Coaching Circles: a Vehicle for an Ego-to Eco Shift in Organizations
Summary of an Action Research Process
by Amir Carmel
Last September I co-facilitated a u.lab hub at Triodos Bank in the Netherlands. My personal intentions entering the U process were to explore the quality of deep dialogue in an organizational context. On the practical level I asked myself how can I cultivate this quality between colleagues? On the philosophical level I wanted to understand what a dialogue between collectives could look like.
During the U process I experimented with methods such as journaling, stake holder interviews, empathy walks, Social Presencing Theater (SPT) and coaching circles and by participating myself in the weekly hub host calls, and explored how each one of them influences dialogue.
I was familiar with coaching circles before, but only when I observed how the case clinic protocol cultivates deep dialogue between work colleagues, did I realize that I had found the work- form I was looking for.
How to Measure the Ego to Eco Shift?
Around that time, I had to choose a topic for my master’s thesis research in Organizational Psychology. The combination of my intentions for the u.lab with the exciting experience of coaching circles as a tool led me to focus on this work form. My initial assumptions were that practicing coaching circles could help us to shift from Ego to Eco: to become more connected to others around us and to our higher self, to act from the future that wants to emerge and to take ownership of our own development.
The problem I faced when setting up the research was how to bridge a gap between two different worlds: on the one hand, coaching circles is a holistic and complex phenomenon with emerging qualities that are hard to isolate and measure; on the other hand, I was looking for hard evidence of the impact of this work form. I used modern psychological assessment tools that reduce the experience to numbers and are easy to replicate. In other words: I was trying to empirically measure ego-to-eco shift.
I can’t say that I solved this tension.
After a long process of drawing conceptual models, trying to capture the essence of the impact of coaching circles, I reached the following assumption model: practicing coaching circles (CC) can increase empathy (heart) Self-awareness (Head) and a sense of leading one’s life (Will). Additionally, the sense of leading one’s life contributes to the increases in empathy and self-awareness over time.
See below the conceptual model, (H1–5 are the specific hypotheses).
I decided to work with three validated psychological questionnaires measuring Empathy, Self-awareness and Locus of Control. The risk I took was that by breaking down the coaching circles effect into small parts, I might be losing sight of the whole picture. On the other hand, I saw value in being able to prove the impact of coaching circles using only objective measurements, in order to see if at the end of the process the numbers would confirm my inner experience.
Coaching Circles at Triodos Bank across Departments
Triodos Bank was the first organization that agreed to participate in the study. After a process of onboarding key stakeholders and agreeing about the terms of the pilot, I started recruiting co-workers from the organization. 25 co-workers from the bank, most of them with no Theory U background, joined the pilot and formed 6 circles. Three circles met online and three met face-to-face. All participants filled in the questionnaires before and after the pilot.
I was present in all sessions of all the circles. Actively guiding the first session of each circle through the case clinic protocol and participating as a coach in the other two. This was an intensive and valuable learning journey. Here again I observed deep dialogues, care for each other’s struggles, the collective learning of the circles and the impact each session had on the case giver. In many sessions co-workers checked-in at the beginning sharing that they are “out of breath” or “disconnected” and at the end of the 60 minutes shared that they feel relieved and fully present. The expression “being fully present” was repeated multiple times after sessions.
Bringing the Qualities of Coaching Circles to a Military Environment
While running the pilot at Triodos I was looking for other organizations that would be willing to run a similar pilot. I was connected to Hans Van de Veen, a psychotherapist and a U.lab practitioner located in Oudtshoorn, South Africa.
We shared our personal experience from coaching circles and from u.lab in general. We both agreed that the qualities that coaching circles cultivate are valuable for any human being, anywhere. Additionally, during our conversations our military experience came up. Hans is working in a military facility as psychotherapist and I served for five years in a special force unit of the IDF. During our conversations we realized how radical it can be to bring qualities such as “living with a question” and non-judgmental listening into a military culture that expects to have answers, doesn’t tolerate vulnerability and is very used to linear and quick problem solving.
Carrying this understanding, Hans reached out to a commander of a recruits training wing and suggested a pilot of coaching circles for young recruits during their basic training phase. The initiative was fully supported and a group of 30 recruits gathered and started practicing coaching circles on Sundays, twice a month. This group also filled in questionnaires before and after the pilot.
The pilot seemed to have significant impact on the recruits. Hans observed that participants became more present and energetic over time, and sensed a social field charged with lively impulses around the group.
In their written reflections the recruits shared that having a safe space to open up, share their vulnerabilities and take time to get to the root of the challenges they are facing were new and very meaningful for them. Additionally, in many reflections the main takeaway was the understanding that they all deal with similar issues, that they are not alone and can support each other’s development.
After their last session I reflected together with Hans and the recruits on their learnings from the pilot through a video call. It was beautiful to see the depth of their learning and the courage to openly share them. During our conversation I sensed a shared understanding and mutual gratitude. At the end of the conversation I shared with the group my personal history and my experience from basic training as a trooper. I felt that it could have been richer and deeper if I had been able to participate in coaching circles back then.
So, Is It Working?
When analyzing the collected data, 78% of the participants indicated that they wish to continue meeting for sessions with their circle and 85% that they will recommend a similar pilot for their colleagues, pointing to a meaningful impact of coaching circles.
However, I couldn’t find any statistical support around increased empathy, self-awareness or locus of control.
It is possible that more data from more participants, and over longer time frames will yield clearer evidence. Another possibility is that I used research method that was not suitable to the phenomena that I was researching, as mentioned before.
I don’t have a clear understanding of the right research methodology that should be used in similar studies, instead I hold these questions open.
When reflecting on both pilots, the depth of dialogue and genuine care for each other in each session resonated with me. When following my curiosity, I realized that in all sessions the case giver’s intentions, and the future that they were trying to create, were good. Not only good for themselves, I sensed care and responsibility for the systems they were a part of, and for the world in general. It seems that during the sessions something allowed our higher self to appear: we were connected to our deep impulse and tuned in to what wanted to emerge though us.
Following this insight, I understood that allowing our higher self to appear is an ongoing practice. I felt and learned that coaching circle is a practice field that build this capacity, and that like any practice it requires a stable rhythm, inner activity and the presence of partners.
My next steps, building on this experience and insights, is to bring coaching circles to more organizations. I intend to explore further ways to cultivate the quality of deep dialogue within and between organizations.
Article from the series ‘Voices from the Hub Host Field’, curated by Simoon Fransen