"Becoming a human being, as well as a human doing" – how coaching enabled a career transition to new opportunities for me by Chris Paterson (guest)


Finding the good coach has given me an opportunity to reflect on and share some of my journey to becoming a coach and how coaching has enabled some important differences for me as well as for others.

The main theme is Know thyself and the process of reflecting on this journey is a way of continuing with my coaching – especially of myself!

How Awareness started for me

I guess I have always been a coach and I’ve only come to fully appreciate it in the last few years once I had some formal coach training.

By going on my journey of self-discovery, what I’ve come to learn is that learning, development and growth, are some of my most fundamental and core values.

And those have been with me since school days. I really enjoyed school. I enjoyed university. I enjoyed the acquisition of new information. New ideas and new concepts have always fascinated me.

When I first started work as a trainee accountant, I recall a preference for listening rather than talking and also asking friends questions like “what’s stopping you?” This was one of a list of powerful questions that was part of my coaching training 20 years later!

My awareness of Coaching started when I was living and working abroad and I was invited to a one-day ‘Introduction to Coaching’ course. As a keen sportsman, I thought that business coaching would be a bit like sports coaching (the coach doesn’t play on behalf of the player). The distinction between coaching and mentoring and the idea of coaching being about NOT giving advice was totally new to me.  I remember enjoying the course and thinking this is something I want to do more of.

Taking gradual progressive steps forward with this awareness

Some time after that introduction to coaching, I wanted to set up a Twitter account. The name @ChrisPaterson was already taken and I tried @SmileBeCurious and it was available. Since that moment, that has been a call to action for how I wanted to be, almost an identity and it fits really nicely with being a coach. If I can smile and be curious, then what a lovely way to go about coaching.

Starting to practice this Coaching at work & championing the development of others…I had a large team of people working for me and in one-to-one conversations, I was more interested in their career aspirations and how they wanted to develop than the day to day activities. This provided an opportunity for me to take a coaching approach and practice my skills. I enjoyed helping them and they were pleased that I was taking an interest in them.

What I struggled with was the performance management element of leading a large team. I believe I have pre-disposition to see the good in others and some of the feedback I received was that I look at the world through “pink glasses”. I later realised that the ability to hold someone in unconditional positive regard is one of the corner stones of taking a coaching approach. As a coach, I am the sunshine that shines on the brilliance of others so that they can discover it for themselves.

Continuing to build awareness of the Coaching Process … And then when I came back to the UK, I had an opportunity to sign up to an internal coaching training course after which I qualified as an internal coach in a very substantial programme that had been running successfully for a number of years. That took my coaching to a new level, made it much more of a conscious rather than an unconscious thing, and that really started the journey, formally.

Continuing my learning …So I started to notice the difference in my energy levels when I was coaching compared to doing the rest of my day job (leading a Business Unit and team of 50 in sales and marketing). I noticed that I had more energy at the end of the coaching session than the start, a lot of the time. And so coaching was something that energizes me, and something that’s useful to another person and is focused on learning.

So this is really quite a sweet spot for me.  It’s also an opportunity to be a human being as well as a human doing, an opportunity to not just be in front of a computer churning out stuff; and with some freedom in terms of where it could happen and when it could happen, so a sense of liberation, as well, came from coaching.

I decided that I wanted to become an Executive Coach for my company and met the head of coaching to find out how to get there. There were 3 things they look for in an Executive Coach:

  1. Coaching competence
  2. Business Credibility
  3. Evidence of the journey of self discovery


I was told that the experience I had gained from working as a management team member and leader in several countries was plenty in terms of business credibility. I was given some recommendations for how to develop my coaching capability and self awareness to the level needed. I thought to myself that I was quite self aware and so investigated a coaching course. It involved several long weekends and amazingly I was free on those dates but I was not able to secure the funding for the course from my manager. Dispondent, I met with the head of coaching again to see if there was a way to get on the course. There was no central funding available, just a reiteration of the advice to pursue the journey of self discovery by enrolling in the Landmark Forum. This was a tenth of the price of the coaching course and funding was no longer a barrier so I signed up without hesitation. The difference between the person who turned up on the Friday morning at the start of the course and how I was on the Sunday evening was startling as I discovered how little about myself I actually knew. The weekend had been the most powerful learning experience I had ever had and changed the way I saw myself and the world. Looking back, this was much more valuable to me that the coaching course I thought I wanted to go on and over the next 6 months I completed the rest of the Landmark core curriculum which has helped me to continue the inquiry into who I am and my journey of self discovery.

Building the Practice of Coaching … As an internal coach, I have had a steady stream of clients, almost as many as I wanted. And over the last year, I’ve probably had about ten at a time. I started quite small with one or two, and then realised that the more I coach, the more I enjoyed it. And the more I coached, the better I got at it and it’s really gone from there.

Continuing to Use all the learning methods …

Keeping Focus on feedback through Results and Output is really important.  I have been very lucky to be able to take advantage of regular supervision and CPD events provided through work. These have helped me grow my coaching muscle. Every client is also an opportunity for me to learn and develop as a coach and I routinely ask clients for feedback in addition to the evaluation which my company asks them to complete. Through the contracting in the Chemistry meeting, I make it very clear that the only reason I do this is to be useful to them. So if it’s not working for them, it’s not working for me either and that gives them the permission to be in charge and to call the shots.

I have made use of being observed in coaching sessions by a much more experienced coach and they then give me encouragement and pointers for improvement as well.

