Leadership Coaching Tip

Russ Volckmann

Watch out for SHAMs

It has become pretty clear that self-help programs do not, in themselves, work. Evidence to the contrary is anecdotal, as far as I can discover. Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic, recently published a short article in Scientific American debunking self-help from fire walking to Tony Robbins. “Do these programs work? No one knows…no scientific evidence indicates that any of the countless SHAM techniques – from fire walking to 12-stepping – works better than doing something else or even doing nothing.” One telling piece of evidence for this is that the most likely purchasers of self-help books are people who have previously bought self-help books. As Shermer points out, one would think that if the books helped or worked, people wouldn’t have to buy more.

There is no doubt that people can learn about some things and apply that learning to their lives and their contexts. Skills can be practiced and learned, including analytic skills that are focused on building capacity for taking different perspectives and building empathy—two important emotional intelligences. And each of us has had the experience of learning about a new skill or perspective and then just dropping it, forgetting about it, allowing it to fall into disuse. This happens with communications skills, with meditation or journaling, with virtually all self-development activities. And, of course, for each of us some of these “stick.” We meditate consistently or remind ourselves to be aware. They do not stick, however, unless we practice them.

Enter coaching! An important role of the coach is to work with clients to identify what is important to them, to clarify the path they want to begin on, to adjust the path when needed, and to practice the skills that support their doing this. For example. I work with some clients on improving their productivity. This involves learning some new habits and displacing long lived ones. This is usually not an easy task. It is akin to giving up smoking—an experience often marked by failure before success is achieved. Giving up an old habit requires practice. Of course, for a few changing one habit may be a simple life choice accomplished in an instant. But for learning other new habits and using them appropriately, practice is still required. Coaching supports practice. Simple and quick change is relatively rare. In the process coaches and clients alike can attend to the risk of SHAMs on the path.