For some, coaching as a leadership style smacks of being a contemporary management fad. But in truth, when applied correctly, it addresses the psychological needs defined nearly a century ago.
It is no secret that leadership training goes through cycles, with each one touting the most recent topics as the key to leadership success. (Of course, they don’t always turn out to be so.) Does coaching fall into this category — a management fad? Is it really worth the time and effort to develop a coaching skill set if it’s merely transitory or yields only minimal results?
These are legitimate questions, and to answer them requires an examination of some of the basic forces that drive human behavior and how they are linked to the process of coaching.
Much of our behavior is driven by the psychological satisfaction we receive from the actions we take. For example, consider the gratification that comes from achieving a particularly challenging goal, or from helping a friend in need, or from giving a top-notch presentation that garners respect from your peers. When people do things for their own sake (that is, without seeking extrinsic gain such as money, or without negative consequences for not doing them), it is because of the sense of well-being they receive from the actions themselves. To put a finer point on it, it’s because those actions satisfy psychological needs all humans have.
Seventy-five years ago, American psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed one of the best-known and most-influential theories on human motivation: the hierarchy of needs. He said all human beings share it and are predisposed to satisfy those needs whenever possible — including in the workplace. While people try to satisfy all five levels of these needs, Maslow concluded higher-level needs take precedence over others once the basic needs are fulfilled.
It is quite true that man can live by bread alone — when there is no bread. But what happens to man’s desires when there is plenty of bread and his belly is regularly full?
Other (and higher) needs emerge — and these, rather than physiological hungers, dominate the organism. When these are satisfied, new (and yet higher) needs emerge. And so on. This is what Maslow meant when he wrote in his groundbreaking 1943 paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation,” that basic human needs are organized into a hierarchy of relative prepotency.
In other words, once our physiological and safety needs are met, we seek the feel-good factor that comes with fulfilling higher-order needs — that is, our psychological needs. Maslow believed there is a natural process that pushes people to strive toward higher levels of fulfillment, with the ultimate goal of self-actualization. He described self-actualization as “the person's desire for self-fulfillment, namely, to the tendency for him to become actualized in what he is potentially.”
Maslow wrote that the form these needs take vary greatly from person to person. In one individual, it might be the desire to be an ideal mother. In another, it might be expressed athletically. In yet another, it might be expressed in art or inventing things.
Simply put, self-actualization is about our desire to develop and realize our full potential. It is our innate desire to become everything we are capable of becoming, and it is an ongoing, lifelong endeavor. According to Maslow, in his 1962 book, Toward a Psychology of Being, a person is always “becoming” and never reaches a state of perfection such that he or she lives “happily ever after.” It is a lifelong journey of growth and development — and that is where coaching becomes pertinent.
The purpose of coaching is to aid in the growth and development of an individual in a way that is consistent with their personal and professional goals. Coaching helps a person in a variety of ways, depending on the purpose for which it is used.
The Expert View
For example, Myles Downey (Effective Coaching, 1999) and Eric Parsloe and Monika Jamieson Wray (Coaching and Mentoring, 2000) view the purpose of coaching as facilitating learning and development to increase performance and effectiveness. Jenny Rogers (Coaching Skills, 2004) supports this viewpoint, saying coaches serve to enhance a client’s efficiency at work through focused learning.
Perry Zeus and Suzanne Skiffington (The Complete Guide to Coaching at Work, 2002) offer a variation on this theme, proposing the purpose of coaching is to foster growth, overcome maladaptive behaviors and replace them with new ones to create more adaptive and successful actions. Similarly, Jane Greene and Anthony M. Grant (Solution-Focused Coaching, 2003) view it as a means of creating positive, directed change for transformational purposes.
Although there is an assortment of perspectives on the purpose of coaching, it is quite evident that its elemental mission supports the quest for self-actualization and, in the process, the satisfaction of higher-order psychological needs. Esteem needs are satisfied as people experience a sense of accomplishment in reaching their goals and become more confident in themselves and their abilities. And social needs (that is, the need for friendships and relationships) are satisfied because of the bonds — such as trusting, liking and respecting — that must be present in the coaching relationship for positive outcomes to occur.
Coaching contributes to the satisfaction of all needs in Maslow’s hierarchy, after physiological and safety needs are met.
So, is coaching a fad? Obviously not. People naturally are driven to become all that they can be, and coaching plays an important role in that process. Yes, basic needs come first, but it is in our DNA to seek the well-being that comes from experiencing authentic relationships, improving competence by learning specific skills, developing attributes and changing behavior, and acquiring knowledge and understanding about those things that pique our interest. All of this is done in the interest of self-actualization.
Although there are many ways to travel the path toward self-actualization, it is fair to say that coaching, by its very purpose and nature, helps in this journey — and, therefore, is here to stay.
Robert Hicks is a licensed psychologist and a clinical professor of organizational behavior and founding director of the Executive and Professional Coaching Program at the University of Texas at Dallas. He also is a faculty associate at UT Southwestern Medical Center.