Sometimes you get those light bulb moments where the hair stands up on the back of your neck and you really know you’re working with something. For me, that’s the most rewarding feedback, although I’ve learnt not to expect that to happen too often.

Another critical element of my development has come from being coached. I have had 3 different coaches over a 2 year period and I found the experience incredibly valuable on a number of levels. At one level, I was able to watch them coaching me and make a note of what worked well that I could use with my clients. I was also able to do some important work to help me on my journey including finding & refining my purpose in life (to grow leaders by supporting others to discover for themselves), becoming better at identifying my emotions and making the preparations for a great ending to be able to allow a new beginning as an Executive Coach.

At the time of writing I have recently left the company where I worked for 17 years to focus on developing my coaching practice, SmileBeCurious and to set up a charity related to coaching young people (more about this in another blog). This would have been inconceivable a few years ago – coaching has transformed me.


And I think the journey has been as much about me developing as a coach as me developing as an individual, and learning about myself. That has probably been the more powerful element of it in fact. By gaining greater self awareness, I’ve been able to develop as a coach.

As a coach, I’m an expert in not knowing. There’s something about me being able to share that with clients that makes them okay for them to be vulnerable, to be able to open up and to know that I’m not going to judge them for this

You don’t need very much training to start coaching, you can set yourself up, get some insurance and off you go. What makes the difference is less about the training or the hours of coaching experience, I believe it comes down to attitude and this journey of self-discovery which is an absolutely critical component of being a coach which you cannot just sign up and get from a training course.

What do I need to do to become a better coach?” Then know yourself, know yourself better. And make sure that you’re clear about why you do this and what it means to you, and the rest will follow.

I really appreciate this opportunity to express, and share my story like this. This has been a useful and valuable exercise for me.

To connect with Chris Paterson

Chris P small photo.png

Chris is a husband, father, executive coach and founder of a charity. Coaching has changed his life for the better and through coaching he has discovered his purpose in life is to grow leaders by supporting others to discover for themselves. After 20 years working for large multinationals, he has set up his own coaching and facilitation business, SmileBeCurious Ltd. The fact that being a coach allows Chris to learn about himself and the world whilst being useful for others is a wonderful sweetspot. Chris has a fascination for the application of coaching techniques in all walks of life.


Teasing out the deeper understanding of how Coaching works at its best – how Teasing, itself, can be productive by Jeremy Ridge


Appropriate Teasing consistently comes up, for me, as important for how Coaching can really work at its best. However, it rarely seems to be mentioned, and its particular potential explored, among all the other terms widely used across the field. So it is good to explore this feature of practice for how I believe it can contribute so importantly.

I have in mind how a high level of teasing can often be the sign of a really healthy relationship, as well as in a group, or team process ( e.g. peer coaching. )  I am often surprised by how readily people resort to teasing as an important way of testing how to relieve tensions that may otherwise go underground, and become highly destructive.

In one form or another, teasing between people even takes place on a considerable everyday scale. Much of comedy relies on it; even marketing and advertising draws on it significantly; even everyday family life often engages in it! For example,

  • Times for giving people presents – carefully wrapped – introduces a form of teasing.
  • Teasing can be a major feature of negotiation. Making an offer attractive, in order to obtain something important in exchange.
  • Even coaching makes attractive promises to people. And then there are all the related books, models and techniques, often equally big in their promises. This is also teasing the reader to believe they are reading all they need to know about how it works.

Teasing, for me, is a way of testing for possible expectations someone may have formed, in a delicate and careful way, for how able another person might be to deal with the possible surprise involved. Learning (as one way of considering what coaching aims to achieve) can often involves surprise because it introduces new things that may not have been fully understood before.

The challenge involved in explaining teasing is often the high levels of subtlety involved in the behaviours that can amount to a form of teasing, e.g. the way people may use all manner of facial expressions, and movements, rather than just words, to convey such messages.

And, of course, it is important to ensure that teasing is appropriately constructive, rather than its other meanings that are often associated with teasing as being more deliberately aimed to frustrate, and even bully.

1. Sorting out the everyday meanings and uses of the term teasing

In starting to consider this meaning involved in teasing, I am immediately drawn to the range of meanings people can bring to it; such as their experiences of teasing being quite negative. So I start with understanding the meaning that appeals to me in the way the word has come into various uses over time.

The origins of the word in a historical sense can be seen, for example, from the old English use of tæsan [1]. 

  • This involves meanings such as to pull about, pluck, tease, in particular, to gently shred or pull apart for microscopic examination.
  • This refers most often to physical materials however, such as woollen thread.

For me, the original meaning in the use of the word teasing is important, which is more about doing something very carefully, lest there be a breakdown in something.

It is even possible to find reported cases where teasing is used overtly and deliberately on an organised social basis, and a clear and important feature of the culture. For example,

“An Inuit principal of learning that follows a similar teasing pattern is known as issumaksaiyuk, meaning to cause thought. Oftentimes, adults pose questions or hypothetical situations to the children (sometimes dangerous) but in a teasing, playful manner, often dramatizing their responses. These questions raise the child’s awareness to issues surrounding their community, as well as give them a sense of agency within the community as a member capable of having an effect and creating change. Once the child begins to answer the questions reasonably, like an adult, the questions would stop, [2]”

After all, our social culture is sometimes something we have to learn about whether we like it or not, that is deemed to be in our best interests to conform to. Teasing can be a form of feedback as to when we have got it right, or not, in gradual steps.

