Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Strengths-based coaching - Work in Progress

Coaching is a multi-billion pound business globally, and more and more attention is directed toward demonstrating its impact. A lot of available research deals with the coachee's perceptions of change rather than using more objective measures of impact, but a new paper, currently under review, uses data from a range of stakeholders to see how coaching translates to genuine organisational impact. Here we have an early look at this piece of research.

Doug MacKie's research attempts to settle several methodological issues. The first is that coaching has many potential impacts, not all of which are easy to anticipate. As I've said before, "when the problem is extremely ill-defined, applying a 'treatment' (in the scientific sense) and then seizing on any changes as proof of this treatment being effective is problematic."

To solve this, MacKie used a pre-defined and well-understood set of criteria, the Bass and Avolio Full Range Leadership model. Widely used, it covers behaviours that are transformational, transactional - both desired - as well as behaviours from the more harmful avoidant and laissez-faire styles. As this model has been implemented in a 360-degree feedback format, the MLQ-360, it's possible to gather the data from others.

A further problem is what it is about the coaching experience that is actually useful. So, this study utilised manualisation, meaning that session by session, the coaching proceeded "by the book".

In the study, 37 senior managers were recruited into two groups. Members of the first received coaching while those in the second were placed on a waiting list. At the start of the study participants were rated on their leadership skills by themselves and others known to them using the MLQ-360 tool. The coaching group then received six sessions of strengths-based coaching, which involves identifying strengths, and developing them through pursuit of appropriate goals.

Both groups were then retested with the MLQ-360. Somewhat anomalously, both the coaching *and* waitlist groups showed an improvement in the overall leadership score, but the effect size for the coaching group was three times greater, and statistically significantly different from the wait group.

At this point, the waitlist group received their coaching, and at the end of this all participants were rated on leadership for a third time. The group that got coaching second saw a rise in leadership scores, and the first-coached group continued to improve in performance even though they received no further coaching. From the start of the study, therefore, leadership scores rose at every measurement point whether participants had just received coaching or not.

Although we can interpret the continuing climb of the first-coached group as showcasing just how powerful coaching is, there is also the risk that the Hawthorne Effect is kicking in (see link, briefly, people temporarily increase performance when there are novel observers examining them). However, MacKie also measured how closely coachees adhered to the coaching process, both through their own reported accounts, and through scoring of manuals and workbooks used in the process. As both measures were significant predictors of final leadership scores, it gives us some assurance that the specific coaching method has some impact. Data demonstrating improved leadership using a non-self report measure is heartening to those who practice or receive coaching.. Let's await the reviewers' verdict.

As MacKie states, we may now be at the time “to compare conditions and methodologies to find the optimum blend of critical components of effective coaching”. While there is increasing evidence that coaching is an effective intervention, compared to doing nothing, I'm after more compelling evidence to why this approach to facilitating human development is valuable.

Does time spent coaching lead to better outcomes than if it were spent reading a self-help book, writing about challenges, or discussing things with a friend or non-coaching business advisor? MacKie's data on adherence is a step in this direction, but to determine coaching's return on investment we still have a way to go.

Further reading:
Bass, B. M. (1999). Two decades of research and development in transformational leadership. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 8, 9-32


  1. Good grief. Has all the recent publicity about the need to control for differential expectations not reached these "researchers"?

  2. Good article that makes an attempt to measure some ROI and add some science to the sometimes flaky claims of a lot of life & business coaches.

  3. Not sure wether Barney's comment is a joke along with the name but if you read the article, we used an active control group design that had the same expectations as the coaching first group - hence their increase in TL scores while waiting for their coaching. So in what way would expectation have been different between groups?

  4. Good article that makes an attempt to measure some ROI and add some science to the sometimes flaky claims of a lot of life & business coaches.

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