What is coaching?

A relatively young profession outside the world of sport, business-related coaching emerged in the 1980’s through the pioneering work of Sir John Whitmore and others. Until more recently such coaching was targeted primarily at business leaders and the most senior managers who used Executive Coaches to provide personal support on a wide range of topics.

Gradually, the skills deployed by Executive Coaches have become appreciated for their wider application so that it is now common for line managers and supervisors to be trained in coaching skills and for organisations to aspire to have a ‘coaching’ culture. Today, leading occupational safety and health (OSH) professionals too advocate a coaching approach.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), defines coaching and mentoring as development techniques based on the use of one-to-one discussions to enhance an individual’s skills, knowledge or work performance. Traditionally, the defining characteristics of coaching are: –

– that it is non-directive;

– that it is based upon a high level of rapport between coach and coachee;

– that the coach uses highly-developed listening and questioning skills to pull ideas, suggestions and plans from the    coachee; and

– that it is solutions-focused. 

Mentoring uses the same skills but is generally used to describe a situation in which a more experienced colleague uses his or her greater knowledge and understanding to support the development of another.

The objective for the coach is to form a productive alliance with the coachee. The success of the coaching ultimately depends upon the quality of this alliance which in turn depends upon the coach’s capacity for building rapport and his/her questioning and listening skills etc. Finding and implementing a solution to an issue is a collaborative effort but in coaching, as in health and safety, the responsibility for doing so remains firmly with the coachee; the coach is there to support the coachee in his/her exploration.

The very best OSH practitioners are both a mentor and a coach. They know about the law and the standards that need to be achieved and they have experience of how other organisations have solved safety problems. This is the greater knowledge and understanding they bring to a conversation and they are prized for it.

But what if the OSH practitioner doesn’t have the answer to a problem? What if their experience of how other organisations have solved problems doesn’t apply or their knowledge of approved codes of practice and guidance documents doesn’t fit with the operational constraints in a particular situation. The very best OSH practitioners coach, meaning that they are able to support duty-holders even when they have little technical knowledge to contribute.

Increasingly the role of an OSH practitioner is to be collaborative, supportive and helpful and their success is dependent more and more on their personal communication skills and ability to form productive relationships with others.

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