2. Looking further at the ways teasing works positively between people in Coaching

Constructive teasing means identifying something that may be important for someone. But, finding those ways to start carefully to enable the other person to progress towards their learning in a manner that is felt as being in their reasonable grasp.

To be effective, Coaching has to create conditions across an important range of factors, not just through teasing, by itself.

Teasing is one of the later conditions to introduce; see Carkhuff’s detailed and comprehensive framework [3] which laid out a careful and thorough process for first creating a sound foundation for dialogue, and the relationship, before working up to the risks involved in more overt teasing, or confrontation. It is important to build the level of confidence in the established trust and proven goodwill between the people concerned that can insure against the risks sometimes involved in teasing

Teasing can also be a source for light relief – an important break in the otherwise more serious side of any dialogue. For example by introducing some humour, through some sort of surprise observation outside of the otherwise more serious process.

Laughing with a tease – in other words seeing, accepting and joining in the humor involved in a tease is often used by people to signal they are ok with being open to exploring the issues that may be involved.

These short teasing interventions are efficient ways to do some quick testing. Yet there are still times when the space may be best created by the coach more directly. For example, when the coachee refers to having a problem, and the coach offers the surprise perspective that this may be more of an opportunity, rather than a problem, and so taking a much more positive view. Similarly, teasing whether to choose to view the glass as being more half full, rather than half empty.

3. Looking at examples of the behaviours that can be more appropriate approaches to teasing

For me, deeper understanding of how Coaching works at its best is to be able to work at a detailed level about the behaviours that make a difference.

Again, the subtlety of the actual behaviours involved still often defies simple illustration. For example, the investment in building trust is not a simple process, and cannot be fully mapped out in a few lines of text, such as it always takes place in a few sentences, or other behaviours, exchanged between people.

Hence, the whole process involved in teasing may often involve very gradual approaches, of which I name three, in testing readiness and reaction about this matter that may be important.

3.1. More Immediate Evidence of a positive reaction to being teased

The measure of whether teasing is positive is the reaction evidencing a form of genuine attention to what is raised in a manner that leads to mutual satisfaction.

For example: The Coach introduces a perspective that may highlight some challenges to the Coachee. Ideally the responses by the Coachee looked for are, for example:

“I haven’t really thought this through, have I…”
“I haven
’t really tested whether some of these issues are what I have assumed them to be…”
“I am still trying to work out how to test and do something different in these circumstances I have put on the table

3.2. Encouraging the Coachee to tease the idea forward by themselves

At this level of quality of response, it is possible for the Coach to let the Coachee tease out their awareness, by themselves. It may also become a simple matter of having a factual conversation where the Coach can offer his/her perspectives on what might be considered, such as straight forward matter of fact responses…

“That’s great - keep going …”
“Can we look in more detail at some of the examples of this happening”
“Can you tell me some more about (something) you just mentioned - what was involved in more detail

3.3. Teasing based on very careful and small behaviours that tests for possible reactions.

One real feature of teasing is the subtlety that may be important in choosing a behaviour that introduces something of possible surprise.

For example, the hints in non verbal expressions often used provides the other with options that they may want to raise or ignore...to tease whether the other person is open to being offered a different view:

  1. The hint of a nod! Someone says something and the reaction may be to nod – but not rise fully to its implications … or a hesitation – that will be noticed as something that is part of an overall reaction.
  2. The hint of a smile! Someone then says something and there is a hint of a smile in the response to it.
  3. The hint of a frown! Someone then says something and there is this time more of a facial expression –such as a frown, and or a pursing of the lips, a shift in body posture showing some tension.
  4. The suggestion of an offer that may be different in approach: Someone says something and there is an verbal response which says something like – of course there may be a different interpretation of that you are describing …to test interest

These may be the teasing behaviours that are the precursors to next taking a more direct approach, such as, ‘you may need to re-think your view about this in order to fully understand and check you have understood why things happened the way they did.’

As well as the examples of how teasing behaviour can operate between just two people, there is often greater evidence of teasing being evident, and important, when a number of people are involved, such as in teamwork.

4. The importance of teasing in teamwork and Team Coaching – remembering the essential

Remembering the essential basis of teamwork: A team is typically a task where each person involved brings capabilities that are both different, and important to what is needed for the overall task to be completedTeamwork is thus at its best when it starts to enable others to bring the best out of each other.  However maintaining an appropriate balance in how each person makes their contribution can be a challenge, and is often a source of tensions that need addressing constructively.

High levels of effective teasing between people in the team are, for me, one of the clearest signs of the highest standard of process in such a collaborative context, as a team. This is when there is an established, accepted, culture (patterns of behaviours) in the group/ community that clearly gives permission to this careful testing, and teasing, type of behaviour in the group.

The important role for team coaching is often in taking the lead by introducing these sort of teasing behaviours. High functioning teams will often quickly take this initiative up themselves. I am often impressed by the naturally learned high skills many have in doing this.

At its best, in these circumstances, everyone realises that challenges can be surprises for some involved, so there is a collective effort to jointly explore and find the right ways to introduce these challenges in a supportive and constructive way. The people who are the focus for these challenges encourage this exploration by openly disclosing their own surprises, thus enabling more matter of fact exploration of the evidence around it.

For example, One person in the team may be seen as behaving in a dogmatic manner because they believe they have special knowledge, or information, relevant to the task – and others may just not see this – and cannot yet understand why the dogmatic person is appearing increasingly dogmatic in their behaviour.

