I was listening to a friend describe and experience with their coach the other day and as I listened it reminded me of one of my own from more than 20 years ago. It reminded me that we do still have a long way to go in terms of creating an environment where we are all truly free to explore and embrace our true selves at work. And, even in the face of presenting mentoring and coaching it can be more about the coach or the company than truly the transformation of the coached.

When I was first starting out in sales, I had just left nursing and little experience selling much outside of working as a waitress, when I was partnered with a Sales Manager acting as my coach and mentor in the business. He was nice enough, and had a lot of experience to share with me. His experience however was his, from his perspective and related to his reality, which as it turned out was significantly different to mine as a woman. In those early years (the 90’s) as a sales rep I was full or enthusiasm and ambition and even put in a application for my boss’s role while he still had it. My problem, I was told, was I was too assertive and too ambitious (for a woman) and that made them uncomfortable. This always made me question the very nature of my relationship with my Sales Manager. If we were to never be equals, would I always be the “lesser” the “child” or the “servant” in the relationship? The construct of this relationship was uneven in both position and perceived potential transformation power. You have to then surmise that if I was not to perceive myself as having enough power to transform, how was I going to stretch out beyond the horizon and transform not only myself, but the organisations that I worked for? I left that company shortly after this conversation, but this wouldn’t be the last time I would face a limiting mindset to femininity and organisational leadership. It frustrates me that even today in 2020 I am still having conversations with talented woman who are limited by expressed bias in workplaces.

If we are to challenge the constraints and power that asserts its hold over our current position then we need to observe and challenge the view we have of our perceived reality.

Anne Brockbank in her book “Facilitating reflective learning through Mentoring and coaching” has mapped this intersection of learning and reality and has it brilliantly summarized. It asserts that the learning outcome is likely to be influenced by the motivations of the person or company offering it.

Learning contexts like mentoring and coaching are social constructs and sometimes in engaging in them we have a tendency to create ourselves rather than discover our true selves. Unless, we, you, me, have a evolutionary mentor, someone who through pointing to the reflective process can offer us an alternative discourse we are most likely to remain constraint by the power of our existing reality.

A discourse is about what can be thought, and said, by whom, and by what authority. Discourses embody meaning and social relationships. They constitute both subjectivity and power in relationships. They are practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak. Such as terms like “attitude problem”, “On Message”, “Unionized” or “Eco- warrior” etc.

Reflective learning will drive both improvement and transformation through the shifting of the power horizon.

So when is it good to have a outside Coach or mentor?

When a mentor or coach couple ( you and them) are aware of the power in the relationship ( such as me and my manager) , and the political dimensions (they own relationships that can influence your progression), and walk in the relationship openly and knowingly both are likely to benefit from learning. Without recognizing this political dimension, both collude with power relations and limit the effectiveness of the coach/mentor relationship. The couple simply mirror what is implicit in the relationship.

Does your Coach or mentor drive positive emotion?

Positive emotion is critical to learning and political power in the relationship impacts on its effectiveness. If we assume that responses to learning are simplistic or uniform we miss the opportunity to maximize learning. In the book Freedom to learn (Roger, 1983) it is revealed that we are influenced by how we are nurtured from the day of our birth. All humans are reared under condition of worth. Our self concept is based on conforming behavior that is approved by significant others in our lives. This idea and its relevance to the person receiving coaching is subjective and requires that the coach know and understand their reality. Our self esteem, which stems from how we know ourselves, is directly linked to our authentic presence and so through its reciprocity enables further our self esteem. If you are not exploring your true self, your capacity to lead both self and others is limited and limiting.

Anne Brockbank reflects that in order to both learn, grow and transform 3 types of reflection are needed:

  • Instrumental: This is concerned with the achievement of goals or finding solutions
  • Consensual reflection: Questioning both the end as well as the means to the end.
  • Critical reflection: Challenging of assumptions and the prevailing discourse.

True transformation happens when your learning is evolutionary.

  • You question the tfgs (taken for granteds)
  • You analyse the power relations
  • You collaborate in your learning.

Transformation learning helps to expose unequal power previously hidden beyond the power horizon, it challenges what is deemed “natural”, and yet it accepts the reality of conflict through dialogue while appreciating the power of language and the prevailing discourse.

Learning needs to be in context with and connected to a recognition of the social, cultural and political contexts as part of empathy and unconditional positive regard.

If your coach or mentor didn’t leave their judgement at the door, it might be time to open it back up for them.