Barbara Ehrenreich and the cult of coaching

November 14, 2006

One of my holiday reads was Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bait and Switch in which she spends a year researching America’s working poor. She goes undercover as a white collar worker looking for a job and one of the first chapters in her book is about her search for a career coach – it makes for shocking reading.

Fortunately there are about 10,000 people eager to assist me – “career coaches” – who, according to the coaching websites, can help you discover your true occupational “passion” retool your resumé, and hold your hand at every step along the way.

She meets with a variety of coaches offering watered down counselling and new age religion. Others are in need of severe coaching themselves; one in particular invites her to “design me as your best coach”. They are a sorry bunch and most of them seem to have stepped into coaching as a way of avoiding the very thing that Ehrenreich is looking for – a job.
Not all of us who coach are as disconnected from the real world as the people Ehrenreich met but I’ve met a few dodgy practitioners in my day (both as client and peer). No amount of trickery, circle of life drawings or re-engineered Ennegram frameworks can compensate for expertise about human systems and a real idea of how the world of work is constituted. Most of the people Ehrenreich met seemed to be afraid of developing a working alliance with their clients, more interested in peddling their own view of how the world should be rather than listening to what their clients needed. A working alliance is an absolute necessity for any kind of successful coaching – if it doesn’t exist then how can a coach or therapist or consultant say the challenging things at the right time in order to help a client?
I wonder about the amount of “coach training” out there – it seems to me that the people making money out of coaching are the ones running training courses. I’m unsure as to whether the coaching “industry” has a long term future – populated as it is by so many people who turn to the profession as a way of reinventing themselves and in the absence of any real kind of regulation. (There’s a touch of locking the door after the horse has bolted about most accreditation schemes I’ve examined and I’m sceptical of any accreditation scheme that can accredit people who have “trained” over and above people who have practised) – but that’s a rant for another day.

9 People reacted on this

  1. Hi ya,
    Hope your New York trip went great, interested in todays blogs for several reasons, firstly i am not at all surprised by either the writers findings or your reactions, quite what coaching has to do with spirituality or angels has always been beyond me, there is however a future for coaching, it’s just that none of us have figured out how to package and sell it profitably as “coaching” yet… so we consult, and train, and wrap the coaching in whatever “trojan horse” we can find which allows the client to get coaching without expecting warm oils or hot stones or sometype of religious experience.
    The whole concept of “lifecoaching” which was a wonderful idea to begin with has been ambushed by whackos who peddle everything from occupational nirvana to the cure for bloody cancer (i heard it on the marion finucane show a few years ago…honest to god) for that very reason i can never call myself a “lifecoach” and expect to be taken seriously, the problem it’s getting more difficult to be a “coach” and be taken seriously as the entire customer base is in serious danger of branding all coaching as “whacky bollox”
    Quite what needs to be done about this is a subject for much debate, but i think i’d have to start by having some form of occupational testing of coaching, plus a need for people to reference thier primary sources and deliver thier unique hypothesis of life in a format that would be subject to some form of academic rigour.
    The thing about good coaching (and part of the problem is that coaching is a bit like driving or making love, we all think we’re really good at it) is that it appear sensible, sequential and logical, and the progress can be followed from start to finish…. the thing about whacky bollox coaching is that some people are really gullible and prone to suggestion.
    there are dangerous and exciting times ahead.

  2. Paul – I agree with your comment – a friend of mine reminds me occasionally that if you’re ahead of the curve it translates into there being “no market for your services”. It’s a sobering and grounding thought worth listening to from time to time. My particular bugbear about coaching is that most of what passes for accreditation wouldn’t be achievable by the people who are accrediting…if they tried to get into these associations with the experience they have then they wouldn’t qualify – hence, the sound of doors being slammed all over the place. I’m dubious about what passes for much of that kind of training anyway and am convinced a lot of it is about making money off the backs of unwitting participants who see a new life for themselves as coaches. It always amuses me as well how much of coaching is defined and marketed as NOT THERAPY as if an understanding of the human psyche and the emotional dimension is unrelated to who we are as humans…and on and on it goes..