Even at the very start of interaction in a team, – seen at its clearest among a team of strangers – is often the sort of start which involves some sort of ‘checking in’ process that can take place– albeit apparently innocent commentary about something unrelated to the task.  Usually there is some banter – attempts at a few comments designed to test the laugh/smile index among those involved.

The team coaching task is then to encourage the sense and importance of this ‘non direct task behaviour’ – because for some it can appears off the subject and a waste of time.


  • The importance of Teasing in Coaching:  Teasing is typically an important indicator, and way to test, and develop readiness in Coaching – where Readiness is that important ability to process experience, and learning, willingly and effectively.  Without readiness, coaching has serious difficulty in working effectively.
  • Teasing as ‘easing’:  Progress in a dialogue is about engaging in a manner that others are comfortable with. The comfort may come, first, from positive investment already established, (trust) allowing then more tolerance of risky comments. Otherwise, comments and behaviours that might surprise and disappoint have to be done even much more carefully.
  • The skills of teasing:  Teasing is often very similar to a process of research, carefully testing in small steps to discover what begins to get a positive response. It is about finding the most careful way of testing whether a direction is appropriate. Teasing is a recognition of the importance of small steps in behaviour that can have important impacts – and some themes need to be assessed carefully before going further
  • Teasing does not have to be always negative:  The importance of leading with teasing along positive themes becomes really important before raising more important but challenging initiatives.
  • It is not simple to establish simple principles. Interaction between people takes place on such a scale of complexity, along with the risks of how something might be perceived rather than intended, that there can be real risk of negative reactions.

Coaching will always depend on getting some very small behaviours right, and then continuing to get them right in lots of small steps. I find that looking through this teasing lens is a useful perspective in continuing to learn about, and share, more of the small things that can really make the important difference.

QUESTION: How aware are you of the small subtle sorts of behaviours that you may use in constructive teasing?

To connect with Jeremy Ridge

[1] Webster's New World College Dictionary Copyright © 2010 by Wiley Publishing, Inc., Cleveland, Ohio.  http://www.yourdictionary.com/tease#uJ7MhBsDdedBHRIJ.99
[2] Briggs, J. (1998). Inuit morality play: The emotional education of a three-year-old. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
[3] Carkhuff in https://the-goodcoach.com/tgcblog/2016/10/3/getting-trust-is-the-essential-outcome-that-makes-coaching-possible-and-different

"How I used a coaching approach at work to build on and add value to how the system works" by Simon Dennis


Coaching culture is about having the whole organization operate in a way which is much more people aware, much more perceptive and doesn't just get stuck in the aftermath involved in reporting on the numbers. It’s about creating the right conditions to get some real conversations going with the other person, about where they're coming from and what their interests and expectations are. Reporting is one of those areas that I began to experiment with.

We were going through a time where everybody wanted reports and data - data was king. I was due to attend a customer service review meeting and expected my reports to be challenged. I had the service report in my hand. It was about 20 pages long, and it basically showed the customer how we had delivered service over the last month with some year-to-date tracking and trends. I looked around the room and I thought, ‘But actually, this reporting doesn't, in any way, reflect what they actually felt - the quality of the service. It is just a set of numbers and data. It's almost like your bank balance, you know, the statement shows you are in the black but, for whatever reason, you don’t feel particularly rich or in control’.

It was not quite an epiphany moment, but when they asked for copies of the report to begin the discussion I said, "I'm actually going to hang on to them for now. Let's just talk about how things are going for you. What went well last month? What didn't work? What’s your overall perception of the service we’ve provided?” I then started to make some notes, particularly around the service areas that they weren't happy with, but also some of their suggestions for improvement and their future challenges. What followed was essentially a ‘coaching’ conversation. Lots of open questions, challenging of expectations, “Where could we do better?”, “What was the best element of the service?” “How might we work better together?” – genuinely useful and constructive dialogue.

At the end of the meeting, as I was leaving, "I put them [the reports] in the bin." And they said, "Can we see the service report now?" , I simply replied, "What’s it going to tell you that you don’t already know? Those reports are factually correct. Overall last month, we have delivered within the contract boundaries to the levels that we've agreed. But clearly, for whatever reason, that's not the service that you wanted or expected."

Experimenting with expectations about reporting

There was an expectation on my part that rather than simply presenting the data, we could have a much more open conversation about the perception of the service. I've seen it work really well because it is not so much just about what happened last month, it's about what are we going to be doing in the future that's going to be better and improved. The customer’s perception is their reality so your report should reflect that as well as the facts!

This motivated me to write a paper on getting people to think about this approach and talk about what they would really be saying in those reports, and how much we focus on factual data to hide behind versus perception, which may be very different.

Let me share another example, someone I know was working on a contract in which he was the customer. He received a phone call from the service department who told him that there was an issue, but that everything was back up and running within the service levels in the agreement. They also mentioned that "We're planning to do an update - a fix or whatever - with the system at 10:00 PM, UK time”, essentially out of office hours. And the customer just said to them, "I know it was still within the service level but you still took down five of our largest systems which still caused a lot of trouble. And you can't do the changes at 10 o'clock tonight because that's when America will be online and that's one of our biggest markets.”

This got me thinking again, ‘Well, the service report will be accurate, the service department haven't broken any rules. Everything was hunky-dory. They’ve done the right thing, the fix will be applied out of office hours etc. But actually, at no point would the report reflect the reality that the customer is facing.

