Intervention on People Issues is a Red Herring

Intervention on People Issues is a Red Herring

Photo of some herring

Photo Credit: StuartWebster

In his typically assertive (cough) style, John Seddon in this video clip hits a particular nail on the head.

“Intervention on people issues is a red herring; but a popular red herring amongst Western management thinkers.”

~ John Seddon

It’s not that people don’t matter, it’s that there’s a paradox here: change the system and behaviour change comes for free. Also known as “don’t work on the 5%“.

Managers As Coaches

I’m writing this post because the implication for the trendy “managers as coaches” idea seems clear. If a manager is trying to coach a member of their staff, they’re not only “working on the 5%”, they’re also likely distracting themselves from their real job by spending less time working on the system.

“The productivity of work is not the responsibility of the worker but of the manager.”

~ Peter F. Drucker

How likely is it that coaching, whoever is doing it, is merely helping people cope better with the dysfunctions of the systems they find themselves working within? Not that an improved ability to cope with feelings of e.g. frustration, disempowerment and disengagement is without merit. But maybe that’s not what folks are looking to coaching to deliver?

Only when there’s a possibility of changing the system will coaching – specifically, coaching in how to change the system – provide any real value and meaningful change.

How often do coaches have any influence on – or recognised part to play in – such systemic change?

– Bob

Further Reading

Full Lean Iceland Panel Session – Vimeo video

  1. Hello Bob

    John Seddon is right, Drucker is right, and so is Robert Fritz for that matter. And they are battling against a fundamental underpinning of the western world. Can you guess what that is?

    How does one justify domination of another? By attributing agency – of rightness and wrongness. By making the other responsible for his performance irrespective of circumstance. It is even captured in our English legal system. How? By the dictum: ignorance of the law is not an excuse. Now you have to get that, really get it. Do you have any idea how many laws there are? Can you even give me a number?

    To give up that stance that the individual is responsible and accept the stance that the system is that which generates performance is a revolution. If this stance was accepted then who would have to carry the burden? The Tops. See the beauty and viciousness of it. Suddenly, the Tops cannot dominate, cannot moralise, cannot make others wrong, cannot punish. Instead they have to take responsibility. Tops would have to be accountable for the functioning of the system.

    How many people in government have taken responsibility for the financial crisis that has brought this country to its knees? How many banker Tops have taken responsibility for the financial crisis? How many regulators have taken responsibility for the financial crisis? The same questions applies to the nhs Mid Staff scandal. Or the phone hacking scandal. What you find instead, is that the Tops always shift responsibility and blame to someone, something, else. Who is the government blaming for the economic mess and punishing? The people at the very bottom. The ones that have had nothing to do with it. The powerless.

    So, my friend, few are likely to listen to your sage advice. They didn’t with Deming. They didn’t with Drucker. And mostly they do not listen to Seddon either.


  2. Interesting post Bob, and a valid challenge to coaches generally. My view would be “it depends” on what the coaching contract is about.

    It could be focused on an individual within the system (who feels they have little influence) and what they want to focus on are personal development matters. For example, they may want to explore how to deal with challenging work colleagues more effectively, or they may want to overcome some blocks and de-railers they experience when doing presentations. In these instances, any improvements that the individual makes in handling these situations, may, or may not, alter the overall ‘system’. Indeed, I would like to think that the more people who undertake some form of raising of self-awareness (whether through coaching or by some other method), the more that the ‘system’ will benefit from positive change – perhaps when a critical mass of people have been impacted.

    Of course, other individuals (perhaps more senior and more influential people – e.g. on the Board), may, as a result of coaching (whether the reason for coaching in the first place or as a result of awakening during the process), develop a realisation that addressing the ‘system’ is actually the best way to drive change, improvement and greater productivity through the wider business. Ways that they can go about creating the right environment, bringing on board the right team, articulating the right message etc. may then become the focus of further coaching.

  3. Hi Maz,

    Thanks for joining the conversation.

    I generally agree with your interpretation, and it goes way back. Have you read Bertrand Russell’s essay “In Praise of Idleness” for example?

    Although, I feel pained because of the incongruities between your espoused theory (attribution of agency is part of the problem) and your theory-in-action (holding the Tops responsible, in itself attribution of agency).

    And have you yet read Walter Wink on the (global) Domination System in which we live?

    – Bob

    • Hello Bob
      Yes, I have read Bertrand Russell’s essay. Actually, it is by reading Russell that I got interested in philosophy. As you say the issue goes a long way back.

      And I thank you for pointing out the gulf between my espoused theory and my theory in action. If often takes an outsider to enable me to see that which is staring right at me. So let me put it a different way.

      This is how the system tends to work based on my experience. In a domination system human being avoid responsibility so that they can avoid blame and punishment. This applies to all of us including Tops. Yet, someone has to be held responsible. And in the normal course of events, it is the Tops holding the Bottoms accountable via the Middles. Now and then uprisings occur which involve the Bottoms and Middles. And some of these turn into revolutions. There is a change of players filling the roles of Tops, Middles, Bottoms. And the game goes on.