  3. I laughed at Ehrenreich’s skewering of much of what passes for “coaching” since her criticisms are well-targeted. Not all coaches are as pathetic as the ones Ehrenreich describes…but sometimes an artful caricature is quite telling, and the flaws Ehrenreich spots aren’t imagined.
    I do think a lot of successful, full-time coaches succeed because they make money training other coaches, a practice that turns coaching into a pyramid marketing scheme. The coach training program I completed was targeted toward mental health professionals, although it obviously accepts folks like me who have a radically different background. I think it’s one thing to re-train therapists as coaches; it’s another thing to teach people with no therapeutic background how to be effective coaches. Perhaps if coach training programs were more selective about who they accepted, there would be more quality control on the other end.
    In my case, I feel like whatever skills I might have as a coach come not from what I learned in a coach-training program but from my much more extensive experience as a college instructor & Zen teacher: it takes longer than an 8-month program, imo, to acquire solid coaching skills. This being said, I think there’s a huge turnover in new coaches: the dissertation coach I’d worked with several years ago is no longer coaching, and I’m not sure that many of my coach-training colleagues have viable practices more than a year later. I think (as you suggest) that many folks who themselves are in need of coaching think that the job is an easy way to make money: all you need, presumably, is a phone, a business card saying “Coach,” and enough confidence to sell yourself as an “expert.” Unfortunately, this is the traditional m.o. of con artists and pseudo-gurus, so it becomes difficult to sift the good coaches from the fakes.

  4. I’m frankly sceptical of any accreditation program that is not associated with the trades. And I’m sceptical of any electrician who isn’t accredited.
    I’m not a black and white kind of guy usually, but I seem to be on this issue!
    (And Paul, am I allowed to call myself a wacky bollox facilitator, or have you trademarked that yet? 😉 )

  5. My problem with a lot of accreditation particularly in the coaching world (and to a smaller extent in the psychotherapy professions) is who gets to decide who’s an accredited practitioner if there’s no accreditation standards to begin with – and once non-accredited people accredit themselves there’s every chance that they up the standards to keep others out…Hey it started with Jung and Freud…
    So Chris – the question for me is – accredited by whom?
    Lori – the pyramid selling scheme analogy never occurred to me before – I love it!

  6. You can call yourself whatever you like young man, strangely enough i can’t abide the word “facilitator” either, perhaps you could call yourself a midwife…. I tried reading the blog but there were far too many big words in it for me…so i gave up… my problem in life is that i’m a huge fan of KISS, the theory, not the band.

  7. Paul – why don’t you like the word facilitator? Surely a central part of consulting or coaching or any kind of engagement with people is facilitating their growth/learning/insight/problem solving? Not to mention the role of faciltator in its own right. How do you characterise what you do?

  8. Actually, I’m kind of with Paul on this one vis a vis the word “Facilitator.” There are all kinds of reasons for that, not the least of which is that it doesn’t really capture the work of someone who works withe groups to self-organize their work. Midwifing is closer to the truth.
    As for my big-worded blog…it can get that way sometimes, especially recently as I am blogging deep within a specialized community of practice at the moment, and big words are our friends. But most of the time, Parking Lot is pretty straightforward, or at least I try to make it that way.
    But if you like, and for a small fee, I could always coach you through my recent writing on conscious evolution and harvesting.
    Annette…accredited by whom…exactly. The amount of energy that goes into these things is mind boggling. Although it would help me get across the border a little easier, I’m in no rush to have the experts pronounce on my work!

  9. Now why don’t i like the word “facilitator”
    mainly cos it reminds me of conflict resolution, marriage counselling or some fella with feathers sitting in a wigwam passing round a pipe.
    you never asked me for a rational explanation,
    I also dislike rhubarb, obesity, older drivers and cats (sneaky feckers).
    there’s no accounting for taste
    yours sincerely
    Victor Meldrew.

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