Comparing expectations across different industries

It's completely different if you looked at something like the radio industry, where I started my working life. We talked about ‘Blackbox’ radio - the fact that you can put together a sequence of music that will deliver an audience because you can just program it. It might not have been a big audience but you can deliver it. Essentially creating a radio program to a formula, using standard ingredients (defined mix of music, news, sport etc.), a process if you like.

My boss used to say that the presenter’s job was to put the “sizzle” on the “sausage”. It’s the producer that creates the sausage; I could plan and write a decent breakfast show but if you give me a great presenter to present it, it'd be better than if I presented it.

The challenging bit is ensuring that the talent – the presenter - doesn’t break the process but enhances it. In radio you’re dealing with egos where if you’re not careful they think they are ‘bigger’ than the process and then you get anarchy. As a producer you work with the presenter to help them understand that, "If you use a process as your baseline, your professionalism will then improve the performance."

In the services industry particularly, that's hugely relevant because there are hundreds of people. Let's take the mobile phone industry. There's lots of mobile phone providers. So the only thing that sets them apart is actually the service they provide, and so the quality of the service is based on the people that you interact with. And when you're delivering people-based services, it's a hugely important thing. It's also interesting when you work in an outsourcing organization because you can think about companies who outsource. They actually move the same staff from provider to provider. So the assumption is you're just going to get the same service because you have the same people. This is where the other organization has to say, "Our underlying core…our basic process, is at a level where the same people are going to make it even more enhanced. So you've got to get that bit – the basic process – right."

For a long time I think we were talking about empowerment. I used to say to our presenters when I was working in radio that, "We want to choose our own music. We want to choose everything we're going to play and put into the show and basically, we all want to produce our own program. But it's a different skill. Actually, the presenter’s skill is in adding to the basic layers created by the producer."

Applying the 80-20 rule

It's about working with the system, rather than breaking the system, or something like that. Working within the bounds of it and saying, "We are empowering you but we're empowering you to add value on top of it rather than change the underlying structure," because once you get underlying structure change, that's anarchy and you can't control that. And then you lose.

I used to say on a simple scale when I was delivering laptops as part of my role, "If you follow a process, you get a laptop from A to B within, let's say, seven days." And I said, "So that's the basic minimum." They said, "That's what we work towards. You all do it. We deliver it. Job done. So we have to have something like 75%-80% of business operating at that level because if everything becomes an exception and you need every laptop in less than seven days, actually that's a different service. The clients may then say, "I need to scale up and I need to have a three-day service, not a seven-day service." It might take a little while to get to understand it but what we did in the end was recognise, "Well, OK. So we know that most of the business just operates on a seven-day turnaround, no problem." That gave us the capacity that when you do need to create a different level of service, you do need something in three days, we've got the capacity to do a one-off or a five-off exception.

Back to the radio analogy, we would be playing a fairly normal set of music across seven days a week and then the Rolling Stones will be in town on Monday, so we'd start every hour with a Rolling Stones record. "That's great. The Rolling Stones are in town. So we're just going to go Rolling Stones mad." And you can do that but you couldn't do it every single day of the year. You wouldn't sustain your audience. So you have to have the basic platform working to an 80-20 rule so that you've got the ability to flex and be outstanding or exponential at certain times.

I think that's when people get concerned that the process is taking away their empowerment by making them follow a set pattern.

Whereas, if everything was ‘emergency’ or an exception, we couldn't do it because everyone would be running about like headless chickens. So, for me, that's the message I've captured and I wanted to get to, "If you get the basics right, you can then coach the individuals to look at how could they make that even better? How could they improve their performance each step of the way?"

And I thought that would make an interesting theme because empowerment can be very strongly informed by the kind of coaching approach.

What this means for me

What I do is I look for those bits of business that are exceptional and I say, "What makes them exceptional?"

Sometimes, it is just the individual and then you say, "That's not replicable." You can try and capture some of those skills and knowledge but it's not repeatable in that sense. But there are some places where you see better performance and you think, "Right, what they've done is they've enhanced that process and they've added an additional template, a specific element or they have an additional meeting or step." And then you say, "Well, actually, if it's receiving a benefit, let's cut it into a system for everybody and we all get the benefits."

Where it is possible to replicate, we have process workshops where we look at a process and we ask, "How can we do this faster, smarter, better?" What we're doing is we're raising that baseline and you're using people's capability to raise the baseline. They might then notice that somebody else had a better outcome than they did following that same process, and so the coaching can explore how that came about. What did they do differently? What made it work well for them?

It's knowing the difference between what is a truly one-off exceptional performance that can't be repeated by just any individual, and then grasping those ones where you can.

Question: How have you found ways to bring a coaching approach to add value to how the system works?


To connect with Simon:

Simon has over 20 years’ experience of service delivery and continuous improvement in a variety of roles and industry sectors. He trained as a coach and coach supervisor and as Head of Coaching at Fujitsu UK & Ireland he established a Coaching Community utilising internal and external coaches to meet the business need for performance improvement and provided a basis for establishing a coaching competency for the organisation.

He has continued as a coaching ambassador for Fujitsu, presenting at conferences and contributing to publications and professional bodies in order to promote the use of coaching for performance and particularly internal coaching as a valid and valued approach.

He is married with 2 daughters and lives in Manchester, North-West England.

“How We Can Balance Individual Freedom with ‘Ecology’ and Planetary Sustainability in Coaching” by Geoffrey Ahern (guest)

Geoffrey Ahern BLOG3,72dpi.png

We take it for granted that individual liberty will accompany the growing Zeitgeist of ‘ecology’ and planetary sustainability. Originally the science of the distribution and abundance of organisms and their interactions and transformations, by now ‘ecology’ has also become a worldwide movement and climate of thought.

