during their Masters degrees. Most have started their research with some trepidation and a sense that they were entering into another world, with a new vocabulary and a set of rules about which they knew little. It seems that we, as researchers, have done a good job of mystifying our trade!

Yet, as the coaching profession develops, we are becoming increasingly aware that we need to delineate coaching from other offers in the market; identify the real value we can bring to our clients; and be able to advise the buyers of coaching on which coaching interventions are fit for their purpose. To do this we need to have evidence of what works and how. In effect, we need a thorough grounding in both the theory and practice of what we do and the research which underpins it.

We should be happy therefore that the number of studies and research papers on coaching is steadily increasing. The first research article, which looked at 'coaching' as a discrete activity, was written in the 1930s and focused on coaching in a sales force. Publications then averaged one or two per decade until the 1980s when interest picked up. Since then, there has been a near exponential increase in publications. We now have specific journals for general interest coaching articles and research papers. There has also been a corresponding increase in Doctorate theses on coaching-related subjects. This does not, of course, include the vast range of books on coaching that draw heavily from the research. Although they are of great use to their readers, they generally do not report new research, but draw upon the established research literature. As a consequence, I have not included them in the figures. Within this wealth of text, the most popular type of article is descriptive reporting of a coaching intervention and single case studies, although there is a move to more empirical evaluations of case and group studies.

But are they of equal value and how do we know what is good research and what is not so good? How do we know what should influence our practice and our advice to clients?

One place to start when considering these issues is to identify the research question being asked and whether the evidence presented would convince you enough to change what you do, i.e., what is the purpose of the enquiry/research and the perspective from which it is being asked?

This is not a trivial question so it is worth working with an example. If I was to ask: Does coaching improve the performance of executives?

Then, assuming we are all agreed on what constitutes coaching (which may be a big assumption!), there are still two words in the question that have a variety of meanings depending upon your perspective—these are 'improve' and 'performance.'

From the perspective of an HR professional managing the coaching intervention 'improved performance' may mean:
a) An increase in the scores of the executives on 360 degree feedback
For the manager of the coachee, it may mean:
b) A 10 percent increase in sales
And from the viewpoint of the coach it may be:
c) The perceived satisfaction of the executives that they have addressed the issues identified in the coaching contract

Just from consideration of these three perspectives, I can identify three different ways of conducting this enquiry. For (a) I may consider 360 degree feedback before and after a coaching intervention; for (b) I may look at sales figure before and after; whereas for (c) a series of interviews with coaches after coaching would be one way of hearing their views. For the sales manager, the interviews with the coachees will be of limited value whereas the coach will find them highly informative.

Obviously these are simplifications, but they illustrate just how the particular perspective of the researcher and the end user will define the value of the answer and whether the research has fulfilled its purpose.

In a similar manner, a single case study can provide a rich picture of a particular intervention allowing a deep exploration of the context, attitudes and outcomes for the individuals concerned. But the purpose and perspective of the intervention may be highly specific to the case under investigation and have little to offer another organization in another context.

A reflection on the purpose and perspective of the research we access will often sort the wheat from the chaff and identify what has real value for us in our individual practice. It will nearly always also reveal a wealth of further questions. The old adage in this case is true—our answers only provide for further questions. It is at this point that many of us consider entering the field of enquiry ourselves and undertaking practitioner research. In my next column, I will talk about the real benefits both to practice and the profession of practitioner research.

If you would like to add your comments on this piece or would like to share your favorite research study (we do all have them) then please send them in, and I will be happy to add them to the 'Worth Reading List' below, which will be a consistent feature of this column.

Worth Reading
To get a general overview of the research into coaching and how it has evolved over the years, reading the following article is an excellent start. It is a free download from the web address included here.

Grant, Anthony M., and Michael J. Cavanagh. 2004. "Toward a Profession of Coaching: Sixty-five Years of Progress and Challenges for the Future." International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring Vol. 2, No. 1 (Spring): 1.

This article first appeared in Business Coaching Worldwide (February 2008, Volume 4, Issue 1). Copyright © 2011 WABC Coaches Inc. All rights reserved.

If you wish to reproduce this article in any material form, you must first contact WABC for permission.