Systemic Coaching: What Is It and How Does It Differ From Other Forms?

CoachHub · 20 October 2021 · 5 min read

October 20, 2021

Compared to traditional coaching, systemic coaching considers the larger system in which we all operate. Authors Prof. Peter Hawkins and Eve Turner argue that “coaching needs to step up to deliver value to all the stakeholders of the coachee, including those they lead, colleagues, investors, customers, partners, their local community, plus the wider ecology.” In short, systemic coaching adds a new dimension to coaching.

As defined by Anthony Grant, coaching “facilitates the enhancement of life experience and goal attainment in the personal and professional life of non-clinical clients.” As this traditional definition of coaching illustrates, standard coaching practices emphasise individual self-awareness centered on the coachee. Systemic coaching simply expands this traditional framework further to account for the bigger picture.


What Is Systemic Coaching?

Systemic coaching is defined by coach and author, John Whittington, as an approach to coaching which, “coaches the individual client or team with the system in mind—exploring the part in the whole, and the whole in the part—so as to unlock the potential and performance of both.”

By highlighting the system (e.g. organisation, team) that an individual functions within, systemic coaching can add wider context to the coaching process. Fundamentally, systemic coaching attempts to bring wider perspective to the process by encouraging individuals and teams to consider the ecosystem they’re embedded within while also developing their own self-awareness.

Systemic coaching is rooted in Systems Theory, which explores the interconnections between elements. While there are different approaches to systemic coaching , at its most basic sense, systemic coaching is an approach which encourages the client to  consider the system in which they operate and the connections between the parts of the system.

How Does Systemic Coaching Work?

While systemic coaching processes vary, there are common aspects that exist across this type of coaching: (1) Coach and coachee apply a systemic viewpoint to the process; (2) Coachees are asked to visually illustrate the system; And (3) the process recognises and seeks to integrate the needs of different participants within the system.

Apply a systemic perspective to individuals and groups

When people hear “systemic coaching,” they often think of systems and quickly assume systemic coaching is the same as team coaching or organisational coaching; That is incorrect. While systemic coaching acknowledges the greater system, the approach can be used in one-on-one coaching arrangements or in team coaching. Systemic coaching simply deploys a systemic point of view—one that acknowledges relationships and system dynamics beyond the individual. Teams, a group of people who share a common purpose, are themselves a system, as well as being part of a wider system, for example within an organisation, within an industry and within a cultural or regulatory context.

Illustrate the system

In systemic coaching, coachees are often asked to physically map their system, using  a method known as constellations. This activity can be done in a variety of ways. In a one-on-one setting, a coach and coachee may use sticky notes to represent key elements of a wider system or arrange objects on a tabletop to depict the individuals or forces within their system. In team coaching, a team may work together to draw a map of their system, illustrating individuals, teams, and the organisation as a whole. Whittington says the goal of this activity is to create a true inner picture of the system and reveal underlying relationship structures.


Acknowledge and align individual and organisational goals

Within a systemic coaching approach, individual and organisational goals both matter. Executive Coach, Paul Lawrence, says a systemic approach to coaching “helps coach and coachee avoid engaging in over-simplistic analyses and coming up with over-simplistic solutions.” Systemic coaching asks coachees to align their individual goals with organisational goals to co-create agreed outcomes.

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What are the Benefits of Systemic Coaching?

The ROI of traditional coaching has confirmed coaching delivers benefits for both the individual and the business. At an individual level, studies show that business coaching leads to increased employee confidence, professional growth, job satisfaction, goal attainment, and psychological wellbeing (to name a few). On the business side, coaching has been linked to improved retention, employee engagement, and revenue, among other benefits. By tackling system dynamics and the organisational health of the system, systemic coaching only strengthens this impact.

Systemic coaching tackles system dynamics

Unsurprisingly, a systemic approach to coaching helps coachees address systemic issues (or system dynamics) – things like dysfunctional teams, organisational conflict, and difficult behaviours in the workplace. In his book, Systemic Coaching and Constellations, Whittington writes, “Working only at the level of the individual means you may be able to remove the symptom, but the dynamic—if it belongs at the level of the system—will simply re-emerge.”


Address the organisational health of a system

While traditional coaching often accounts for the holistic health and wellbeing of a coachee, it doesn’t necessarily address the health of the system; This is where systemic coaching can differ. According to Whittington, “In a healthy system, everyone who has contributed is acknowledged and the history of the system is spoken about, including the difficulties.” While unhealthy systems are plagued by insecurity, shame, and distrust, healthy organisations tend to experience improved psychological safety, better employee retention, and higher levels of motivation.


Getting Started with Systemic Coaching

If you want to experience the benefits of systemic coaching—outcomes like improved workplace dynamics, increased psychological safety, and better employee retention—consider working with a coach who specialises in systems thinking like CoachHub Coach, Doris Friedl, a certified, systemic-integration coach.

Friedl says she follows “a systemic constructivist approach, the client-centered approach developed by Carl Rogers and the hypnotherapeutic approach developed by Milton H. Erickson.” If you want to find a certified systemic coach to partner with, here are some questions to ask prospective coaches:

  • What methods and coaching techniques do you use?
    You’re looking for a systemic approach like systemic-constructivist or language that acknowledges the greater system.
  • What is your coaching expertise?
    If a coach specialises in systemic coaching, they may have received education specific to systems thinking like Integrative Systemic Coaching training.
  • What type of systemic coaching experience do you bring?
    Check if the coach has previously coached an individual or organisation on the specific issues you want to address.


The Role of Systemic Coaching

Relative to traditional coaching, which began in the 1960s, systemic coaching is relatively new, emerging from the family therapy movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Writers such as John Whittington (2012) and Peter Hawkins and Eve Turner (2021) have helped raise interest in the power of considering how the wider system impacts on the individual. Systemic coaching offers a unique viewpoint and shifts the focus of coaching.

Jonathan Passmore has further developed these ideas integrating systemic coaching into a holistic approach, combining humanistic, behavioural, cognitive behavioural, psychodynamic and systemic to form an Integrated Coaching framework (Passmore, 2021).

Compared to traditional coaching, systemic coaching adds a new dimension to the coaching process by emphasising the value of coaching beyond individual development. If you want to deliver value to all of your stakeholders, from coachees to investors, systemic coaching may be the solution you’re looking for.

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