The coaching industry is booming but in Australia, coaching is unregulated so anyone can call themselves a coach and often do not have adequate qualifications or experience. 

Moreover, it’s highly likely that coaches will have clients with psychological issues which may be preventing them from reaching their goals. Twenty percent of the adult population in Australia experience a mental health problem each year and coaching is seen as more “socially acceptable” than therapy. However, coaching is not therapy and most coaches are not trained to deal with these underlying psychological issues. Training in both coaching and psychology means that clients receive the right guidance to overcome any psychological blocks or obstacles hindering their progress towards their goals.

Let’s look at some examples of clients whose psychological issues were impeding on their goal progression in a work setting.

Case study 1: Narcissistic personality traits

Personality disorders involve enduring patterns of behaviour that affect the way a person thinks and feels, their interpersonal functioning and ability to control impulses. This pattern can lead to distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.

It may surprise you to learn that people with narcissistic personality traits often progress to CEO and senior executive roles. This is because the priority of a narcissist is themselves, at the expense of their colleagues and team members. They have a desire for power and will pursue it at all costs. They often believe they are special and entitled and come across as conceited, boastful, arrogant, and self-centred. They tend to dominate conversations, dismissing others’ views and input. They seek admiration from others but are prone to rage if criticised. Narcissists often have difficulty feeling and showing empathy for others, and they will exploit or devalue others without remorse to get want they want.

Alan has come for coaching after being unsuccessful in a promotion to a senior management position. Feedback he received suggested he needed to improve his people management skills and ability to develop his direct reports, who apparently feel undervalued and ignored. Alan feels that he was suited and deserving and believes that he was not given the job because the CEO is concerned that he might outshine him. Alan is reluctant to answer questions about gaps in his performance.

A Coaching Psychologist will have undergone training in personality disorders and be able to recognise that Alan is displaying narcissistic traits. A narcissist typically is unwilling to adapt to being in the role of ‘coachee’ and will be indifferent to the Coaching Psychologist’s opinions. They may be prone to digressions and outbursts, so the Coaching Psychologist would need to establish and hold firm boundaries and keep the discussion on track and focused by setting a clear agenda.

It’s important that the Coaching Psychologist does not confront Alan’s grandiosity and self-importance, as this may lead to rage, but rather help him gain insight and self-awareness into how his behaviour is impacting his work performance and taking responsibility for this. This may involve appealing to his self-interest, that being, his desire to be promoted, and helping him come to the realisation that maintaining good working relationships with his team will ultimately facilitate his professional success. The coaching, therefore, would focus on helping Alan build empathy for others as a way to improve his leadership skills and develop his direct reports.

Someone who is not trained in psychology may struggle to help this client achieve his goals due to not realising that Alan is displaying an ongoing dysfunctional pattern of behaviour that is blocking his progress.

Case study 2: Public speaking anxiety

Rachel works in marketing for a corporate media organisation. Her role involves attending meetings with the senior executive team to brainstorm and discuss marketing strategies, as well as delivering presentations on the effectiveness of marketing initiatives on the organisation’s profitability and ROI. However, Rachel feels intimidated by the executives and experiences anxiety whenever she has talk in front of them. She is very concerned about how they perceive her and if her performance is being judged.

Rachel’s goal of coaching is to increase her self-confidence and reduce her anxiety in team meetings and presentations so that she is able to deliver presentations competently and communicate effectively.

A coach may focus on helping Rachel identify actions to achieve this goal, such as using anxiety reducing strategies (relaxation and breathing techniques), visualisation, positive affirmations, and role playing. While these are helpful strategies in reducing anxiety, they don’t address the underlying nature of her anxiety and so, may not work long-term.

A Coaching Psychologist will go further and be able to identify the environmental, cognitive, behavioural, and emotional factors impacting her achieving this goal and the links between them.

For example, Rachel had to deliver a presentation to the executive team. Her thoughts were, “I must get this exactly right” and “If I stuff this up, people will think I’m incompetent”. These thoughts lead her to feel anxious and worried and she also experienced some physical sensations such as sweating, a dry mouth, or trembling. During the presentation, her focus was on the things she did wrong such as stumbling on a word, forgetting something, or perceiving that she didn’t answer a team member’s question adequately. Consequently, she started to feel overwhelmed and this ultimately impacted her performance. So, it is a self-fulfilling cycle and addressing just the anxious feelings is only one aspect of the whole process. Not tackling the other elements may hinder progress towards her goal.

A Coaching Psychologist will be able to help Rachel align these different components (cognitive, emotional, behavioural, situational) in such a way that it facilitates goal progression and behaviour change. They will help her identify and manage her negative thoughts and emotions so that they don’t overwhelm her and impact her behaviour and performance.  In addition, they will focus on her underlying core fears of being judged and scrutinised and help her address this.

Case study 3: Procrastination and perfectionism

Patricia works as a Project Manager in a corporate organisation. The projects she manages have specific deadlines, but she has consistently failed to deliver by the due date. She reported having trouble completing her work due to her belief that every task needs to be done equally well. She acknowledges that she tends to be overly cautious and thorough, spends longer on tasks than needed, engages in excessive checking, is reluctant to delegate, and constantly tries to improve things by re-doing them. Feedback that Patricia has received from her manager is that she needs to delegate more rather than trying to do everything herself so that she can prioritise her tasks and complete them on a timely basis. Patricia’s inability to complete tasks due to procrastination causes her to feel anxious, stressed, incompetent and inadequate, and she can be excessively self-critical.

Patricia has come to coaching to help her stop procrastinating and organise and prioritise her workload so that she can complete projects in a timely manner with less stress and anxiety.

Procrastination can be viewed as a self-defeating pattern of behaviour marked by short-term benefits and long-term costs such as diminished work performance, increased stress, worry, and guilt, and poorer physical health.

There are several reasons why people procrastinate. It may be due to

  • Fear of failure due to self-doubt about their ability to complete the task, so they don’t start it in the first place.
  • Perfectionism which makes it difficult for a person to take action, particularly if the task is new or different to what they are used to, as it can lead to worry about not being able to complete the task to their high standards. If a person sets “perfect” standards for themselves, it might feel easier to procrastinate carrying out a task rather than spending the time it takes to do it perfectly.
  • A lack of focus, clarity or direction and not having an “end point” to work towards.
  • A lack of interest or enjoyment in the task may also lead to procrastination as the person avoids the discomfort associated with doing the task.

Regardless of the cause, procrastination is only a temporary solution that tends to make anxiety and stress worse in the long run.

Without this knowledge, a coach may not address the underlying cause of the procrastination. On the other hand, a Coaching Psychologist understands the primary causes of procrastination and can help a client overcome these psychological blocks to achieving their targets.

In Patricia’s case, it appears that she is procrastinating due to a perfectionism. Patricia engages in all-or-nothing thinking whereby something is either perfect or a failure. So, she tends to wait until things are perfect in order to proceed and won’t finish them until they are perfect in her eyes. Patricia likely strives for perfection due to feelings of inadequacy or failure.

A Coaching Psychologist will be able to help Patricia realise that her tendency to set standards that are so high means that they either impossible to meet or are only met with great difficulty. The coaching will focus on identifying and changing her perfectionistic thoughts and behaviours to help her overcome her tendency for procrastination and improve her ability to prioritise effectively to meet her work goals.