Don’t do this when coaching in toxic environments!

If you have read some of my blogs, you know that I am not really keen on labelling anything or anyone and especially not labelling anything “toxic”. Just by classifying an environment as “toxic”, we are reducing our ability to be effective in it. So, I think the first step to coaching in a “toxic” environment is to try and not label anything as toxic.

However, there are situations that are really not beneficial and supportive of coaching. One of the main circumstances that comes to mind is when many people feel they need to constantly justify themselves, prove that they are competent and worthy. It is really hard to coach in an atmosphere of fear and suspicion: after all, coaching is about learning and you cannot learn when any admission of “non-perfection” poses a threat. If you fear to lose connection and belonging when you admit to needing to learn something, you are very unlikely to do that. Instead of learning, people will naturally try to hide their imperfections. In a sense, you might say that this atmosphere is “toxic” for learning and therefore to coaching.

The first thing a coach might notice in such an environment is that they are being scrutinized during the contracting phase. The sponsor will want proof that they are hiring a competent coach. After all, if the need to prove your competence is prevalent in an organization, the sponsor also will not want to be seen as having made a mistake in hiring the coach.

Here are a few thoughts about how we might comport ourselves in such a culture:

Don’t walk, run

The most important decision happens in the beginning: do you want to engage with this culture? Is it really worth your and the potential clients’ time? How likely is it that you will be able to help your clients develop? Do you need this job? How badly? Can you enter into this environment with your coaching mindset of appreciation, positive regard and curiosity intact? Can you be vulnerable in this environment? If the answer is no – run.

Reframe “toxic”

These cultures don’t happen in a vacuum. Maybe there is a good reason for the organization to be extremely quality oriented. Can you say to yourself (and your sponsor): “Of course, you want to check whether I have the right qualifications for the job! Ask away!” Can you reframe “suspicion” into “risk management”?

Reframe “competence”

If the culture in the organization is like this, it is vital that your sponsor believes that you are the right person — so whatever will help the sponsor be confident that they made the right choice is helpful for the whole process. If you can play the “my house, my car, my boat”, umm I mean the “my PCC, my previous successes, my professional experience” game without feeling attacked or judged, do that. At the same time, stay clear of entering the game yourself: make it a curious discussion on “fit” and not a game of attack and defend.

Share your observations

A bold move might be to share your observations: “I am noticing that you are asking many more questions around my qualifications than I usually get — is this indicative of anything that I need to know about your company culture?” You might externalize the company culture that way, so that you and the sponsor are no longer fish swimming in the water, but fishers observing it from the outside. Maybe you can then even ask the sponsor about their best tips on how to be successful in this culture as a coach.

Use my “get-out-of-jail-free” sentence

“I might not be the best coach in the universe, but I am the one who is here.” This is my sentence for getting out of “who-has-the-bigger-di…nnertable” conversations. What can you say to yourself to not feel threatened by a “toxic” culture? How can you stay on the riverbed and not be sucked into the stream? I think that this is a very important skill of any organizational coach, so let’s discover how we can support each other to do this.

To engage with questions like these, why not join one of our free coaching meetups and exchanges:

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