Goals and coaching – aid or straitjacket?


Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?

The Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to

Alice: I don’t much care where.

The Cat: Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.

Alice: …so long as I get somewhere.

The Cat: Oh, you’re sure to do that, if only you walk long enough.

The above quote is often used to establish the need to set tightly defined goals in coaching sessions. It makes it a no-brainer — only a fool would not set goals at the outset — otherwise you could be walking for a long time — with the coach making a nice living! Okay there maybe some truth in that — however what sort of goals do we set and who do they help?

Most of our clients are bright, independent people — more than familiar with the principles of SMART goals etc. Usually they have a felt need around an area — “I’d like to be more influential with my peers”, “I want somebody to challenge my thinking about the way I’m leading my part of the organisation”, “I manage using my intuition and personality — this new job requires more” — and their goal often involves exploration and throws up some very different and often unexpected needs during the process — which would not have been anticipated at the outset. They are okay with setting a purpose and some parameters — but often do not want to be tied down by specific targets and goals — especially at the outset.

In the ‘Inner Game of Work’ the splendid Timothy Gallwey cites the difference between performance goals and learning goals, with performance goals often being external results, whilst learning goals which lead to changes in capability are internal changes taking place within the individual. It can be very difficult to predict precisely what these will be at the outset of working with any client and sometimes the results will be very subtle and personal. Respected academics such as David Megginson, are now writing articles (see our download page for an abridged version) questioning whether goals are always appropriate and helpful.

We know that just using a basic personality preferences tool such as the MBTI, some people will prefer their coaching to be structured, ordered, logical, sequential and planned, whilst others prefer a more spontaneous, open ended approach. Naturally the former lends itself to concrete tangible goals and a sequence of events and activities to enable this to happen. For the latter though this seems like an anathema — a chore rather than a joyful experience. Naturally a good coach will will adjust his or her approach to either — or will they?

Organisations such as our own often need to work through Human Resources as sponsoring clients — the gatekeepers and protectors of the organisations money and assets (the people). To protect their organisations’ investment there are often a series of forms pre-designed to define in great detail what specifically success will look like, what the organisation will be seeing, hearing and experiencing if that person is successful etc. When confronted with this documentation we often see clients glaze over, some ask whether they can pay personally and not work through the organisation if they have to do all these things, or lose interest. Surely our job is to help people capture their passion, learn, develop and grow, and also meet the organisations need to justify expenditure — and where tightly defined goals and objectives help this process we should use them. However equally isn’t it right that we are more adaptable and focus on helping our contracting client (the organisation usually) and the recipient (if not the same person) both achieve their needs — and use whatever methodology meets this higher need?

I’d be keen on your views.

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