Critical Assumptions in Coaching* By Lucille Maddalena, Ed.D. (Guest)

A significant part of our task as a coach is to enable our clients to examine the critical assumptions they make about themselves.   

As an Executive Coach I work with senior leaders. In spite of their success, their immense experience and their talent, they are like most of us who perhaps created a self-definition as a child and somehow failed to challenge that assumption as we grew. 

The learning process of pedagogy is directive: we sit in a classroom and absorb primarily through memorization, specific facts and knowledge.  High levels of education provide greater opportunity for exploration, testing and pursuing independent thought, typically in pursuit of knowledge within a framework or discipline.


The term andragogy[1] was coined in the 1800s by Alexander Knapp, a German educator, to refer to “methods or techniques used to teach adults”, later popularized in the 1960s by an American educator, Malcolm Knowles.  With the exception of a brief period in the 1970’s, the term Andragogy is rarely used or acknowledge: educators and academicians continue to apply the term Pedagogy, defined as teaching techniques for children, when referring to adult education. 

With the acknowledgement that learning is a life-long process, there is renewed interest in how adults learn through the directive knowledge attainment common to traditional education, by guided experiences such as encompassed in the coaching process, or by personally assessing how the very real, experiential random exposure and challenges of living influence our actions and reactions.

To understand the future it is best to examine the roots of how we view the adult learning process. Knowles joins many in voicing the opinion that there is much we can do to improve the way information is presented to and utilized by adults:  “Indeed, in my estimation, the main reason why adult education has not achieved the impact of our civilizations of which it is capable is that most teachers of adults have only known how to teach adults as if they were children.”

Knowles’ work, when viewed as a theory or set of assumptions about learning, can be effectively applied to coaching  as we guide our clients to explore innovative approaches that encourage self-development.  Andragogy appears to be the only term and body of knowledge that describes the unique adult learning experience that can be captured in a coaching relationship.


Serving as Master Coach, I hire accredited coaches as Leadership Coach sub-contractors to work with individuals my clients identify as high potentials. In this intermediary position it is my task to introduce the concept of coaching to those unaware or intimidated by the process with the misconception that it is a punishment or indicator of the need for remedial work. During this early introductory meeting I seek to explain how coaching is a development process to prepare the individual for future success. I find Knowle’s five crucial assumptions[2] describing characteristics of adult learners useful, as they are aligned with the qualifiers we apply when considering an individual to coach.

This tool was especially useful recently when a middle-level manager rejected the Leadership Coach I recommend work with him.  The manager, responsible for 200 workers in a high-pressure environment, stated that if he was going to invest time in coaching he wanted to work with a former CEO.  He explained that a retired corporate president was the only one who “has been through it all and could offer some realistic guidance for me to develop my career”.

The individual was recommended for coaching because his leaders saw his potential and believed that he would be able to accept greater responsibility. However, his direct manager observed that he was repeating actions that could derail a promising career: he was not respected by some of his team as he did not effectively control his emotions and he seemed to make hasty decisions while preventing team members from questioning his orders.  Of greatest concern to his direct manager was that he did not seem to accept feedback and challenged performance reviews that suggested any weaknesses.

Aware that his managers thought highly of his work, this individual proudly recognized that he was considered a high-performer.  Comfortable with his success he looked to the future without defining the present: he did not take into account that the skills and talents of someone functioning as a CEO would not be the same as a manager in the field working with a team on a specific project.


The first task before beginning his coaching experience was to enable the manger to discuss his work, his life goals and the choices he made that brought him to this position in his career.  He clearly had a position of high-responsibility leading a significant number of trained professionals to achieve their goals. The question I sought to answer was how he described himself, his successes and his areas for growth.

Self-concept: As a person matures his self-concept moves from one of being a dependent personality toward one of being a self-directed human being. 
Coaching seeks self-awareness and acceptance.

I met with the manager at his work site to discuss his coaching goals. As we talked, I proposed that we examine the competencies required to achieve his assigned goals, to develop his staff, and to satisfy the requirements of his leaders. Initially he was quick to respond by stating his job description.  As I asked more directive questions about how he performed the assigned tasks, he became more contemplative and took longer to respond. 

Experience: As a person matures he accumulates a growing reservoir of experience that becomes an increasing resource for learning.
Coaching provides the opportunity to evaluate what we have learned, what we should retain or change, and what we could learn.

