Agile-Thinking Mistake #4: “Coachitis”

Employees should be treated like adults. Why are they nevertheless incapacitated and infantilized through coaching?

Picture: Nick Wang — Unsplash

New work and the agile movement started with the promise of developing respectful forms of work. Employees should be treated like adults. Why are they nevertheless incapacitated and infantilized through coaching?


Have you already read the previous articles in my short series on agile thinking errors? Then you know that I have stumbled across many inconsistencies in the development of New Work and agile transformation. They sometimes seem confusing and contradictory to me. For example, I’ve been grappling with the following issues:

  • How the expedient rationalism of Taylorist thought models and its drive for unlimited economic growth and profit maximization conflict with sustainable business preservation in resource-scarce postmodern times.
  • How method affiliation and the hope of managers for simple recipes for complex issues have triggered a Spotification and Netflixization of companies.
  • How the hectic search for quick wins threatens agile transformations.
  • How the lack of a client experience owner leads to aberrations in intra-organizational cooperation.

Today, I’m delving into another phenomenon that was created by the dynamics and enthusiasm of the agile movement. Its meaning is completely lost on me.

Necessity of managers

Let’s start a little further back. In the distant past, when there was no talk of agile working methods, the weal and woe of productive and constructive employees were in the hands of managers. In classic hierarchical corporate structures, managers are true universal talents. They are not only the decision-making center of gravity for their employees and the professional authority of the performance content of their teams. They also represent the company as an employer and, from a legal point of view, have disciplinary power and authority over their subordinate employees.

Malicious tongues also call this widespread archetype of managers: the higher-paid intelligence. The higher this form of intelligence is found in the corporate hierarchy, the higher the salary. This has many effects and consequences. Personal and professional careers of employees can only take place on the ladder of management. For this reason, technical experts are sooner or later elevated to a management position — for lack of development alternatives.

In this way, the company secures the expertise of the promoted employees. At the same time, it ensures that the most competent person supervises all other experts.

Peter principle

This form of career development leads to a phenomenon noted by Laurence J. Peter, after whom the Peter Principle is named. It states that in a hierarchy, each employee tends to rise to his level of inability. Once this level is reached, any further development is ruled out or failure is inevitable.

To counteract this possibility, companies like to send their management employees to management seminars. There, they are taught what the actual focus of a manager’s tasks is. Coryphaei like Peter Drucker or Fredmund Mlig have dedicated decades of their lives to teaching tasks and responsibilities in management.

Despite all these efforts and investments in the education of management potentials, a development is emerging: it seems that the problems in organizations caused by managers and ineffective management are greater than their benefits.

Meaning and purpose of management

The core of the task and the responsibility of managers can be focused on two aspects:

  1. providing orientation
  2. resolving ambiguities

Yes, the meaning and purpose of management can be understood in such a simple and elegant way. Whether a board member or a team leader, whether a division head or a department head. At the core of their tasks, they all have to answer the following question for the employees entrusted to them, assigned to them, or subordinate to them.

What is the purpose of the employees’ work for the department and the entire organization?

Manager should therefore provide orientation to their employees.

Which objectives, which operational and strategic work contents are to provide a service, at what level and at what cost for which need bearer, customer or colleague?

Questions or irritations can arise from these contents of orientation. Conflicting goals of individual employees or departments need to be identified. Perhaps employees are not sure how to proceed operationally and which priorities must be set.

With all these problems, it is the manager’s duty to resolve the identified or raised ambiguities. Depending on the number of employees involved and the complexity of the respective area of ​​responsibility, it can be assumed that a manager has their hands full with these two questions. They are probably well occupied in terms of time.

And yes, there are sophisticated models by Henry Mintzberg (1973) or Henry Fayol (1916) that elaborate and explain management tasks in detail. But all these definitions’ bottom line is that there are basically the two core elements mentioned: providing orientation and resolving ambiguity.

Agile VUCA dystopia

Despite the aforementioned models and principles, the question and search for the best and most effective form of management never ceases. In the midst of this discussion — to which all those involved and affected had long since become accustomed — the agile movement bursts in.

It claims that in times of digital revolution and highly dynamic VUCA upheavals, hierarchical forms of organization and classic management principles are completely outdated. They are just too ineffective. Self-organization and dealing with employees at eye level and equally valued as executives, regardless of status or income group: these are now called the critical ingredients of an economically successful and change-adaptable — aka agile — company.