      For my part, I am clear that I participate in the game and thus facilitate the ongoing drama.

      All the best

  4. Bob,

    I enjoyed the Seddon video very much, his body language is so “transparent”!

    It is not a simple topic to cover, just look at Donella Meadows 12 leverage points of a system. When you head towards the low numbers, changing mind-set and ability to transcend paradigms I can’t help but feel this could be interpreted as an intervention on the people, it clearly is different to the mindless motivation programmes Mr. Seddon is rallying against, but it makes me think!

    Thanks again for spotting it,


  5. Hi Bob

    You have a great example of ‘coaching’ right here in this set of comments. Maz writes;

    ‘And I thank you for pointing out the gulf between my espoused theory and my theory in action. If often takes an outsider to enable me to see that which is staring right at me’

    On the (I suspect highly likely) expectation that this leads Maz into new thinking and that in turn affects elements of the systems he operates within, then is that not an example of how coaching can be a tool that leads to something significant at a system level?

    That to me, sums up the potential value of coaching as a catalyst for system change. As an outsider helping people in organisations shine a light into their blind spots.

    After all – systems change when the people inside them change…and change the system and you change the people…and change the people and you change the system…and..

    Not that this means that all coaching delivers at this level, or is required to do. As Louis says – its all about the contract.

    I’d takes that a bit further – its all about the contracting process (i.e. contracting in coaching is a continuous process, shaping the conversation and being shaped by the conversation).

    Coaching is a multi-purpose tool – it’s a How. The outcomes depend on the What and Why questions being asked well and often.

  6. Hi Bob,
    Interesting points here, very thought provoking. The first thing that strikes me is the Seddon seems utterly unaware of his place in the unfolding systemics here. In other words, if you sound like an unsympathetic c**t and come across as such, then people will rightly treat you in that way. Of course there is wisdom in what he says… however, his mode of saying it shows for me a logician’s mind rather than a canny influencer’s. Or are we expected to bow before his amazing wisdom in gratitude and sign up? If the latter, he could be waiting a long time… 🙂

  7. Bob, great post. And it is encouraging that the conversation in the commentary is not only respectful but sustaining.

    I’d like to give some attention to two notions that the previous two commenters touched on.

    John S. suggests that there is possibility in coaching the 5%, if directed at the actors that have real leverage to change the system, thereby producing real change. This rings very true to me, though it is maddening to see how much we intervene where there is little to no leverage. Classic fixes that fail.

    Secondly, commenter Mark takes note of what I reacted to as well — Seddon’s manner of delivering his message. He is spot on with his point, but off-putting with his manner. I am heartened by the fact that you are providing the means of extending his influence, and the fact that we’re discussing the point is hopeful. Yet, I fear he only resonates with the choir; his preaching will not affect changed thinking in those not sharing his perspective.

    It is not enough to be right; it is also necessary to be helpful;

    Very glad I found your work here and thank you.

  8. Sean said:

    How often do coaches have a part to play in directly changing the system? Not enough. However by coaching people working within that system, would you not agree that there is an opportunity, indirectly, to change the system?

    I agree that once the system is changed behaviours naturally fall into place. However do you not think that more emphatic results are achieved when the driving force comes from those most affected?

  9. Tobias said:

    Perhaps if we understand that the people ARE the system (people create it, people maintain it) then “coaching people” and “changing the system” become one and the same thing.

    Certainly, encouraging managers to “coach” their people within the confines of a broken system is worse than pointless—it actually perpetuates the brokenness. But that is not how I see coaching. I see it as a raising of awareness, a shared journey towards a better future.

    Good post—a great thing to draw attention to in this time of (ahem) modern leadership. Gulp!

  10. Hi Bob, love your writings, and enjoyed this one very much.

    I think the word coach is not completely understood here. I define coach as it is defined by the International Coaching Federation and will use that as a base in my reply.

    “How likely is it that coaching, whoever is doing it, is merely helping people cope better with the dysfunctions of the systems they find themselves working within? ”
    – Coaching is about Transformation (changing the system, personal or organizational), not just about coping. In fact, helping Transformation is the #1 job of a coach. The coach should be having courageous conversations about the work of Transformation and helping to keep them accountable. I would call not doing this cowardly coaching. It is about Coaching for Change not Coaching to Cope, although the latter may be necessary at times.

    “I’m writing this post because the implication for the trendy “managers as coaches” idea seems clear. If a manager is trying to coach a member of their staff, they’re not only “working on the 5%”, they’re also likely distracting themselves from their real job by spending less time working on the system.”.
    -The coach helps people do the work of Transformation, how else do you change a system, without people doing the changing?

    “Managers As Coaches”
    -Managers may take a coaching communication style, but, manager as a coach is not possible IMO. The goals of the coach is to hold the coachee’s agenda and their transformation. The manager has her own agenda and incentives.

    “Only when there’s a possibility of changing the system” – There is always a possibility. A coach helps people see these possibilities so they can choose and move to action.

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