Quick Summary: Explore the affective, cognitive and skill outcomes of Business Coaching. Let a meta-analysis from 2023 be your jumping board to answer the ultimate question: What could coaching mean for me?
There’s a well-known phenomenon called the scientist-practitioner gap. On the one side of the gap, we find scientists. This might be a group of psychologists working at different universities collaborating to publish evidence-based research about coaching. While on the other side, we find practitioners: coaches with different experiences and backgrounds engaged in their coaching practice on a daily basis.
How does knowledge travel this gap? How do scientific breakthroughs and discoveries reach the coaches? How do practical challenges and insights reach the scientists? These already might be tough questions, but let’s not stop there.
What if you belong to neither of these groups?
For all of us, at some point in our work lives, coaching might be the right space to reflect and work through our challenges. That makes all of us potential clients of Business Coaching.
And as potential clients we’d like to make an informed decision!
- How can Business Coaching be of support to me?
- Which coaching approach is the best?
- Does it make a difference whether it’s in person or online?
- And first and foremost: Does coaching work – at all?
Spoiler: yes, it works. And there’s more to it!
You might have your own business, be a corporate leader or be self-employed. You have the expertise in your field, be it law, economics, finance, marketing, HR,… – the list goes on. Working in HR, you might even consider yourself a practitioner, and still, the question remains: How do we bridge the gap?
Open access to research for everyone would be the very first step. Then what? I believe we need more and different voices sharing, communicating, and translating in all ways. That’s why with this article, I’d like to add another voice to the mix.
Let’s bring more voices into the mix and aim to bridge the knowledge gap between what researchers know, what practitioners employ, and what coaching clients experience!
Let’s kick off our travel over this bridge by delving into a newly published meta-analysis: "Workplace Coaching: A Meta-Analysis and Recommendations for Advancing the Science of Coaching" by Cannon-Bowers et al. (2023).
To gain a comprehensive understanding, of course, it'd be essential to explore the paper in its entirety. Please do so! In this article, I focus on some of the main results with a special emphasis on what presumably matters most to clients: the outcomes of coaching.
I comment on the insights through the lenses of both my scientific background as a psychologist and my experience as a coach practitioner with 10+ years in the field.
- Business Coaching ≠ Workplace Coaching?
- What is a Meta-Analysis?
- Who are the Clients – and Coaches?
- The Verdict: Yes, it Works!
- What are the Outcomes of Coaching?
- What about Your Outcomes?
First of all, it's crucial to clarify certain terminology.
If you're seeking a concise definition of coaching, I recommend reading my article where I share the most encompassing definition of coaching.
According to Cannon-Bowers et al. (2023), executive coaching and other coaching interventions aiming to enhance workplace performance are covered by the umbrella of ‘workplace coaching’. Since I rarely use this term in my coaching practice and to maintain consistency in my work, I’ll reference to this type of coaching as Business Coaching.
It’s worth nothing while every Business Coaching is workplace coaching, the inverse might not necessarily be true. Personal Coaching for private individuals can also focus on improving workplace performance to enhance skills and effectiveness in a professional setting. Therefore, it could be referred to as 'workplace coaching.’
Given that the participants included in this research were part of an organization and did not hire their coach as private individuals, to me, it seems legitimate to refer to the researched intervention as Business Coaching.
As stated above, this paper is a meta-analysis. But…
A meta-analysis combines data from multiple studies. It harmonizes the different elements of these studies into a coherent whole to arrive at a more comprehensive and statistically robust conclusion. That way, we get a more comprehensive overview of the answer to a particular research question.
For a meta-analysis, researchers begin their journey with an extensive search of potentially relevant studies. They meticulously go through a multitude of studies and discern their relevance.
In this case, Cannon-Bowers et al. (2023) initially identified 114 potentially relevant studies. They narrowed it down to eleven, each meeting stringent statistical and content-wise prerequisites. Such a distillation process ensures the incorporation of only the most pertinent research, thereby enhancing the reliability of the meta-analysis outcomes.
