Praise & Criticism: GROW Coaching Model
This article is an extension to our "In a Nutshell" series. To read our original overview of The GROW Coaching Model, click here. In this article, we will explore some of the praise and criticism around the GROW Coaching Model.
Coaching has become increasingly widespread as a business management technique and maintains a reputation as a ‘go-to’ tool for L&D professionals. In a report released by Henley Business School, individual coaching was found to be—by far—the most popular learning and development intervention used in 2014 by companies across 38 countries.
In a landmark study called Project Oxygen, which was conducted by Google’s HR team (known as ‘People Operations’), eight golden rules for good management were identified. ‘Be a good coach’ was rated as number one, while having key technical skills was rated number eight. Other similar research findings have supported the growing view in business that being a good manager is synonymous with being a good coach.
Many coaches and managers like the GROW model for its simplicity. As a short, four-letter acronym, it is easier to remember than some of the other comparable coaching models (for example, the OUTCOMES model: Objectives, Understanding, Take Stock, Clarify, Options, Motivate, Encourage, Support). In addition to being easy to recall, many coaching professionals find it versatile, practical, and applicable to any type of coaching scenario.
Rather than having an aimless conversation between two people that drifts in different directions with no clear purpose, the GROW model allows the coach to draw the coachee back to the relevant issues. This not only saves time, but helps ensure the conversation is conducive to attaining the goal at hand—and properly guided in that direction.
GROW, people sometimes forget, is a template structure that can be easily transferred to a wide variety of situations that deal with problem-solving. Because problem-solving itself is a daily activity for people of all ages, GROW could arguably be said to be one of the most useful and important mental models ever developed. The idea that it is simply a coaching model to be used in limited circumstances may be underestimating its potential value.
In this broad sense as a problem-solving tool, GROW extends beyond its person-to-person boundaries that are sometimes imposed and becomes a process that individuals can apply to daily situations without the need for a coach. In line with the old adage, ‘Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime’, reinforced use of the GROW model in the business setting over time will, if applied correctly, become a part of one’s natural decision-making process and lead to better results in general. This is connected to the first habit in Covey’s 7 Habits model: be proactive. For example, instead of employees coming to their manager with problems, GROW can be used to teach people the importance of thinking through options and solutions before requesting their manager’s help. This not only saves time for the manager but also should (in theory) lead to better decision-making from employees.
Another major strength of the GROW model is its many contributors. The advantage of having many authors is that new suggestions and adaptations have been added to the original design, which offer more options than if the model were only intended to be used in a specific way with standard definitions and a limited set of questions. In a strict interpretation of the basic model, one might assume that the process is a linear progression from G through to W. The nature of coaching is sometimes that information is brought to light in later conversations that may affect one’s goal. For example, if the coachee states their intention of getting an MBA in the Goal step, the coach may later discover, by asking questions in the Reality step, that this goal may negatively impact the coachee’s personal relationship due to stress and time commitments. For this reason, the individual may decide they wish to change the type of qualification or reconsider it entirely. This requires moving back a step and redefining the goal—and perhaps examining the reasons for establishing the goal in the first place.
The GROW model’s longevity and popularity also serve as key strengths. It is generally well liked and accepted in business, which means that winning support from management is a lot easier than a scenario involving the presentation of a coaching methodology that is new and untested. The fact that management and leadership theory is generally very welcoming of coaching theory, and the business community is increasingly recognising that a good manager needs to be a good coach, are further advantages that may help those who are thinking about introducing GROW in a business setting.
There has been little to no empirical research conducted on the use of coaching models and the effectiveness of session structure on learning and performance outcomes. The large number of anecdotal reports from coaches, psychologists, and counsellors attesting to the GROW model’s usefulness does not serve to support its effectiveness from an evidence-based, scientific standpoint.
GROW has been the subject of numerous modifications, reinterpretations, and differing descriptions on what should happen in each step and the type of questions that are most effective. This has engendered a level of conceptual confusion about which version of the model is the best one to use. There are also some suggestions that the original GROW model is incomplete and has been superseded by better versions. Although most coaches are probably not aware, there exist several recent, modified, competing variations of the GROW model including T-GROW, I-GROW, SO-I-GROW, and RE-GROW.
Some have argued that these newer GROW models are more practical and more complete versions than the original, but again, without an evidence base to substantiate these accounts, such claims would need to be considered cautiously.
For example, the authors of the RE-GROW model (Green & Grant, 2009) affix the letters R (Review) and E (Evaluate) before a hyphen, indicating the two steps should be considered in quick succession before initiating the remainder of the GROW sequence. They explain that ‘each coaching session should start with a process of reviewing and evaluating the learnings and actions completed since the last session’. This ensures that coaching sessions flow from one meeting to the next and the coaching process does not become a series of rigid, disjointed conversations. In addition, the GROW part of the model in this new version is represented as a cycle, so that the Wrap-Up step feeds back into the Goal step. This representation of the model makes it explicit to the coach that conversations in later steps may affect the way in which the coachee’s goal is defined—thus treating the conversation as a dynamic process. Although some authors argue that this is the way the original model was intended to be used, Whitmore did not represent it graphically in this way in Coaching for Performance—it was represented as a step-by-step flow chart. Critics are keen to point out that amateur coaches tend to overlook this aspect for this very reason.
Whitmore has previously cautioned against using the GROW model in a bureaucratic way, since he never intended for it to be used as a strict formula. He once noted in an interview: ‘People get stuck on it and they feel they have to go with that sequence… it’s wrong to see it as some kind of Holy Grail.’ The fact that Whitmore acknowledges that people get stuck can, in and of itself, potentially be considered a criticism of his communication of the model.
The above article, exploring some of the praise and criticism of The GROW Coaching Model, was extracted from a chapter covering the model in the book "40 Must-Know Business Models for Leaders" by Theo Winter.
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Client Services Manager, Writer & Researcher. Theo is one of the youngest professionals in the world to earn an accreditation in TTI Success Insight's suite of psychometric assessments. For more than a decade, he worked with hundreds of HR, L&D and OD professionals and consultants to improve engagement, performance and emotional intelligence of leaders and their teams. He authored the book "40 Must-Know Business Models for People Leaders."