Beyond Coaching Psychobabble: Let the Buyer Beware (2018)

Manfred Kets de Vries

“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.”

I find myself increasingly intimidated by people in the executive coaching world. Many in the profession claim to be able “to unlock clients’ dormant potential and to provide them with a sense of self-fulfillment”. As these coaches seem to have so much to offer, how can I reach the Olympian heights they profess to dwell in? With their amazing skills, they say they can “deepen their clients’ learning, improve their performance and enhance their quality of life, both personally and professionally”. It must be true because they present glowing testimonials of clients who, thanks to their life-changing interventions, have become phenomenal leaders.


Amidst the boom of executive coaches, there appears to be an even more elevated type of coach: the master coach. These remarkable professionals differentiate themselves from the pack by being “always on the lookout for the things their clients don’t want to see or don’t want to hear”. They are their clients’ key to self-actualisation, bringing them to places they never thought they would be able to reach.


Joining their lofty ranks seems to be an accounting game, requiring (according to the websites of some master coaches) between 2,500 to 10,000 hours of direct coaching experience. Another requirement is to regularly practise “self-coaching”, a process that can “allow your soul to emerge and be seen”. What this is all about remains somewhat puzzling to me. As an executive coach myself, I would apparently be “more fulfilled” – and make “more money” – if I were to sign up for one of their training programmes.


At the pinnacle of the coaching pyramid is the most trusted advisor. Compared to run-of-the-mill executive coaches or master coaches, trusted advisors shine (or so they say) by being reliable, credible, personable, passionate, authentic and able to connect emotionally. And, if we believe the self-descriptions, they also provide their clients with an “Echo”, “Anchor”, “Mirror” and “Spark” function.


Finally, many of these executive coaches, master coaches and most trusted advisors have designed sophisticated frameworks packaged as catchy acronyms, such as FUEL, GROW, SMART, PURE and CLEAR. 


Preventing coaching from becoming a fad


When I put on my “sceptic hat”, however, I wonder whether the propositions by executive coaches, master coaches and most trusted advisors are somewhat of a marketing ploy. Much of their pitch sounds like psychobabble, language that is heavily reliant on jargon and catchphrase expressions. And based on my experience, people who tend to resort to this kind of language often have little or no real training in psychology.


I would like to add that, to the best of my knowledge, the psychological dynamics that guide human behaviour are far from neat. Human behaviour doesn’t fit elegantly into boxes, categories or snappy acronyms. Oversimplified models exclude the subtle nuances of human dynamics and what’s really happening in the coach-client interface.


Furthermore, I believe that the coaching profession isn’t doing itself any favours by exaggerating what it has to offer. Contrary to all the hype found in the literature of coaching training programmes, creating behaviour change isn’t easy, fast or linear. There are no miraculous cures in the helping professions. As any psychiatrist, psychoanalyst or clinical psychologist can tell you, behaviour change is hard work that comes with many setbacks. In most interventions, it’s two steps forward, one step back. Therefore, the exaggerated promises made by executive coaches, master coaches and most trusted advisors create highly unrealistic expectations.


Unrealistic, over-hyped sales pitch made by many of coaches and coaching programmes debase the coaching profession. It’s high time to debunk the shallowness behind the proliferation of jargon and boastful claims in executive coaching. In its place, we need richer frameworks to define the kind of work coaches are capable off, as well as ways of assessing the quality and real impact of their coaching interventions.


The American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. once said: “A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” Coaching as the language of change and learning has a salient role to play. However, while doing so, it must stay grounded and avoid turning into a fad.


This article is republished courtesy of INSEAD Knowledge. Copyright INSEAD 2018” 

INSEAD Knowledge, 2018

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