Systemic Coaching: Attending to Whole, Part, and Greater Whole

Systemic coaching extends our interactions with our clients to encompass the broader context and considers the larger system in which we all operate.

"Systemic coaching . . .explores the relationship between the part and the whole, aiming to unlock the potential and performance of both.”  —John Whittington

I’m working from home most of the time, as a consultant, mentor and coach. Sometimes limits are difficult to establish:

  • My office is one room in my house.
  • I take advantage of breaks to do some housekeeping stuff.
  • The extension of home is almost inevitable.
  • Amazon comes with a delivery while I’m a meeting.
  • Unexpected interruptions are often impacting more than I would like to.
  • The works on the street are so noisy that I can’t open the window to get fresh air.
  • I’m not alone, the environment affects my comfortability.
  • I meet family members or friends for lunch.
  • The community interactions are welcome and nice.

We are all interconnected, deeply embedded in social structures, and keenly aware of the impact we have on one another and the larger community. But how does this interconnectedness work? What are the subtle dynamics at play, and how can we uncover and understand them? These are the questions that we seek to address when we use a systemic approach to coaching in the complexity of human systems.   

Traditionally, coaching has been seen as a process that enhances personal and professional life experiences, focusing on individual self-awareness and goal attainment. Systemic coaching extends this framework to encompass the broader context and considers the larger system in which we all operate. John Whittington defines systemic coaching as “an approach that coaches the individual or team with the entire system in mind. It explores the relationship between the part and the whole, aiming to unlock the potential and performance of both.” This means coaching must deliver value not only to the coachee but to all constituents, including those they lead, colleagues, investors, customers, partners, the local community, and the wider ecological context. Systemic coaching tackles system dynamics at these different scales. In considering human systems as complex adaptive systems (CAS), the coach introduces a new dimension to coaching relationship. It draws the coach and the coachee to consider the patterns emerging from the multiple connections that exist.

In addressing complex adaptive systems (CAS), as defined by Kevin Dooley (1997), we encounter semi-autonomous agents interacting interdependently to create system-wide patterns. These patterns, in turn, influence the behavior of others within the system. In human systems, at various scales, we witness the emergence of patterns resulting from interactions among the agents. As Glenda Eoyang states, these patterns can take many forms:

  • Shared attitudes shape patterns of health or work within a team or community.
  • In organizations or businesses or even as individuals, people play out their roles, relationships, and expectations to generate patterns, such as competition or innovation or dependence. These patterns of interaction emerge as dominant, recognizable characteristics.
  • In organizations and communities and for individuals, history, traditions, and expectations influence behavior, shaping dominant patterns recognized as the culture of that group.

When dealing with complex adaptive systems, individuals must explore multiple levels of the systems where they live, work, or play. They explore how their interactions—and others’—generate the dominant patterns that shape their realities.

Identifying and understanding these patterns, particularly discerning which are dominant, can empower you as a coach to make better-informed choices about your next wise actions. And that knowledge can empower your coachees toward their better choices as well. By working to influence these dominant patterns toward greater fitness across the whole system, systemic coaching can create positive impacts at multiple levels.

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