Dr Ioanna Iordanou, senior lecturer HRM (Coaching and Mentoring), Oxford Brookes University, discusses the potential benefits of incorporating the study and practice of coaching in undergraduate business education
The increasing cost – both financial and emotional – of a university degree has shifted higher education students’ priorities towards networking and personal branding. As a result, in recent years, intellectual growth has played second fiddle to employability and securing a good job after graduation (Glenn, 2011).
This attitude is particularly prominent in the sphere of business education, where the curriculum has been progressively prioritising employability and rationality skills over creativity and emotional engagement with the taught material (Palmer and Iordanou, 2015).
As a consequence, business schools have been heavily criticised for stifling, rather than enhancing, students’ critical abilities and out-of-the-box thinking, traits that are deemed paramount not only by educators, but also by employers and contemporary businesses (Arum and Roska, 2011).This attitude is particularly prominent in the sphere of business education, where the curriculum has been progressively prioritising employability and rationality skills over creativity and emotional engagement with the taught material (Palmer and Iordanou, 2015).
Academics and educators have debated long and hard as to what can make business education more relevant to the issues that future graduates will face in the real world of work. Some have suggested educational programmes should allow for the cultivation of subjectivity, sensitivity and responsibility through reflexive and experiential learning (Cunliffe, 2002) and coaching may be an appropriate vehicle for achieving this.
In this article, I propose that embedding the undergraduate study and practice of coaching in business school programmes can provide a possible solution to some of the challenges of delivering the skills needed by the modern business graduate.
In 2012, I helped set up one of the very few – if not only – undergraduate coaching modules in a globally renowned UK business school. The highly interdisciplinary module teaches final-year undergraduate students a variety of theoretical approaches to coaching and coaching models. It then invites them to put their new-found knowledge into practice by coaching first-year undergraduate students who are about to experience their first university examinations. The module has been growing in popularity ever since, and the findings from ongoing research on its effectiveness demonstrate it is delivering real benefits to students.
By studying and practising coaching in the business school, undergraduate students can nurture their affective capabilities and heighten their emotional engagement with peers; explore and cement the learning that ensues from emotional experiences through critical reflection and reflexivity, and develop managerial coaching attitudes that place the individual at the epicentre of the managerial relationship (Iordanou et al., 2015).
By actively engaging with coaching, students were granted permission to practise the skill of actively listening, accepting and respecting the assumptions, beliefs and values of others. As a result, student-coaches reported their astonishment at being offered time and space to emotionally engage with their peers and to experience and practise empathy. They therefore felt capable and, importantly, keen to emotionally connect and empathise with their coachees.
While empathy has long been mandated as a key relational skill taught in health and counselling, it is often given less focus in business education beyond the potential value of emotional intelligence (Goleman, 1998). Yet, the findings from this research showed undergraduate business school students dismissed the postmodernist tendencies of contemporary management education to create managers who are ‘morally neutral technicians’ and welcomed the opportunities coaching afforded to emotionally engage with their peers and sharpen their affective capabilities.
Through their study and practice of coaching, undergraduate student-coaches were offered time and space to explore, question and actively reflect on their own values, beliefs and assumptions. Indeed, the study and practice of coaching opened up a landscape of critical reflection in action while the learning process was in progress. As such, the students expressed their surprise at being allowed to ‘slow down’ in the traditionally fast-paced, results-driven business school environment, to critically reflect on themselves and their relationship with others in an experiential manner.
The combination of experience and reflection generated a more embodied form of learning, grounded on the individual. Students welcomed this learning as a refreshing departure from more traditional lecturing approaches. As a result, they experienced the study and practice of coaching as a means of cultivating an attitude of critical enquiry that extends from individual to collective (Gray, 2007).
Many business school students aspire to managerial careers in international teams, often in complex global organisations. This means being actively enmeshed in a smorgasbord of team dynamics, what Goleman (1998, p101) referred to as “cauldrons of bubbling emotions”. Accordingly, the capacity to work with others, especially subordinates, in professional contexts that are intensely fast-paced, is an unequivocal requirement of the contemporary manager. The empathetic and reflexive coaching conversations in which student-coaches engaged, brought to the fore the benefits of a managerial coaching mind-set. This led to ruminations over the instrumentality and value of managerial practices grounded on coaching principles.
As a consequence, students voiced their desire for an academic schooling that caters for their development as managers who wish to foster healthy and effective manager-employee relationships. Cultivating a coaching mind-set was seen by several of them as one of the most effective qualities they could develop as professionals.
Overall, the research findings revealed that there is great value in embedding the study and practice of coaching in undergraduate business school programmes. This is because coaching enables students to nurture their affective, reflexive and managerial capabilities.
Yet the empirical grounding of the value of embedding coaching in undergraduate business school curricula necessitates longitudinal study. While such pursuit is still in its infancy, it is important for us as scholars and educators to enter what Schön (1987, p297) called the “hall of mirrors” and reflect on our practice, in the hope that we will inspire our students to do the same. For as Baker and Baker (2012, p708) very appositely put it, “The road to the new is arduous and requires commitment, discipline, and courage on the path of both the instructor and student.”
- R Arum and J Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2011
- D F Baker and S J Baker, ‘To “catch the sparkling glow”: A canvas for creativity in the management classroom’, in Academy of Management Learning & Education, 11(4), pp704-721, 2012
- A L Cunliffe, ‘Reflexive dialogical practice in management learning’, in Management Learning, 33(1), pp35-61, 2002
- D Glenn (2011), ‘The Default Major: Skating through B-school’, in The New York Times, from http://nyti.ms/2aBkg5U Accessed 5 July 2016
- D Goleman, ‘What makes a leader?’, in Harvard Business Review,76, pp93-102, 1998
- D E Gray, ‘Facilitating management learning: Developing critical reflection through reflective tools’, in Management Learning, 38(5), pp495-517, 2007
- I Iordanou, A Lech and V Barnes, ‘Coaching in higher education’, in C van Nieuwerburgh (Ed), Coaching in Professional Contexts, London: Sage, pp145-158, 2015
- G Palmer and I Iordanou, ‘Exploring cases using emotion, open space and creativity’, in N Courtney, C Poulsen and C Stylios (Eds), Case-based Teaching and Learning for the 21st Century, Libri, pp19-38, 2015
- D Schön, Educating the Reflective Practitioner: Toward a New Design for Teaching and Learning in the Professions, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, p297, 1987