The helper at a loss: the coach

Corporate leaders and decision-makers are only too happy to believe such promises of salvation. Especially when they are decorated with success stories from tech giants like Apple, Google, or Amazon. There must be something to self-organized, agile teams that are capable of top performance. Amy C. Edmondson has scientifically proven this in her research on fear-free organizations.

But how do you introduce self-organization into a company? How do you communicate to employees and managers what needs to be changed in the current state? How do you teach them to gain a new mindset? The absence of requisite application security, knowledge, or experience seemingly demands orientation and advice by coaches.

They are supposed to teach, explain and establish missing skills. They should give managers and employees orientation on self-organized cooperation: without hierarchy and on an equal footing. They should resolve ambiguity that emerges among employees and managers.

At the tipping point

Do you notice anything? Wasn’t it the task of managers to clarify the latter questions? Shouldn’t managers give orientation and resolve ambiguous developments, such as conflicts?

Let’s summarize briefly: Management is a risky career path for deserving experts who have not learned the craftmanship of management. The tutoring in management practices administered is not sufficiently effective to meet VUCA dynamics and the emergence of agile ways of cooperation and collaboration.

Since managers already seemed overwhelmed with management, coaches had to be active. They were supposed to fill the gap of missing self-organization practice. And now managers stand on the sides and watch how employees organize themselves in agile teams and receive the necessary orientation and conflict resolution from coaches.

Full-time coaching, but zero responsibility

This development, which initially involved coaches from outside the company, such as freelance consultants, has evolved. It has almost become a new normality in companies. The helpers in need were supposed to close operational knowledge gaps in the cooperation practice. But now, they have become permanent full-time coaches.

Their profession is to continuously observe the employees and teams in the company in their operational work and strategic planning. They should point out which forms of work, communication, and cooperation models should be used, what employees do wrong in their interaction with each other, and how they can resolve conflicts and compensate for deficits.

This fact strikes me as astonishing from two perspectives. First, agile forms of work should make corporate organizations more productive. Self-organization, potential, enabling, method training, and ensuring a fear-free and psychologically safe work environment should increase the performance level of existing employees.

They should either become more productive or a reduced staffing level should be able to maintain the productivity level achieved. What happens, however, is that the workforce grows and is augmented by full-time coaches. But as a result, staff costs increase. Ironic, isn’t it?

Secondly, the support, training, or observation by coaches should lead to a reduction of complexity in the organization regarding the existing communication and cooperation. In some companies, hierarchy levels were even reduced, and employees were dismissed from management: after all, they were no longer needed in an agile, self-organizing company.

But every permanent employee naturally needs a purpose for their work, so they must seek and find meaning. Therefore, coaches have become an additional element of cooperation within the company. They influence business processes, decision-making paths, and forms of communication and cooperation. And all this without having the operational responsibility of a technical expert in a team, or the disciplinary or business responsibility of a manager.

Complete irresponsibility with maximum influence and full payment. Again, paradoxical or simply sensational?

What Now?

I can understand the development described. I know about the usefulness and relevance of temporarily engaged consultants and coaches and deem them necessary. But the developing dysfunctionality due to permanently employed or engaged coaches is a critical misconception for two reasons:

  1. Coaches are needed to observe the interaction and cooperation of employees and managers of a company.

They are to make their perceptions available to the observed actors in the context of reflection rounds or supervisions. What conclusions or insights the observed draw from this is their responsibility.

A coach, in the role of a first- or second-order observer, as defined by Niklas Luhmann and Heinz von Förster, cannot observe a system if they are part of it. And they must not intervene in the system, because otherwise they become an actor and leaves the role of the observer.

2. Coaches who are permanently employed in organizations can, since they are an integral part and thus actors, at best, function as trainers or instructors.

In this function, they can do valuable work in conveying practical application security for methods and forms of cooperation. Their performance contribution can be recognized from this role in the employees’ learning successes. Operational or management responsibility can thus be excluded. There is no conflict of goals or perspectives between the interacting roles of trainers, managers, and employees.

Above all, a company remains true to the principle of treating its employees as fully-fledged adults, who think and act independently. It does not continue the disenfranchisement and infantilization of the workforce, which they already experience in the management hierarchy, through a coach.

Agile-Thinking Mistake #4: “Coachitis” was originally published in Better Programming on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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