Rise of executive coaching: how leadership ideologies drive anxiety in academia

Leadership is replacing concepts of management in universities. from www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-ND

Rise of executive coaching: how leadership ideologies drive anxiety in academia

It is no secret that academics are becoming increasingly anxious in their work. My colleagues and I have written about the Performance Based Research Fund (PBRF) here in New Zealand recently, drawing attention to the way it exacerbates anxieties.

We have also analysed the specific plight of the business school academic and the alienation they experience. For me, much of the blame for this increasing anxiety should be levelled at the way leadership ideology has infiltrated what should be fairly straightforward university management.

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Everyone is a leader

Many of us working in the social sciences look at the concept of leadership with suspicion. As a concept, it is misleading because it tells everyone that leadership is essential, even though it often fails to form any sustained links within society – something I call true social bonds. Management is different because it is good at bonding with others, as a teacher or coach, or less popularly as a boss or master.

But management as a concept is not valued in today’s organisations. Instead it seems that everyone is cast as an emerging leader. Just about every random middle manager in the public service in Aotearoa has undergone a “transformational leadership” training course, often without having asked for it.

Inherent to this faux concept of leadership is the apparently essential “self-discovery” process, exercised through profiling, personality testing and HR practices like 360-degree feedback, where individuals receive critical appraisal from above, below and beside in the official organisational hierarchy. This process has faced serious criticism, specifically as being an ultimate tool of self-surveillance and managerial control.

The results can be unsettling. With 360-degree feedback, people are often found wanting specifically in the so-called “soft skills”, or emotional intelligence. This is particularly the case for “new” managers who may have been promoted because of their technical skill, or because they are next in line. In the university context, lots of heads of departments are successful research academics who end up taking on management jobs (see here for a wonderful account).

The concept of emotional intelligence, or EQ, as practised by the leadership industry is seriously lacking. Stephen Fineman puts it like this:

Emotion is ‘unrolled’ and divided into convenient units, which are then susceptible to different forms of statistical manipulation.

The expensive consultants often employed by organisations (including universities) are not actually interested in exploring human relations. Instead they roll out the framework with little consideration for its emotional impact – ironically.

Enter the executive coach

The solution for an emotional intelligence problem uncovered during a 360-degree feedback process is usually the allocation of an executive coach. This is an industry that has been on the rise in the past 20 years. It is also an industry that is completely unregulated by any state authority, though there are many industry bodies arguing for their particular set of standards.

The relationship between psychological therapy and executive coaching has been a subject of concern for the field for many years, with some research working hard to delineate the critical differences. However, in my experience, If you ask the average executive coach “off the record”, many will quietly explain that they “feel” like a therapist, employed to listen and to advise, where appropriate of course.

While I am not necessarily a proponent of regulation, I can see the point, especially in comparison to the therapeutic community. In Aotearoa, therapists are well regulated in relation to clinical psychology and psychotherapy. These organisations act for the state to set out standards for the professions.

Therapy is also a voluntary service. People choose to see a psychologist, psychotherapist or counsellor. In other words, they engage willingly in the process and it isn’t a requirement of their employment (formal or otherwise). Executive coaching often is.

The other side of coaching

It is one thing if a person seeks therapy because, in the words of the psychoanalysts Stijn Vanheule and Gilles Arnaud, they are experiencing “an element of suffering in his or her own functioning”. They can examine the qualifications, experience and accreditation of therapists and choose someone suitable to help. Instead, most middle managers subject to executive coaching are asked to trust the process and the consultants.

This doesn’t always go well. A colleague of mine in a New Zealand university underwent a 360-degree feedback process and discovered she had been rated by those above her as lacking in emotional intelligence. It didn’t take long before a coach was appointed.

The coach was, in essence, employed to attempt to change my colleague from an excellent academic (task-focused, a bit shy, a touch obsessive) into a so-called people person. This might seem trivial but it is an insidious form of what we have identified in our own research as alienation. My colleague was presented with a paradox – a “therapist” who was working for the university, not for her.

I see a place for helping people at work through “managerial therapy” by focusing on the work symptoms that are causing distress for managers and helping them to feel better in their managerial skin. But this should be initiated and controlled by the managers themselves, not externally imposed.