Executive coaching can be described as a helping relationship between an individual with leadership, managerial or other supervisory responsibility and a coach who may access a variety of behavioural and cognitive techniques in order to support the client in identifying and achieving one or more goals that directly relate to increased leadership proficiency, professional success and personal well-being (1). Conceptually, solution-focused coaching is derived from and has much in common with solution-focused therapy (2-4).
Neuropsychotherapy is an approach to therapy that involves leveraging the brain’s ability to change itself (neuroplasticity) in physical form (neurobiology) and processes (neurochemistry and electrical activity) in order to foster desirable long-term changes to thoughts, behaviours and capacity (5, 6).
In identifying fundamental shortcomings of solution-focused executive coaching that are addressed in neuropsychotherapy, this article describes the benefits of an integrated approach that combines the strengths of both in the new field of executive neurocoaching.
In being solely solution-oriented and drawing on the experiences, knowledge, skills and resources of clients in pursuit of their own goals and at a pace determined by their willingness and capacity to change, solution-focused coaching (2) shares its orientation with solution-focused therapy (7-9). In this way, the largest practical distinctions between solution-focused executive coaching and solution-focused therapy may be that coaching is designed for highly functioning people, whereas therapy is for people with some level of dysfunction (10, 11), as well as a difference between a focus on professional performance versus a focus on psychological healing and recovery (12).
In this way the difference in intent might be best described as the specialisation of coaching toward a cognitive approach to helping mentally healthy clients achieve workplace goals and overcome workplace challenges in comparison to the more emotionally-aware and trauma-focused approach of solution-focused therapy. However, in practice this distinction is, at best optimistic and at worst naïve and dangerous, as it is impossible to separate underlying pathologies, emotions and moods (and the neural structures and processes that shape them) from behaviours and decision making (6). Indeed, executive coaching that does not include some form of psychological assessment and does not take into account the broader gamut of psychological health risks being more harmful for the client, those around them and organisational performance than no intervention at all (13). With less than 5% of coaches trained in psychology (14), this risk is very real.
Further, 76% of executive coaches who responded to a 2009 survey reported that they assisted executives with personal issues, despite only 3% stating that addressing personal issues was a part of their scope of engagement (15). It has also been found that between 25% and 50% of those seeking executive coaching have significant levels of stress, anxiety and/or depression (16), making arbitrary distinctions between coaching and therapy around the matter of mental health irrelevant (unless, when faced with symptoms of mental distress, coaches in every case understand their boundaries and step back from their role in order to refer clients to therapists for treatment – an unlikely eventuality due to the financial penalty for doing so).
Application of Neuropsychotherapeutic principles
The direct link between the form, function and operation of the brain and its capacity to consciously and subconsciously control all thoughts, feelings and behaviours forms the basis of neuroscience, neuropsychology and neuropsychotherapy (5, 6, 17). Specifically, neuropsychotherapy is focused on the neural structures and processes that shape perceptions and responses through memory, emotions, thoughts and sensations, expressed as decisions, behaviours and interactions (5). In doing so, neuropsychotherapy provides insights into how dysfunctions can be addressed and wellness achieved (6) effectively and sustainably. Moreover, particularly in the context of organisational leadership, it points the way to increasing resilience (18), being one’s capacity to deal effectively with daily challenges.
Key indicators of successful coaching have been identified as behaviour change and learning (19), both of which require neuroplasticity. Therefore, coaching and therapy that does not support neuroplasticity cannot claim to be more than superficially effective, as it will not have changed the neural processes that dictate thoughts and behaviours. In line with the Hebbian principle (20) of neuroplasticity mandating that doing nothing is doing something (ie, if new neural pathways are not being formed, old ones are being reinforced), coaching that does not support change instead supports inertia.
Due to the requirements of neuroplasticity in underlining change, and what it takes for neuroplasticity to occur, “brief” interventions (such as solution-focused coaching) aim to deal solely with presented problems and/or specific goals in a short amount of time. In this way, there is an inherent weakness in the ability of brief courses of executive coaching to achieve lasting and significant change – commonly, it is the safe, trusting and non-judgemental relationship between the coach and the executive that is of most benefit in what might otherwise be a highly pressured and stressful environment. There is no escaping that new neural pathways are fragile and prone to relapse unless new neural patterns of thinking, feeling, doing and being are effectively facilitated in therapy (or coaching) (21) and reinforced (through committed, determined, deliberate practice), and that relative success in doing so is the sole determinant of whether change has occurred and is likely to be sustainable.
Finally, in ethically delivering value to clients, the efficacy for coaching must be measured in success in terms of improved capacity to deal with immediate and urgent issues and/or in longer term client wellness and self-development, subject to the scope of engagement. While brief (short-engagement) solution-focused approaches can be effective in quickly identifying and achieving immediate goals, and so deliver client value for that scope, because longer term change relies on creating conditions and employing methodologies that support healthy neural change and well-being, coaches can create superior outcomes and value for their clients if their techniques are tailored accordingly.
In order to achieve superior, longer lasting and more significant outcomes, along with more consistent delivery of client value and safety in the field of executive coaching, it is proposed that an integrated neuropsychotherapeutic-solution-focused framework for executive coaching (executive neurocoaching) be adopted by appropriately trained and certified practitioners.
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