Original Research

The coaching experience as identity work: Reflective metaphors

Linda Steyn, Antoni Barnard
SA Journal of Industrial Psychology | Vol 50 | a2132 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/sajip.v50i0.2132 | © 2024 Linda Steyn, Antoni Barnard | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 08 August 2023 | Published: 13 March 2024

About the author(s)

Linda Steyn, Department of Industrial and Organisational Psychology, College of Economic and Management Sciences, University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa
Antoni Barnard, Department of Industrial and Organisational Psychology, College of Economic and Management Sciences, University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa


Orientation: Coaching facilitates identity work, and metaphors are often used in coaching to make sense of the self.

Research purpose: To explore coaching clients’ coaching experience as expressed through metaphors, from an identity work perspective.

Motivation for the study: The use of metaphor in coaching has not been realised, and coaching as a vehicle for identity work is underexplored.

Research approach/design and method: A hermeneutic phenomenological methodology and qualitative design directed the study. Face-to-face, semi-structured interviews were conducted with seven clients who had participated in a coaching programme. Reflective metaphors from the interviews constituted the data set, which was analysed through hermeneutic phenomenological analysis.

Main findings: Guided by identity theory, four themes were co-constructed from the data, which describe how coaching develops a self-processing competence reflected in these iterative cycles: (1) self-exploration and self-reflection; (2) self-awareness and self-insight; (3) self-acceptance and self-determination; and (4) self-actualisation and self-transcendence. These cycles of identity work align with transactional and transformational identity work to enable construction of an independent and interdependent self.

Practical/managerial implications: The findings highlight the value of metaphors as a self-reflective sensemaking tool. Coaching is aligned with integrated transactional and transformational identity work, which can be used to assess the transformational value of coaching as a process.

Contribution/value-add: The study describes the personal transformational value of coaching through metaphors, and it establishes identity work as a key process outcome of successful coaching. The findings offer a novel conceptualisation of transactional and transformational identity work as a process perspective to effective coaching.


coaching; identity theory; identity work; metaphor; sensemaking; transformation; hermeneutic phenomenological analysis

JEL Codes

E71: Role and Effects of Psychological, Emotional, Social, and Cognitive Factors on the Macro Economy; I31: General Welfare, Well-Being; M12: Personnel Management • Executives; Executive Compensation; O15: Human Resources • Human Development • Income Distribution • Migration

Sustainable Development Goal

Goal 3: Good health and well-being


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