Research Paper By Marco Paracciani
(Executive Coach, THAILAND)
My target audience is busy executives who want to develop themselves into the best they can be, for themselves, for the teams they lead, and for the organizations they work for. They tend to be driven individuals used to fact-based problem solving, data-driven decision-making, and to use evidence to underpin critical investment bets. Coaching is often used as a valuable resource for the development of these individuals thanks to the patronage from corporate HR teams and/or senior executives who have had positive coaching experiences. Nonetheless, there are still concerns, resistances, and maybe myths that hinder the adoption of executive coaching as a powerful talent development tool in many organizations and cultures. One of these myths is that executive coaching is the ‘arm of last resort’ for an executive to address behavioral issues(before more serious decisions are taken) and that it has no real scientific basis to justify its claim to fame. This is despite very substantial research studies published by reputable publishers over the last decades on the psychology, sociology, and physiology of coaching and its benefits, not to mention the many works undertaken by scores of reputable researchers around the world to study the effectiveness of the many coaching frameworks and models.
I hypothesize that a scientific and factual basis to the coaching practice might prove effective in enhancing the acceptance of executive coaching as a powerful organizational and talent development tool within the corporate world across continents and cultures. The assumption behind this hypothesis is that corporate professionals’ concerns about coaching’s real effectiveness can be allayed when executive coaching is underpinned by a logical and science-based approach so that corporate talent investment decisions – in terms of time and money–can allow executive coaching to be more widely adopted.
In this context, this research paper aims at researching how both neuroscience-based coaching and systems thinking as tools to deliver a fact-based and powerful coaching experience.
Neurosciences and Executive Coaching
Over the last two decades, neuroscience has made giant leaps thanks to significant advances, among others, in medical digital imaging technology. This progress has allowed the medical community a much deeper understanding of the brain’s functioning which has brought about challenges to many of the previously well-accepted theories about the functioning of the organ we call the brain. One key concept – now widely researched and accepted – at the heart of neuroscience-based executive coaching, i.e. neuroplasticity(1):
Neuroplasticity, also known as neural plasticity, or brain plasticity, is the ability of neural networks in the brain to change through growth and reorganization. These changes range from individual neurons making new connections, to systematic adjustments like cortical remapping. Examples of neuroplasticity include circuit and network changes that result from learning a new ability, environmental influences, practice, and psychological stress.
Neuroplasticity studies demonstrate (2)(3)(4) that the adult human brain is not at all hard-wired once adult age is reached but actually evolves continually during the human life span responding to the stimuli the individual’s lifestyle events provide. There are actually several ways in which this plasticity can manifest itself, such as structural neuroplasticity, functional neuroplasticity, and – within the latter – several activity-dependent plasticity methods, such as the brain’s ability to increase or decrease the firing power of its synapses (synapsis plasticity) and its ability to regulate the excitability of its neurons (intrinsic plasticity). Neuroplasticity is therefore a form of systemic intelligence, the intelligence of the intelligent organ one might say, as it allows the brain to optimize its own response to the circumstances, stimuli, and traumas it receives.
From a coaching perspective, this is extremely relevant and powerful. The question is then how to best harness this systemic intelligence of the brain for the benefit of the coachee? The answer to that question is revealed by many studies and researchers’ testimonials (5)(6)(7): the single most important trigger for a healthy adult brain’s neuroplasticity is in fact attention, our own conscious attention. Acting like a spotlight on a theatre scene, our attention can trigger neurological brain plasticity if applied consciously and consistently over time. Attention is what enables learning as it fosters those neuroplastic responses that create, with time and effort, new neurological connections and ‘brain maps’ in our minds that can then be recalled instantly and represent our ‘knowledge’. This process applies to new physical or manual skills we might want to acquire (e.g. skiing, carpeting, baking, pottery, painting, music playing, etc) as well as to new intellectual skills, such as a new language, a new profession, or new behavior.
In summary, attention enables neuroplasticity which in turn enables learning. Nothing earth-shattering one might say, as we know it from childhood that if you pay attention you learn faster. However, as our brain swims in a chemical solution, hormones have a huge impact on our thoughts, behaviors, and actions, hence our ability to consciously orient our attention can be significantly impaired or enabled by the nature of the predominant ‘cocktail’ of hormones present at a given time. So, where it gets interesting is when one realizes that attention can not only be oriented to enable learning but to a certain extent also to create the right hormonal environment required for positive and powerful learning to take place. Attention thus can bring about learning and shape the learning environment as well. Quite remarkable and useful to know, when you are dealing with stressed-out, driven executives who often have to deal with huge professional pressures, conflicting life demands all while battling their own emotions and demons.
As a result, since 2006 neuroscience-based coaching theories and practices have started to emerge, develop, and get established (8), providing new perspectives on how coaching can effectively enable sustainable and permanent behavioral changes in individuals. They can become a powerful force for executive coaching to be broadly accepted as a respected talent / organizational development tool across continents, cultures, and customer clusters, i.e. not just medium/large corporations but also entrepreneurs, start-ups, and gig-economy professionals. Its beauty relies on its scientific underpinning which guides and informs the coaching process with the ultimate aim to help ‘hardwire’ the desired changes, behaviors, or beliefs, hence facilitating the truly transformational change of individuals and organizations.
