Working Life Coaching and the Individualization of Class

Wednesday 18th February, 2015

Katariina Mäkinen

What is working life coaching? What can its growth tell us about the individualization of class? These were the questions addressed by Katariina Mäkinen (University of Helsinki) in a recent paper for The Sociological Review. In this interview, she introduces this work and explains why working life coaching is so significant for life under contemporary capitalism.

What is working life coaching? How recent is it?

Workîng life coaching consists of practices that aim to help individuals and groups who seek to better their chances in seeking employment or are looking to advance their career in other ways. Coaching is a relatively new field of work that has grown rapidly over the last decade. At the moment there are no formal requirements for becoming a working life coach, so coaches have very varied backgrounds and educations.

What leads someone to seek out the services of a working life coach?

According to the coaches that I interviewed, people seek coaching in many different situations. Usually, however, the idea is that something related to work needs to change, and coaching is a short-term process that is sought to help that change happen. Coaching is often offered for individual clients who pay for themselves because they want to attain specific goals. However, organisations that are for example going through drastic changes can also hire coaches to help their employees adapt to new circumstances. In addition, I have also met coaches working for municipal organisations in which unemployed young people are coached in the hope that coaching would help them to find work or to learn skills that are considered to be necessary in working life. In these situations it is not the individuals themselves who seek out coaching but rather the organisations or authorities that expect them to take part in it.

What do working life coaches do exactly? What are the implications of this for how employment is interpreted?

Coaching usually consists of individual or group meetings that continue for a few months. In the beginning of these meetings, a goal is set for the whole coaching process, and then the process continues with for example personality tests or exercises that the clients do in order to achieve the set goal. The coaches that I interviewed were often a bit vague in their answers when I asked about the specific practices of coaching. They would rather talk about 'realising the inner potential of the individual', though what this means specifically is rather unclear. In general, it seems that coaching is for most part about discussing one's hopes and realities with the coach and getting feedback for both the exercises and tests and for the plans that one has and the actions that one takes. The focus on 'potential' is telling of how coaching is quite oriented towards the future but at the same time relies on something that is thought to already exist within the self. As it happens, coaching concentrates on the individual. This means that all the work that is done in coaching centers on changing oneself in order to achieve the goals that one wants to achieve. This is reflected in the practices of coaching in the sense that they demand self-reflexivity and focus on getting to know oneself and reflecting for instance on one's personality with the help of tests and exercises. In terms of employment, this means that questions that concern wider social structures or even organisational structures are left outside the scope of the things one needs to change. It thus begins to seem that change always starts within the individual self - and also that if there is a need for change it is the self that is at fault. In the case of unemployment then, for example, the structural reasons for unemployment are not accounted for but rather it is thought that if the individual just works hard enough to change themselves then they will also find employment - and if one is unemployed it just means that one has not yet found the 'true self' and the right goals that would solve the problem. In other words, if one does not find work, it is implied that this just means that one has not worked hard enough on improving oneself.

To what extent is working life coaching tied to very recent ideas of the autonomous and responsible individual?

The idea of the autonomous and responsible individual thus organizes coaching both in terms of focus and goals: coaching is about being and becoming autonomous, and it is the individual who is seen as solely responsible for their success or failure. The whole picture however is all together more complex, because the idea of becoming a 'better self' in coaching also includes the recognition that one is somehow lacking. There is thus also a kind of haunting acknowledgement that achieving a particular kind of individuality (becoming autonomous and responsible) is something that needs to be achieved and is not a given. I would even say that there is a real paradox between the expectation that everyone is an independent, autonomous and responsible individual and has 'hidden potential' and the idea of finding oneself in constant need of improvement.

How do you think working life coaching is regarded in the business world? Do high profile figures, such as those within the social media sector, contribute to a normalisation of the practice?

It seems to me that working life coaching has gained legitimacy in the business world. Many coaches have had long experience of operating in the business world before taking up coaching, and thus they also have good contacts and credibility. Furthermore, organisations seem quite ready to invest into coaching as such services often offer a way to outsource human resource management - in situations of changes in the workplace, for example, a coach might be brought in to 'manage' the employees' reactions. One of the coaches that I interviewed expressed frustration in facing client expectations of this kind when he sincerely wanted to be 'on the side of the employees'.

Do you expect that working life coaching will continue to grow? 

I do expect that working life coaching will continue to grow as it seems that it fits into many different trends: a continuing focus on self-management and self-care that is visible for instance in the emergence of not only working life coaching but 'life coaches' and personal trainers etc, a demand for services that help people to find work and to proceed in their careers (especially now in the context of austerity politics the idea of the responsible self and unemployment as individual failure is gaining ever more ground), a demand for services that help to steer organisations through changes, and last but not least the emergence of personalized entrepreneurship as a form of work.

Katariina Mäkinen is a postdoctoral researcher in the Collegium for Advanced Studies at the University of Helsinki.