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The power dynamics in coaching

Les dynamiques de pouvoir dans le domaine du coaching
Published on
24 January 2019

Interpersonal relationships are an essential part of coaching. Most coaches and coachees will take into consideration their personal relationship, while organizations tend to focus on the relationship with the coach. However, new research highlights the importance of understanding coach/coachee/organization relationships as a triangular relationship rather than a two-way street.

To learn more, we speak with Dima Louis, co-author of the study and an assistant professor in the department of People, Organizations & Society at Grenoble Ecole de Management.

Your recent research explored the power dynamics in coaching in terms of 'space'. Could you present the reasons for your research topic?

Our research was based on the idea that it’s important for those involved in coaching to think in terms of triangular power relationships (coach, coachee & organization) instead of simply thinking in terms of two-party relationships (coach-coachee, coach-organization & organization-coachee). Another important concept is that every ‘space’ produces certain types of power relationships. We were particularly interested in examining the power relationships within the coaching space, which is  a unique environment because it’s neither wholly part of the organization nor completely separate from it.

Your research presented three types of power relationships (independent, mediated & parallel). Could you explain your findings?

By using a political perspective of relationships, we analyzed how coaches, coachees and organizations interact. The situation created by a coaching contract is unique and it’s particularly important for coaches and organizations to understand how these relationships can play out. We recorded three types of power relationships that can each be of interest to better understand and implement a successful coaching experience.

First, independent power relationships can emerge between the coach and the coachee or the coach and the organization. These independent relationships can have a positive or negative impact on stakeholders depending on how the coach experiences and uses this independent relationship.

Second, a mediated power relationship takes place is positioned in the middle of a pre-existing relationship between the organization and the coachee. In this case, the coach can sometimes become an “instrument” for the organization to express its influence. However, coaches can also transform the pre-existing power relationship in order to achieve a positive outcome for coachee and organization.

Finally, parallel power relationships represent a case in which a coach experiences similar power relationships as those taking place between the organization and the coachee. For example, a coachee that doesn’t trust his or her employer will also be unwilling to trust the coach. This is another case where it’s important for coaches to realize the dynamics at play if they wish to be effective.

To help coaches, coachees and organizations think more globally about the coaching experience, your research also speaks about the coaching ‘space’. What does this mean?

What’s interesting about the coaching ‘space’ is that it’s a unique opportunity for change. This space can serve to generate new relationships. It can bolster pre-existing relationships and help them evolve. Or it can also be an opportunity to uncover hidden relationship issues, which is particularly interesting for coaches who can act to mend previously unknown problems.

In concrete terms, what advice can coaches draw from your research?

These triangular power dynamics highlight the political aspect of coaching. Many coaches focus on the psychological relationship between coach and coachee. Yet to be successful, it’s essential to broaden your scope and consider this triangular relationship from a social, cultural and political perspective. When you develop a systemic perspective, you have multiple approaches and frames of reference that can help you interact in the most effective way with both the organization and the coachee.

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