Coaching or Therapy? Which Shoe Best Fits?

By Nora Infante, Psy.D. Over the course of my career as psychologist and executive coach, I have on many occasions had to be cautious and thoughtful about where the line between coaching and therapy exists.  It’s a conversation I have had with HR directors, coaching clients and colleagues and one I think worth elaborating on so that those navigating this often murky terrain can be better informed.

The fields of coaching and psychotherapy are continuously evolving.  There are more psychotherapy (counseling) modalities than ever before and, upon closer look, many therapists are adopting strategies with their clients that resemble strategies employed in coaching (e.g. clear and actionable objectives, homework assignments, behavioral assessments).  On the flip side, executive coaching increasingly emphasizes the roles of “unconscious bias” and “triggers” in leadership behavior.   Often the exploration of bias and triggers leads to an uncovering of the root source of these personal perceptions.  It is important to understand how these two worlds come together, what keeps them apart and when they are best kept apart.  

Both coaching and therapy begin with the client in a present state that is less than ideal and with hope for a future improved state.  When an executive seeks to work on their leadership skills, there is perforce an examination in some fashion of where performance can be improved and the impact of behaviors on leadership.  Yet, the gravity of a client’s situation, as well as the extent to which the past is explored, differ significantly in coaching and counseling.  Coaching is rarely instigated as a result of a crisis, as is often the case in therapy.  Most coaching engagements begin with someone who is well functioning but needs to develop self-awareness and insights to help both maximize existing skills and develop new ones.  Coaching is by definition focused on behavioral change.  For example, in therapy you delve more deeply into the root causes of triggers than you would in coaching.  That exploration of the past remains the domain of therapy.  Coaches may touch on the past, but only in a very focused way to gain present context and to move forward.

Which Shoe Fits Best?

Many years ago I was coaching an executive who struggled setting boundaries and saying ‘no’ to any requests made of her — irrespective if from her superiors, peers or even subordinates.  She identified early on that her stress resulted from being a “people-pleaser.”  Furthermore, she believed she’d gotten to her present career success just from being “easy to get along with.”  She had difficulty owning her intelligence and genuine intellectual contribution to the organization.  She truly believed her VP status and success were the result of her being a nice person and that the truth of her limitations would soon come to light — the imposter syndrome.  Our work together ultimately revealed that her entire life was devoted to taking care of everything in her family and she consequently felt a deep survival need to please and take care of others.

This need to “take care of things for others” continued to come up as an issue as the coaching continued.  She was doing the work assigned, understood it well, and could speak eloquently about her emotions.  However, she still had great difficulty setting boundaries and holding others accountable.  The stress of her need to make everybody happy became overwhelming, especially because she now saw how, even with the support of coaching, she was not able to advance her behavioral objectives.  At this point it became clear to me that she needed more than coaching and I referred her to a psychotherapist.  

She continued coaching and started therapy.  With the benefit of both simultaneously, she was able to dive into what was at the root of this need to please, work with those deep insights at an appropriate emotional level, and come to coaching better able to apply the tools I could provide in order to truly make a change in her leadership behavior.  In this instance, the combination of both coaching and counseling proved very effective and beneficial.  Now, years later, and after significant executive turnover she remains one of the only VPs of that era still standing! 

One more example.  I worked with a newly minted COO who had demonstrated such great strategic vision in his prior role that management decided to give him a much broader sphere of influence and responsibility.  Regrettably, his intellectual skills were superior but his people skills were terrible.  During the initial stages of the engagement and through the feedback process it became clear he had a difficult time trusting others to do their jobs.  He expected perfection of himself and therefore of them.  Since no one was capable of meeting his standard of perfection he ran himself ragged doing everyone’s work and failed to build trust with his team.  After three months of working very closely with him, he was not making the progress we hoped.  Early on he disclosed how very difficult it had been to please his father.  He constantly lived in the shadow of his father’s harsh judgement.  This theme became so recurrent in our meetings that it became clear he was not moving forward because he hadn’t come to grips with something very powerful about his past.  Eventually, as we continued to revisit this personal narrative, I recommended he see a therapist.  He could either put the coaching on hold while he worked on his psychological barriers to success or he could engage in both therapy and coaching simultaneously.  He resisted therapy and eventually was removed from his position and placed in a role of an individual contributor where he could operate using his intellect alone but not as a member of a team.  Sometimes, this is the result.  Fortunately for him, it actually worked.  He wasn’t pushed into uncomfortable psychological territory anymore and could focus on excelling in the realm in which he had already proven himself in.

Most executive coaching engagements will involve receiving constructive feedback — positive and, at times, negative.  If the individual consistently responds defensively and negatively to feedback, if it makes them overly reactive and emotional, it is an early sign that coaching may not be the right fit, and therefore will not be successful.  As a client or supervisor, it is important to recognize when behavioral issues run deeper than coaching is meant to address.  People and life are complicated, and there is no shame or failure in admitting that one needs more than coaching.  

So, it is important to know that there is a line and, importantly, an ethical line between coaching and counseling.  This line is often opaque; but it always exists.  In coaching, past history serves to inform the context of the leadership development and to help create appropriate exercises and tools for success.  Past history is not as important and coaches don’t spend time exploring the emotional terrain of formative experiences.  Such exploration and sense-making belongs in the realm of therapy.  If the past becomes the block to changing leadership behavior, it is an indication that therapy is a more appropriate and useful modality to address challenging behaviors. 

Coaching is often not easy or straightforward because every leader comes with a personal story of how they got to where they are.  It is important not to be naïve about the complexities of the human mind and behavior.  Pay careful attention to whether you are better served by a leadership coach or by addressing a leadership issue that may be tied to an unresolved psychological personal issue requiring psychotherapy. 

Learn more about Nora here. Contact Nora and schedule a consultation about building leadership skills, emotional Intelligence, critical and strategic thinking, and relationship management.