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Does coaching make you too risky?

One of the ways we try to add value at Wickland Westcott is by spotting leading-edge developments, and applying these to the world of talent management. Here we explore a potential pitfall for people being coached, and suggest ways to side-step it.

A recent study(1) shows that when people are given pills they believe contain vitamins, this leads them to engage in unhealthy activities, for example smoking more, exercising less or eating badly. Additionally, taking such pills also leads them to perceive themselves as significantly less vulnerable to everyday dangers, such as being injured in an accident or being taken ill. This ‘licensing effect’ has also been flagged as a pitfall for gym users, who use their virtuous fitness session to legitimise doing something unhealthy – eating chocolate or having a glass of wine.

Another relevant psychological effect is known as ‘optimism bias’ - the tendency for many of us to be systematically and consistently over-optimistic about the outcomes of our plans.  When these themes are combined, the implication is clear: believing that we have done something healthy makes us treat genuine, concrete, real-world risks less seriously and makes us likely to act in ways that are more dangerous. How could this be relevant to coaching?

Working with a coach or internal mentor could have a similar effect to a vitamin pill or a gym session. It is plausible that following (even a high quality) coaching intervention, where a crucial aspect of work or performance is discussed, the coachee might subsequently feel excited and/or virtuous, and overestimate their own capabilities. The danger is that they then do something risky within another area of their work. For example they might push the boundaries on a topic or issue not previously explored, without considering the options as carefully as they would normally. Worst case, this behaviour could involve deciding to do something potentially damaging to themselves or their organisation. In the gym scenario people may apply an ‘offset strategy’ – trading a physical workout for a cream cake – without too much downside risk. At work however, the impact may go unmitigated – that is, there is nothing to offset or balance out these more risky decisions.

This threat is compounded, of course, where the coaching intervention is neutral or of poor quality, that is, it makes no positive contribution to the coachee’s decision-making processes and behaviour. In this instance the coachee may walk away from their coaching session feeling virtuous and invincible, but in real terms they have gained little from the coaching other than a misplaced sense of self-confidence.

In summary, we see this as a potential risk in certain circumstances – in particular where the coachee is impressionable – more likely to get caught up in the excitement of the possible. In practice, most executives have a series of safety catches or reality mechanisms that kick in (either during or) once they have exited the rarefied atmosphere of a coaching session, brainstorm or strategy day.

This area nevertheless requires subtle handling, especially as an increase in self confidence is often a desirable, or even an intended outcome from coaching.  The watch-out is that coaches need to be aware of just how far-reaching their interactions can be, and act accordingly. Coaches should be mindful of the risks of their work, and can usefully deploy a grounding process/exercise at the conclusion of coaching sessions to introduce realistic perspective. This is something we include in our own range of coaching methodologies at Wickland Westcott.

Organisations, for their part, need to select coaches with the skills to manage their own impact proportionately, and should be especially wary of facilitating internal or external coaching relationships that do not include such safeguards.

(1) Wen-Bin Chiou, Chao-Chin Yang, Chin-Sheng Wan (2011) “Ironic Effects of Dietary Supplementation: Illusory Invulnerability Created by Taking Dietary Supplements Licenses Health-Risk Behaviors” Psychological Science August 2011 vol. 22 no. 8 1081-1086.


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