Coaching Works – But What Kind Of Coaching?

It’s fairly well established that coaching works. For example, a meta-analysis of studies of workplace coaching in 2015 shows a strong positive effect on individual performance, and smaller but still positive effects on skills, mood and motivation.

But the term ‘coaching’ covers a wide range of approaches, from a strong emphasis on rapport and listening at one end of the spectrum, through data-based approaches such as 360º feedback, all the way to the more ‘kickass’ style of pushing the coachee to set high performance goals and then ‘holding them accountable’.

What Research Tells Us About Effective Coaching

Research on what style of coaching is most effective has been fairly hard to find up to now. A 2018 paper by Richard Boyatzis and Anthony Jack used brain imaging to study the effects of two styles of coaching, that they call coaching with compassion and coaching for compliance.

Their study used fMRI brain scans to see which areas of the brain were activated by the two contrasting styles of coaching. The coaching sessions were designed to activate either the ‘positive emotional attractor’ (PEA) or the ‘negative emotional attractor’ (NEA).

(I should add that the idea of an ‘emotional attractor’ is an academic construct rather than a physical structure in the brain. It’s a metaphor drawn from the abstruse mathematics of chaos theory, and one that I find not that helpful, as it makes the researchers’ findings less accessible to the general reader.
Essentially the ‘positive emotional attractor’ means a state of feeling good, a state that is stable enough to persist for a good while. The ‘negative emotional attractor’ is the same, but for a stressed and defensive state.)

The PEA or ‘coaching for compassion’ session was 30 minutes of a coach asking the test subject to set out their ideal vision of what their work and personal life would look like 10 to 15 years in the future. This was found to activate the default mode network (DMN), a network of brain structures associated with motivation, positive emotion, social and emotional connection, and openness to new ideas. Interestingly, it also increased visual thinking, which is useful for creativity.

The NEA or ‘coaching for compliance’ session (with a different coach) focused on the challenges and problems facing the test subjects, and how well they were handling the expectations placed on them. This was found to activate a different network in the brain, the task positive network (TPN), which is associated with detailed problem solving but also with stress, ‘avoidance’ rather than ‘approach’ motivation, self-consciousness and defensiveness, and a tendency to see other people just as means to the end of achieving goals.

In questionnaires sent to the participants after their coaching sessions, the PEA coach was seen as more trusting, more caring, and much more personally inspiring. The NEA coach was seen as slightly more abrasive, and inducing feelings of guilt, being judged, and obligation.

Implications For Coaches (And Managers)

The authors conclude that:

the best way to engage a mind-set that will lead to sustained effort in learning or change is to coach in a manner that first engages and then sustains the individual’s own vision of his or her dreams and aspirations. In contrast, many coaches (or helpers/managers) focus from the start on the problems and challenges that an individual faces and then coach in a manner that ends up being driven by their own expectations and their desire to fix or resolve the issues for the other person. Although this approach is well intentioned, in practice it tends to activate a mind-set that results in defensiveness and the closing down of the individual’s perceptual, cognitive, and motivated openness to change. In other words, it only increases the psychological burden on someone who is already feeling challenged by life circumstances.

From my own experience in coaching I would add that even before looking at the individual’s goals and aspirations, we should first take care to establish rapport so that they feel ‘safe’ and listened to.

Also, from facilitating and teaching Appreciative Inquiry, I’ve found that focusing first on what is working in the coachee’s current experience, and what has worked well in the past, makes it easier for them to imagine and believe in a future vision.

So – if you’re the kind of coach that dives straight into looking at problems and what stops people achieving their goals, you will maybe get better results for your clients if you switch your approach to ensuring a good relationship, focusing first on their aspirations, and easing them into a good emotional state before they get down to the details of how to achieve their goals and solve their problems.

Source: Richard Boyatzis and Anthony Jack, The neuroscience of coaching. Consulting Psychology Journal Practice and Research 70(1):11-27 · March 2018

This article used to be behind a paywall but is now free to read!

You can also read their 2013 paper that originally reported their coaching and fMRI study here.

Why Coaching With Compassion Works Better Than Coaching For Compliance – The Neuroscience Of Coaching

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