But there’s a question mark over the liberty of the individual because ecology, the inspirer of environmentalism, has a whole population approach that includes humans, the opposite end of the spectrum from starting with the civil rights of each person. Ecology’s field-wide mentality fits well with the collective approach of Asian economies which have been rapidly ascending while becoming more environmentally attuned; but not with Western individualised freedoms.

My practice having coincided with coaching’s expansion, I believe that it is well-placed as a person-centred art to contribute to a forward-looking balance between individual freedoms and the whole population approach of ecology. Coaching’s process seems to me to be complementary because it raises the importance of individual life from within the whole.

Thus innovation is required to make individual liberty an indispensable complement to our global era of ‘ecology’. Though from about 1980 social justice for all has been grafted on to ‘ecology’ to form ‘sustainability’ and ‘sustainable development’, this development has tended to leave out freedom under the law.

I identify some innovatory developments which are related to business and so to the practices of ‘people developers’ like professional coaches:

  • Increasing transparency
  • Redefining individual rights
  • Promoting representative participation within multinational and other companies
  • Clarifying when we should and should not prioritise beyond our species

New social boundaries like these are increasingly required for trust, including the trust of clients in the processes professionals contract for with their employers.

This is within the overall context of envisaging the planet as a humanly influenced living whole: the signature of today’s geological era, the ‘Anthropocene’. The word means ‘qualitatively new and man-made’, and it is so-named because humans have a significant influence on the Earth.

In implementing sustainability its ‘people’ and ‘planet’ aspects tend to be divided into separate practitioner, NGO and academic silos. However this article/blog looks at how the people and planet aspects interact. It follows on from my introductory one (January 11) on having an Anthropocene mindset, and further one (March 20) on the planet, environmental science and ethical consequences for coaching.

‘Ecology’ prioritises whole populations, whether yours or mine or both, or human or not

‘Ecology’ as a social movement has at its core a whole population perspective.

 ‘Ecology’s whole population thinking has recently developed into social justice, more than individual liberty, for all humans.'

‘Ecology’ is a post-industrial social movement with mainly European and North American origins. Originating in the era of late Nineteenth Century imperialism, sadly it was associated with ethnically exclusive thinking. A glimpse at this serves as a warning which, as we shall see, we need to remember in the novel circumstances of today:

  • Its founder Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) formulated a kind of social Darwinism stating “usually it is the more perfect and ennobled human being who gains the victory over others”.[1]
  • ‘Ecology’ became associated with eugenics and the idea that capitalism and urbanisation weaken people
  • Up to the end of the Second World War it was linked, though not exclusively, with soft right wing politics, for example: rustic self-sufficiency in support of the Norwegian National Socialist Party; ‘Blood and Soil’ sensibility (though its organic farming was not endorsed by Hitler); British enthusiasts for healthy soil and food who tended to be pro-German at the time of National Socialism[2]

After the Second World War ‘ecology’ as a social movement developed a soft left global environmentalism which advocated social justice for all humans (i.e. ‘non-discriminatory universalism’).[3] The turning point was in 1980, when environmental issues were pulled together with people development through the paradoxical concept of ‘sustainable development’.[4] Change agents for this included Third World governments and NGO lobbies.

This recent emphasis has been more on equity and community than on individual liberty.

  • Oxfam, for example, focuses on resources, livelihood and social capital
  • The Paris Climate Agreement, ratified at the end of last year, refers to equity and reducing poverty; and similarly the UN’s influential 17 Sustainable Development Goals emphasise removing poverty and hunger and promotingequality and community
  • Non-discriminatory universalism more than individual liberty is the spirit of transnational sustainability movements like the African Ubuntu and Latin American Buen Vivir (also of the growing metropolitan managerial mindset?)

As in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, survival comes first. Compassion and self-interest rightly give prominence to the needs of the poverty struck and stuck global ‘bottom billion’, but an outcome is that championing individual freedoms tends to be postponed to later, to sustainability’s endgame.

Many of us, whether coaches or not, use phrases like ‘this day and age’ or ‘now we are in 2017’ because we assume there’s an inevitable global ‘progress’ towards egalité, gender-inclusive fraternité and liberté. But this is not somehow natural or historically inevitable: it’s a particular recent cultural context, that of the postwar peak of North Atlantic democracy, which has shaped the recent human rights version of ‘ecology’.

The danger that ‘ecology’ may discriminate in new ways by choosing one human population over another

The hard-won legitimacy of ‘ecology’s recent non-discriminatory universalism could come unstuck. There are signs, in the name of ‘ecology’, of possible new types of discrimination against geographical, ethnic, religious and national groups, for example through:

  • Unilateral geoengineering, as with polluters releasing sulphur into the atmosphere to cool it without reducing CO2 to help seaboard nations and others affected by continuing ocean acidification
  • Mass migrations though climate-change causing water shortages, for example in northern India
  • Climate wars, for example one of Gwynne Dyer’s military scenarios is of a ‘Lifeboat Britain’ and Ireland just about managing to feed their inhabitants through not letting too many people aboard[5]

The potential for geographical exclusivism could be legitimated through unscrupulous PR distorting visions like Thomas Berry’s proposed regionally-based biocracy and Chandran Nair’s much more pragmatic case that Asia should put an end to underpriced resources. On the fringe a few have even advocated reducing the human population through famine.[6]

Safeguarding individual liberty where ‘ecology’ prioritises non-human populations

In going on to embed individual liberty clarity is needed about circumstances in which all rights for humans come to be seen as merely a part of the biocentric whole. Environmentalists’ whole population perspective can prioritise animals, habitats and the biosphere above humans; and for many it is the benchmark of genuineness that it should happen at least occasionally.

