Psycho-Washing: When Corporate Coaching is NOT the Answer

Otti Vogt
7 min readFeb 18, 2023



In spite of millions of hours spent on corporate coaching in the last few decades it appears that neither the world has become much wiser, nor that our societies or organisations are flourishing more. In fact, our mainly psychological approach to leadership development and coaching has not resulted in much elevation of collective consciousness; or such greater awareness does not appear to translate into more responsible (collective) action. Hence, I will argue that coaching is at risk of becoming part of “psycho washing” — a social deflection and “defense mechanism” against more substantial, principled change and true ethical responsibility.

The Growing Psychologification of Leadership Development

As we all know, opinions on leadership development abound. Hundreds of theories, tools and case studies are advanced daily, with much conviction and fanciful alliterations, by self-declared and pluri-vocal leadership “professionals” — authors, academics, social media influences, HR practitioners and managers, coaches and consultants… Beliefs and worldviews vary widely, reaching from blatantly neoliberal to obscurely esoteric. However, what unites the suggestions of many such “thought leaders” is a limited appreciation of ethics —and the lack of deeper questioning of what makes an action — or its actor — good.

Hence, maybe it comes as no surprise that below all the polaroid cacophony of leadership theories a growing consensus is evolving, to endorse and promote a “scientific” and psychological lens for leadership development. Fashionable concepts, borrowed from sociological research, like “self-determination theory”, “fearless organisations”, “flow”, “self-management”, “growth mindsets”, “psychological safety”, “emotional intelligence”, “intrinsic motivation”, “authenticity”, “human-centric”, etc, dominate the discussions.

But of course, the substitution of philosophy with psychology is deeply problematic. Human development must always start with the question of purpose: what is development for? What does it mean to become better? Similarly, for leadership development: what does it mean to lead responsibly? How can we make work good, or create a good organisation?

Herein lies the moral myopia of descriptive science, including psychology — we can observe behaviours or feelings, collect and torture data, and run regression analyses until the end of time: it will never tell us what we should do, how we should lead a good life or create a good economy. Science CANNOT answer normative questions. And maybe worse, inductive science is predicated on the idea of cause-and-effect. We observe human behaviours to derive general rules — everything is the result of something else. This is where people fail to understand Kant’s profound “transcendental” critique of Hume’s empiricism — if we allow scientific positivism to make human feelings, thoughts and behaviours slave to deterministic rules of materialism there CAN BE no true and moral freedom.

The Fatal Flaws of (Positive) Psychology

Sadly, the insufficient examination of ideological premises in psychology (and the deeply flawed conversion of descriptive observations into normative ideals) has a long tradition: “The rejection of moral free-will is an inheritance of the divorce between empirical and rational Psychology of the 19th century which leads to an increasing mutual rejection between Psychology and Ethics. As Erich Fromm declared: “Psychoanalysis, in an attempt to establish Psychology as a natural science, made the mistake of divorcing Psychology from problems of Philosophy and Ethics. It ignored the fact that human personality cannot be understood unless we look at man in his totality.”

By the same token, “positive” psychology, which has accumulated a worldwide fandom in both academia and practice, fails to fully integrate ethical and emotional understanding. By “scientifically” transmuting observed “states” or “feelings” into normative ideals of “normal” psychological functioning, or by seeking to identify and install allegedly “positively deviant” behaviours, without a deeper understanding of what makes “positive” good, it simply reifies Platonic shadows.

In addition, no scientific research is truly ideologically neutral — the often-hailed “objectivity” of science is pure fiction. Accordingly, intrinsic to much of modern coaching and psychology is an often unexamined desire for the “liberation” of the individual, especially from external control and authority (which, of course, are not the same). Seeking development for freedom, as an end in itself, such science fails to promote development as freedom — as a disruptive “vertical” force to enable co-elevation and bring to life the human spirit for good.

(Note: I want to make a special mention here of the work of Jane Dutton and Monica Worline who go much deeper in their attempt to put “Positive Organisational Scholarship” on a more ethical foundation. You can find our interview with both of them on the website.)

The Coaching Conundrum

And here enters the booming and wildly unregulated market of corporate coaching. Coaches from every background and orientation boldly promise to turn the “scientific” insights about individual, team and leadership development into actionable corporate interventions. Performance coaching, as practiced by pre-eminent global associations like the ICF, often builds on limited ideas of individual psychology and behaviourism — with interventions that frequently fail to explore wider systemic, institutional and societal contexts, and avoid to critically — and ethically — examine personal, commercial and business objectives. Initiatives like John Knight’s Transpersonal Coaching (“Leading Beyond the Ego”), Joan Lurie’s Organisational Role Analysis (exploring patterns and conflicts in organizational (sub-)systems), or Simon Western’s Analytical Network Coaching (seeking eco-systemic leadership) are hopeful outliers, rather than the rule. Unwittingly, and certainly often unwillingly, many practitioners thus quickly become henchmen of the status quo.