By articulating his role, his daily tasks, and the experience he gained to achieve his current level of success, he was able to step back and appreciate his personal skills and talents.  I then asked him to consider how the work he did now will be useful to achieve his future career goals.  The discussion encouraged him to identify what new skills and competencies he would need to master, as well as what approaches he could revise to ensure his readiness to move to the next level in his career.

Readiness to learn. As a person matures his readiness to learn becomes oriented increasingly to the developmental tasks of his social roles.
Coaching inspires the development of new skills and recognition of a full range of options.

His passion for his work began to surface.  He shared his enthusiasm to participate in a planned future training program and described how it would prepare him to accept a highly-visible voluntary post in a new company-wide program.

Orientation to learning. As a person matures his time perspective changes from one of postponed application of knowledge to immediacy of application, and accordingly his orientation toward learning shifts from one of subject-centeredness to one of problem centeredness.
Coaching encourages a world-view, embracing new opportunities for continuous growth.

We discussed his learning goals in greater detail, talking about the different types of knowledge and unique roles required to lead a global corporation, comparing the role of a company President to his task directing operational success of one specific project.  He took over the conversation, identifying specific differences between the skills required to achieve his work goals, now able to view them as building blocks for his future.  He was now able to compare the talent and competencies required in different job levels working toward the role of a corporate CEO.

Motivation to learn: As a person matures the motivation to learn is internal.
Coaching embraces life-long learning and self-coaching.

By the end of our discussion, the manager was able to identify his goals for a coaching event.  We reviewed the Leadership Coaches available: he choose an experienced coach had worked with others in similar positions. 

About a year later I visited the manager in the field.  At the time he was immersed in a particularly complex problem, assigning duties to his team to work through the issues that would lead to resolution. We talked about his coaching experience.  He described the opportunity as “life changing”, explaining that he had a better understanding of his personal goals and what he needed to do to achieve his long-term goals. He explained that he was now able to see the ‘big picture’ more clearly. 


Andragogy appears to have enjoyed a much more rapid acceptance and growth in Europe than in the U.S.  In the US, the developing fields of management and organizational development as well as psychotherapy and social psychology have inspired new interest.  Addressing interpersonal as well as intrapersonal aspects of an individual’s level of understanding requires our awareness of how adults learn as individuals and as contributing members of a community or organization.

These five assumptions are successfully applied by coaching practitioners representing all of the contributing disciplines, employing an andragogical approach using new mediums as we seek to inspire leadership and self-direction. Concurrently within business and industry programs such as LEAN promote continuous learning for quality production, academic researchers pursue studies to expand our field, and technology is in a never-ending evolution of learning and exploration that provides a means to share our knowledge.

* Taken from WHAT THE !%*# IS ANDRAGOGY by Dr. Lucille Maddalena, 2015
[1] The term Andragogy (or Andragogology) is a combination of the classical Green noun agage, which is the activity of leading, and andr, the word for adult. The modern practice of adult education: From pedagogy to andragogy 1980 by Malcolm Shepherd Knowles.
[2] The modern practice of adult education: From pedagogy to andragogy 1980 by Malcolm Shepherd Knowles. Self-concept, Experience, Readiness to learn, Orientation to learning, Motivation to learn.

To connect with Lucille:

Dr. Lucille Maddalena is an Executive Coach, Leadership Trainer, and Consultant in Organization Development.

Dr. Lucille Maddalena is an Executive Coach, Leadership Trainer, and Consultant in Organization Development.

Best known for her work supporting Senior Executives during career and business transitions, she guides the alignment of team goals with expectations by bridging interpersonal communication with practical business management. As a key part of global leadership initiatives, she has created coaching models for clients, functioning as Master Coach to identify and manage Leadership Coaches at regional sites. She has guided over 6,000 corporate executives at Fortune 100 firms to successfully advance in their careers during times of organization change.

Visit www.mtmcoach for free downloads of useful articles and publications.

 She holds a Doctorate in Education with an interdisciplinary major in Human Communications and Labor Education. Working with Senior Leaders and their teams she is recognized for her commitment to build engagement and trust within all levels of the organization.

The process of self-coaching is addressing evolving transitions and change, where innovation, imagination, and creativity are born.

This source of self-confidence is exposed in spontaneity, laughter and, ultimately joy.

As a person changes a life pattern, they evolve, changing life perspectives and expanding their acceptance to embrace greater wisdom and understanding.