Systems Thinking and Executive Coaching
While neuroscience indeed informs the coach’s practice for the benefit of the executive, the coach can hardly ignore that the coachee is much more than just an individual looking to improve his/her professional trajectory. S/he is a complex human being, with unique personality traits, history, needs, and emotions, whose professional trajectory deeply depends not just on his/her professional performance, but on several interdependencies with broader ‘systems’ (9), and thus by how theses ‘systems’ can be considered in a management application, as defined by Peter Senge in 1990 with his seminal work “The Fifth discipline”(9)(10)(11). Such systems would include, at least, the following areas: the executive’s work community (company culture, individual dynamics, etc), his/her personal and social relationships, his/her business’s industry regulations, and his/her country of residence laws, rules, and habits. Let’s look at these systems briefly from inside out to explore their interdependencies with the coachee.
- Personal system: each executive has a unique personal history that has shaped the values, behaviors, ambitions, and his/her overall character. The influencers can be endless and represent an intricate ‘system’ that can have a direct bearing on the executive’s behaviors. Besides, each executive will have a private life with its all-important relationships, which further enrich and inform the executives’ personal system. The coach needs to understand the dynamics of this system to properly support the coachee.
- Social system: as any social being, the executive needs a network of social relationships to be balanced and thus at his/her best at work. These relationships can be very diverse and touch very diverse aspects of the individual’s persona: love, friendship, religion, sports, culture, fun, and more. The coach needs to consider their impact on the coachee’s professional life and evaluate through the coachee if and how the system can be optimized.
- Work system: this is a large system that includes the executive’s professional relationships, the company culture, it’s spoken & unspoken values, and codes of behavior. The degree of alignment between these values and behaviors with the executive’s own values and behaviors does have a direct impact on the executive’s effectiveness and hence needs to be explored and understood by the coach.
- Industry system: any industry the executive operates in will have a bearing on the business and hence on its executives. The industry rules, regulations, and governing bodies are a powerful system the coachee needs to be aware of and possibly tap into.
- Country system: as complex as it might be, this is the ultimate system that needs to be reckoned with, by both coachee and coach. It’s culture, rules and behaviors will inevitably impact the executive’s work, relationships, and ultimately his/her success.
As mentioned before, this is not an exhaustive list as there can be other systems that have a material relevance on the coachee, however, it is sufficient to assert that the success of an executive coaching program cannot be lasting and transformational unless it has properly embedded the interdependencies between the coachee and his/her relevant systems in its deployment. The coachee is de facto at the center of a complex network of systems that do have a material bearing on the executive’s professional life and it is here where systems thinking, and coaching, intersect.
Neuroscience-based coaching and system thinking can thus inform each other, allowing the coach to fully comprehend and support the coachee. A perfect example is how the executive responds (or reacts) to an occasion in which a system presents a sudden challenge that could be perceived as a threat and thus trigger a ‘fight or flight’ reaction instead of a more pondered conscious response. These occasions abound in everyday executive life and could come from a variety of sources, such as unforeseen events, challenging behaviors, negative results, or simply unexpected circumstances. The SCARF Model (12), developed and administered by D.Rock’sNeuroleadership Institute, helps executives and coaches to understand the individual’s sensitivity to 5 areas: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness. Awareness of such sensitivities is a useful tool for the coachee to recognize patterns of behaviors that are related to these social sensitivities, thus – with time and the coach’s support – improve his/her effectiveness by moving from reaction to response.
This paper asserts that the brain & systems-based executive coaching – i.e. brain’s neuroplastic properties combined with the systems thinking management theory – can provide a factual backbone to further the adoption of executive coaching practices across cultures, geographies, and types of organizations. While both disciplines are highly complex and require a high level of professional competencies to be fully understood and mastered, brain & systems-based executive coaching does not need to be as intimidating as a concept as it might sound: the fundamental principles are intuitive enough to be understood and embraced by all professional stakeholders, as long as their principles and their relevance to the executive world are clearly, simply and openly communicated. That’s the job of us executive coaches.
(2)Maguire, E. A.; Frackowiak, R. S.; Frith, C. D. (1997). “Recalling routes around London: Activation of the right hippocampus in taxi drivers”. Journal of Neuroscience, 2007.
(3) “Michael M. Merzenich | Scientific Learning”. Scientific Learning Corporation. 1997–2009.
(5) Daniel Amen – The most important lesson from 83,000 brain scans, TEDxOrangeCoast, October 16, 2013.
(6) VeerlePonnet – Using insights of neuroscience to improve teaching and learning, TEDxPatosdeMinas, Nov 12, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NmAuawoYnUk
(7) Dr. Kelly Lambert – Improving our neuroplasticity, TEDxBermuda, Feb 3, 2020
(9) The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation, Peter Senge 1990
(10) Peter Senge: “Systems Thinking for a Better World” – Aalto Systems Forum 2014
(11) The 11 Laws of Systems Thinking and Stakeholder Engagement, Thought Exchange, Jamie Billingham
(12) The SCARF Model, David Rock, The Neuroleadership Institute
(13) The What, Why and How of Brain-based Coaching, Dan Beverly, 1 January 2015
(14) David Rock, Quiet Leadership (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), Mental Energy and Physiological Energy – Art Markmann, Feb 12, 2015
(15) No Pain, No Brain Gain: Why Learning Demands (A Little) Discomfort, The Science of Work, by Mary Slaughter and David Rock, 18 Apr 2018