The GROW model, as developed by Alexander and popularised by Whitmore, is deceptively simple, and this has led to a number of criticisms. But are they justified? Elaine Cox and Glenn Wallis come to the model’s defence
Alexander and Renshaw (2005) described the process of developing the GROW model through their analysis of audio and video tapes of what occurred in Alexander’s coaching sessions in the 1980s and 90s.
Previously, Alexander had not thought about the structure of his sessions, but knew from clients’ feedback that the process worked.
To complement the analysis of taped sessions, neurolinguistic programming practitioners witnessed live sessions and provided feedback on their observations.
What emerged was a consistent structure that seemed to occur in each session. By systematically taking out extraneous elements of coaching behaviour, vital components were isolated. After much discussion Alexander settled on the acronym GROW (Goal-Reality-Options-Wrap-up) for his observed model.
The model was subsequently popularised by Whitmore (1996) and involved not only the four GROW steps, but also the integration of client awareness and responsibility at every step. These, Whitmore argued, are vital for learning and performance improvement.
Since that time, the attractiveness of the GROW model has increased (Passmore, 2007) and several extensions and modifications to GROW have been offered (eg, REGROW, Grant, 2011; GROUP, Brown & Grant, 2010).
Many such models include recurring themes: identifying goals, evaluating alternative solutions or options and considering proposals for action. Approaches such as active listening, asking questions and providing feedback are integral.
Novice coaches tend to rely on the simplicity of models such as these. However, because the models are normally presented as strictly sequential processes, they belie the dynamic and complex nature of coaching, which seldom progresses in a linear fashion. Cavanagh and Spence (2013) have even questioned their efficacy, suggesting they promote “inattentiveness”:
“With GROW the challenge is often that the trainee coach becomes consumed by a need to apply the model in a linear G-R-O-W sequence. The unfortunate effect of this is that they often fail to attend to what the coachee is saying (often losing track of the conversation or missing important details) and/or attempt to force the coachee to fit their story into the coach’s mental model” (p127).
Thus, one of the criticisms of models such as GROW is that the over-reliance on a blueprint for practice may lead to a less nuanced approach and it may be harder to coach effectively.
By contrast Dexter, Dexter and Irving (2010) argue that if a coach, particularly a novice coach, doesn’t use a model, the focus will be more on problems than solutions: “strategies more than goals, short-term-fixes rather than long term, lasting change”.
At worst, they suggest, “both coach and client will frequently get lost and not know what to do next” (p47) and so propose it is better to have a process model to guarantee good practice.
More recently, Lennard (2013) points out that models facilitate learning, development and performance, enabling coaches to practise and make adjustments during the coaching interaction.
One reason why GROW and similar models have received criticism could be, as Eldridge and Dembkowski (2013) point out, that frequently “coaches and aspiring coaches are unaware of the theoretical basis of the models they learn about and apply, and of the consequences for their practice” (p298).
For example, the awareness and responsibility so strongly advocated as part of GROW by Whitmore (1996), appears to have been lost from subsequent articulations and applications of the model.
Whitmore argues that GROW, “without the context of awareness and responsibility and the skill of questioning to generate them, has little value” (pp49-50). Thus, GROW might suggest the next course of action, but an experienced coach could, with awareness, decide to take another course.
This suggests that as coaches gain experience, their models become malleable and they create their own ways of working with clients based on individual needs. In research carried out by Wallis (2016) experienced coaches confirmed this – they found trying to hold on to too rigid a framework was an obstacle to good coaching. Similarly, Lennard (2013) argues that there is no right way to coach as each coach will have his/her own cultural orientation that influences practice.
Recognising the need for theoretical underpinnings, many coach development courses encourage students to conceptualise their own models of practice informed by self-reflection and theoretical and technical eclecticism. Some books also give guidance on developing one’s own model (eg, Law, 2013).
The development of a model systematises what the individual coach does – in much the same way as Alexander originally did for his own practice. We would argue therefore that models developed from observation of practice are models of that particular practice, not necessarily blueprints to be applied mindlessly to everyone’s practice. If GROW is acknowledged as such a model, and is used in the way intended by Whitmore, with awareness and responsibility, then criticisms diminish.
- Elaine Cox is director of the Doctor of Coaching & Mentoring programme at Oxford Brookes University. She edits the International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching & Mentoring:
- Glenn Wallis is director of Wallis Partnership, a company that helps organisations improve performance by developing increasingly effective leaders
- G Alexander & B Renshaw, Supercoaching, London: Random House Business, 2005
- S W Brown & A M Grant, ‘From GROW to GROUP: Theoretical issues and a practical model for group coaching in organizations’, in Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research and Practice, 3(1), pp30-45, 2010
- M J Cavanagh & G B Spence, ‘Mindfulness in coaching: Philosophy, psychology or just a useful skill?’, in J Passmore, D Peterson & T Freire (Eds.), The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of the Psychology of Coaching and Mentoring, pp112-134, New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013
- J Dexter, G Dexter & J Irving, An Introduction to Coaching, London: Sage, 2010
- F Eldridge & S Dembkowski, ‘Behavioral coaching’, in The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of the Psychology of Coaching and Mentoring, pp298-318, 2013
- A M Grant, ‘Is it time to REGROW the GROW model? Issues related to teaching coaching session structures’, in The Coaching Psychologist, 7(2), 2011
- H Law, Coaching Psychology: A Practitioner’s Guide, Chichester: John Wiley, 2013
- D Lennard, Coaching Models: A Cultural Perspective: A Guide to Model Development for Practitioners and Students of Coaching, London: Routledge, 2013
- J Passmore, ‘An integrative model for executive coaching’, in Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 59(1), pp68-78, 2007
- G Wallis, ‘Good question: Exploring the experiences of generating questions in coaching’, in International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, Special Issue 10, pp16-28, 2016
- J Whitmore, Coaching for Performance: The New Edition of the Practical Guide, Nicholas Brealey, 1996