Some deep greens have been accused of misanthropy because they prioritise other species, or the ecology of the whole, over humans. They range from sentiments like ‘naïve, non-contributing and non-consenting non-humans [are] caught up in massive change imposed on them by humans’, to ‘sooner shoot a man than a snake’.[7]  Deep greens may believe:

  • Human beings are moral agents but without ethical privilege
  • Arranging matters so that humans cannot lose is not ecocentric[8]

This ecocentricity contrasts with the Abrahamic Genesis tradition giving man dominion over nature. This traditional animal/man divide is no longer absolute: post-Darwinists today perceive animals as having culture, creativity and intelligence while human reason is not so independent as once thought.

‘Ecology’s whole population approach has more in common with neo-Confucianism than with Western individualism

As stated in the introduction, the emerging Asian century reinforces the challenge of ‘ecology’ to individual freedom.

The most powerful collective cultures today include Islam as well as neo-Confucianism. Islam’s community (umma) is in tune with the whole population approach of ‘ecology’, but there’s a big difference in the authority given to science. Ecology is science-based whereas, given its transcendental revelation fixing Sharia (God’s way), the struggle within Islam over the authority of science is thought to be more fundamental than its struggle against the West.[9]

China and its massive diaspora, as in Indonesia, have in neo-Confucianism a collective tradition which resonates more completely with ‘ecology’. It is compatible with science. Unlike Western thinking in terms of the rights of the individual, it emphasises virtues, such as benevolence (ren). Confucianism has a ground independent of humans for valuing the non-human world, and a role-based ethics in which humans are part of a larger community dependent on the non-living environment (though it would be a projection backwards in time to call traditional Confucianism ‘ecological’). [10]

The struggle for individual liberty in the sustainability endgame

The contrast between ‘ecology’ and individual liberty displays tensions within sustainability and suggests future struggles in an endgame. This needs to start now, assuming sustainability becomes orthodox, to prevent it setting in an unnecessarily authoritarian and manipulative form. Continuing to have an unchallenged safe space in which to work with clients is the nub of the matter for coaching and other people-development professionalism.

Some promising, business-related developments to uphold individual liberty:

Increasing transparency. Transparency to guard against the compromise of individual liberty by corruption is a liberal-democratic cultural export. Transparency International defines corruption, whether grand, petty or political, as the abuse of entrusted power for private gain https://www.transparency.org/what-is-corruption.

Transparency’s chipping away effect will need to be profound:

  • To replace the machismo and charisma of the systemic, embedded corruption of many cultures
  • To have the wisdom to discern where traditional systems of influence, notably Arab wasta and Chinese guanxi, are questionably being post-industrially redefined as ‘corrupt’
  • To create multi-cultural platforms so that transparency and anti-bribery legislation are not widely perceived as a new form of imperialism

Redefining individual rights. Preserving civil rights through redefining them may become necessary if surveillance becomes increasingly accepted. This could arise because technological developments (e.g. nanotechnology threatening the planet itself) exponentially increase the asymmetric power of those minded to use force to express political or other ends.[11] Redefining civil rights might include:

  • New institutions to counter erosion through redefining online privacy rights. Alongside this there may be a generational shift towards greater openness and tolerance in some areas of shame and guilt
  • Judicial safeguards accompanying increased state surveillance against terrorism

Companies could extend and strengthen their fiduciary legal duties.[12] Currently there are UN ‘Guiding Principles’, covering individual rights like freedom of association, which controversial companies like Nestlé can state they opt in to.  

Promoting representative participation within multinational and other companies. Representative participation in the supply chain is critical for sustainability. But business-as-usual culture is based on profits, not on being good:

  • For example in the garment industry in Tirapur, India, buyer-driven voluntary codes broke down; factories did anything to meet exacting delivery and quality targets and the tensions led to the production of false documents

Sustainability-as-usual is different:

  • In the same industry in Sri Lanka, suppliers to Marks and Spencer’s sustainability plan (‘Plan A’) treated low status female employees as ends in themselves giving them well designed working conditions and emancipating them to open bank accounts and have career prospects[13]

Identifying when we should and should not prioritise beyond our species. To which entities should rights be given? The question may seem silly: there should be non-discriminatory universalism for humans and that’s all. But the situation is dynamic not static. Even in the West women only got the vote quite recently, and eco-feminism since then, in combatting the essentialist view of women as mainly mothers and nurturers, has also eroded taken-for-granted humanism. For example Ecuador’s constitution recently granted rights to nature. Drawing an anthropocentric line in the sand is problematic in our increasingly socio-ecological age:

  • There’s discussion today over whether animals and indeed the planet itself should have rights. Business is closely affected because animals are in the supply chain, are directly sold in the food and clothing industries, are experimented on by big pharma and have their habitats destroyed by the extractive and construction industries
  • Technologies for merging human intelligence with technology are predicted. Blueprints for life itself can in effect be owned by large corporations through the law of intellectual property

Freedom as the absence of external obstacles
Business developments such as the above can help safeguard human freedoms from intrusions, like improper surveillance, because they emphasise the individual, not the ecological collective (negative not positive freedom).  However such individualism may well not be extendable to possibilities of action enabled by high-tech advances, for example a claimed ‘right’ to have designer children.