Of course, it always takes two to tango. When coaches get hired, they are rarely invited to question, or develop their coachees’ capacity to challenge the existing organisational setup. Habitually, coaches get engaged by superiors or HR to make some executive or team “behave more effectively” within a given system. Moreover, frequently, even well-intentioned practitioners feel obliged to position their work in the context of, ultimately, increasing business performance. This can lead to a highly unsatisfactory dynamic:

  • For companies and their executives, coaching becomes a convenient signal to demonstrate willingness in addressing more deeply-rooted “human” problems of organisations, whilst purposefully or unconsciously avoiding to really question ethical premises and power structures.
  • For coaches there is a convenient pretense to work within the “boundaries of the possible”, continuing to purport “psychological improvements” of the individuals as signs of success and tokens of personal significance.
  • Coachees can abdicate their accountability for any more substantive change to the coach(ing): “my coach told me I was doing really well. Since we sorted my stress triggers, I feel a much better leader.”

Consequentially, coaching is collectively instrumentalised to further instrumentalise organisational members within the current system, endorsing what Mats Alvesson calls “functional stupidity” — at the end, everybody is busy and feels good about it.

But we shouldn’t. When we manipulate human and organisational systems simply because we can, based on a glorified understanding and exploitation of psychological mechanisms, we are ignoring the underlying ethical challenges at our own peril. Today the ability of large and global corporations to do harm (or good) is greater than ever. Hence, it is in all our interest to ensure that people in leadership roles are well equipped to face the increasingly complex challenges of modern business and society. And the simple fact is that today’s world and organisations need not only therapy — to cope with “trauma” and alleged problems of “self-realisation”, or the lack of interpersonal kindness —but require wisdom and moral development, to progress individual and collective “self-ACTUALisation” (*).

More specifically, leaders whose roles come intrinsically with great institutional power must possess the capacity to wield that power wisely — based on a mature ethical stance. Such responsible leadership requires not only formal codes of conduct, but “epistemic fluency” — the “meta-cognitive” capacity to hold our beliefs and paradigms “object” and explore multiple worldviews carefully, and “ethical literacy” — the ability to make abductive value judgements in order to determine and eventually embody a “good” course of action, by influencing the wider system. The point is not just to “follow the heart”, or simply feel “positive”, but also to be cœurageous enough to “change heart” in order to increase our ability to responsibly face the complex problems we are dealing with.

A Case For Ethical Coaching

Of course, all of this begs the more fundamental question: how could anyone who is not able (or willing) to really qualify what constitutes “good acting”, or what makes a “good organisation”, possibly support leadership development? Regrettably, when coaches or consultants do not invest sufficiently into a “philosophical” analysis of their own assumptions and beliefs, they must fail to enable their coachees or clients to do so: we can never take others where we have not been ourselves. Hence, it is indeed surprising that we often talk about the morality of leaders, but seem to care much less about the ethical convictions of those who develop our leaders behind the scenes. (By the way — I do not mean “ethics of coaching”, i.e. how to responsibly take up the role of a coach, but the “ethics of leadership”, i.e. how to be a responsible leader).

Maybe, at least for professional coaches it is time to acknowledge that psychology and philosophy are inseparable twins. Coaches engaged in leadership development must be able to support the cultivation of moral identity, emotions and character required of their entrusted leaders and their organisations.

I will therefore suggest that anyone working in coaching or (non-clinical) psychoanalysis in businesses must acquire a reasonable mastery of business ethics and moral education, in order not to mistake problems of the “unconscious” with challenges of “conscience”. Otherwise, paradoxically, many of our friends and colleagues in coaching and development practices might earnestly seek to do good, but could easily end up making things worse… by making bad leadership more successful.

In the meantime, we should stop pretending that we can fix bad organizations or the shortfalls of capitalism with more coaching — it simply won’t work.

(*) Self-actualisation here refers to an ethical theory of development, where the actor cultivates their “best” self in every moment, bringing out their essential good. Rather than “self-realisation” which arguably is aimed often at the external and material achievement of “success”.

An interesting article here (The suggested Christian ontology has ofc its own challenges): DEFENSE MECHANISMS: DETERMINED OR ETHICAL CHOICES OR BOTH?

#leadership #transformation #coaching #psychology #goodorganisations #personaldevelopment #organisationaldevelopment



Otti Vogt

Disruptive thinker, amateur poet and passionate global C-level transformation leader with over 20 years of experience in cross-cultural strategic change