The liberty of the individual complements ecology

It has been held in this article/blog that individual liberty complementing ‘ecology’ is a hopeful possibility but should not be taken for granted. This is as, to survive, the need for ecological whole system thinking becomes increasingly recognised, especially given its affinity with the social solidarity of emerging and greening Asian economies.

Upholding individual liberty is not a process which is inherent in ‘ecology’ as a social movement, but it has the potential to be seen as a necessary component and meaning, and even as ‘ecology’s ultimate purpose. When combined with ecological thinking it forms a highly complicated and complex whole not a neat unity or monism. Its differentiation of individuals is in contrast with eco-mythologies like Ray Kurzweil’s ‘singularity’, which ends with the planet itself radiating intelligence.

Coaching, unlike ecology, is centred on consciousness; also having board members, CEOs and other employees as its clients puts it close to what is probably the most significant driving seat of planetary change. Thus it is well-placed to understand corporate aspects of the tensions between the liberty of the individual on the one hand and collective approaches to ecology on the other, and to raise awareness of the need for a new, creative balance.

A question for us all, given the pressures of the here-and-now, is how we raise this awareness.

To connect with Geoffrey Ahern


Geoffrey Ahern is experienced in executive coaching and sustainability. APECS accredited and working independently for the past decade, he has been a Fellow of the Centre for Leadership Studies, University of Exeter and before that was employed for five years as an executive coach by Coutts Consulting Group.

After 2008 he carried out multinational corporate consultation on sustainability in association with the World Wildlife Fund/IUCN and became an Honorary Lecturer in sustainability at the University of Liverpool’s Management School. He has published widely including a second edition of the book of his PhD (LSE 1981) on an ecologically-oriented global movement.

Email: geoffrey@geoffreyahernconsulting.com.
Website: geoffreyahernconsulting.com

References & Footnotes:
[1] Quoted in Kleeberg, B. (2007), ‘God-nature progressing: Natural theology in German monism’, Science in Context 20(3): 547.
[2] For this paragraph see Bramwell, A. (1989), Ecology in the 20th Century. A History. New Haven, Yale: 115-122, 150-151, 173, 207.
[3]  Banerjee, S. (2007), Corporate Social responsibility. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Elgar Press, Cheltenham.
[4] Mebratu, D. (1998), ‘Sustainability and sustainable development: historical and conceptual review’, Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 18(6): 493-520.
[5] Dyer, G. (2010), Climate wars. The fight for survival as the world overheats, Oneworld, Oxford: 183.
[6] See Berry, T. (1988), The Dream of the Earth, Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, CA and Nair, C. (2011), Consumptionics. Asia’s Role in Reshaping Capitalism and Saving the Planet, Infinite Ideas, Oxford. For a discussion of famine see Smith, K. (2008), ‘How immigration may affect environmental stability’, Scientific American, 26, September.
[7] For the first quote see Albrecht, G et al (2013), ‘The ethics of assisted colonization in the age of anthropogenic climate change’, Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 26: 831. The second quote is by a follower (J. Baird Callicot) of Leopold Aldi’s Land Ethic, cited in Lo, Y. (2001), ‘The land ethic and Callicot’s ethical system (1980-2001: An overview and critique’, Inquiry 44(3): 334.
[8] See Sylvan, R. and Bennett, D. (1994), The greening of ethics. From human chauvinism to deep-green theory, Cambridge: White Horse Press: 91,137; and Curry, P. (2011), Ecological Ethics. An introduction, Cambridge: Polity Press: 59.
[9] Drees, W. (2013), ‘Islam and Biomedical Ethics’, Zygon, 48(3): 733-744; Davary, B. (2012), ‘Islam and ecology: SouthEast Asia, Adat and the essence of Keramat’, ASIA Network Exchange, 20(1): 12-22: Haq, S. (2001), ‘Islam and ecology: Toward retrieval and reconstruction’, Daedalus, 130(4): 141-177.
[10] Chan, G. (2008), ‘The relevance and values of Confucianism in contemporary business ethics’, Journal of Business Ethics, 77:347-360;  Wong, P. (2015), ‘Confucian environmental ethics, climate engineering, and the “playing God” argument’, Zygon 50(1): 28-41; Nuyen, A. (2008), ‘Ecological education: what resources are there in Confucian ethics?’, Environmental Education Research, 14(2): 187-197;  Jung, H. (2013), ‘A prolegomenon to transversal geophilosophy’, Environmental Philosophy, 10(1): 83-112; Chan, B. (2015), ‘Animal ethics, international animal protection and Confucianism’, Global Policy 692): 172-175; Pfister, L. (2007), ‘Environmental ethics and some probing questions for traditional Chinese philosophy’, Journal of Chinese Philosophy, 34 (101-123).
[11] See Rees, M. (2003), Our Final Century. Will Civilisation Survive the Twenty-First century?, London: Random House.
[12] Banerjee, S (see 4 above), p.144.
[13] Soundararajan, V. and Brown, J (2016),’Voluntary governance mechanisms in global supply chains: Beyond CSR to a stakeholder utility perspective’, Journal of Business Ethics 134: 95-96; and Lowcarbonworks, Bath (2009): Centre for Action Research in Professional Practice (CARRP), Insider Voices, Human Dimensions of Low Carbon Technology. University of Bath conference 14/7/09.