Naturally, the included studies vary in their so-called study design, including different data collection techniques, experimental setup or survey methodologies. Such diversity can enhance the generalizability of a meta-analysis, making it more representative of different contexts and populations.
And maybe also applicable to you and your situation?
I'm sure you're curious to learn more about the clients! Across the eleven studies included in the analysis by Cannon-Bowers et al. (2023), the criteria for including both clients and coaches naturally vary, resulting in a diverse range of participants.
In all eleven studies, the clients participated as volunteers and came from various organizations. The organizations involved spanned diverse sectors, including
The spectrum of the clients’ roles varied widely as well: The clients included 64 senior executives within a multi-billion-dollar company (Williams & Lowman, 2018), as well as 44 management students (Junker et al., 2020). The list by Cannon-Bowers et al. (2023) of the clients’ occupations included
- Line managers
- Project managers
- Non-supervisory technicians
- Management students
- Managers / middle and higher managers
The coaches in these studies possessed a wide array of backgrounds and experiences. While most coaches were external, one organization was the exception with offering internal coaching.
Now, onto the all-important question: Does Business Coaching work?
In a nutshell, the meta-analysis by Cannon-Bowers et al. (2023) provides us with evidence that Business Coaching works.
Before we proceed, it's crucial to acknowledge that the scientific understanding of coaching is continuously evolving. Indeed, as research advances, our comprehension becomes more nuanced and can undergo significant shifts over time. Additionally, not all findings are applicable to every human being or situation. And I used the term ‘verdict’, of course, metaphorically here. Disclaimer over.
The meta-analysis by Cannon-Bowers et al. (2023) indicates that the overall effect of Business Coaching was positive and of moderate effect size.
But wait, what does it mean, ‘of moderate effect size’?
What is a ‘Moderate Effect Size’?
Imagine, you conduct a study to measure the effect of Business Coaching as a leadership development intervention. You assess all the participants' leadership skills. Then, all participants work with a coach in several Business Coaching sessions. Finally, all participants get assessed on their leadership skills again.
The effect size is now a statistical metric to quantify the direction and magnitude of the relationship between the two measurements of the variable ‘leadership skills’. In other words, how meaningful is the difference in leadership skills before and after the coaching across all participants?
Just because the difference is statistically significant, doesn’t mean it is of meaningful practical significance. It might not even be noticeable in reality. But that’s what we are looking for: tangible changes in the work lives of the person being coached! That’s why effect sizes are amazing. Also, they make it possible for us to compare different studies.
Now to the ‘moderate’ part which is relatively straightforward: There are statistical conventions for interpreting the strength of an effect. Meaning, when a difference has a small, moderate, or large effect size.
In summary, in this analysis, the moderate effect size indicates a practical significance that extends beyond statistical significance. And the interesting part is yet to come.
What Influences the Effect?
What's noteworthy is that the impact of Business Coaching appears robust across diverse parameters (Cannon-Bowers et al., 2023). Here are some examples:
- Approach: goal or process-oriented coaching
- Duration: number of coaching sessions, hours of coaching
- Modality: in-person or online
- Outcomes: across a variety of outcome measures
As a dedicated online coach, you can imagine that I was delighted to see the coaching modality as one of the researched parameters. We’ll explore research on online coaching another time, but we can already say here that online coaching works as well as in-person coaching.
It’s great that coaching works but what does ‘work’ really mean – in real-life terms? In other words, what’s in it for you when deciding on Business Coaching?
I encourage you to explore my website, where you can discover real-life achievements through Personal as well as Business Coaching by reading testimonials and reviews by clients. These clients’ voices not only provide you with insights into what it's like to work with me but also highlight some tangible results you can achieve through coaching.
However, it's intriguing to validate both the experiences of my clients and my observations from a scientific standpoint!
The research questions of the meta-analysis by Cannon-Bowers et al. (2023) were on a more general level answering questions about the impact of coaching on organizational outcomes as well as providing recommendations on how the science of coaching could evolve.
Therefore, naturally, it doesn’t entail an exploration of concrete outcomes like a change in productivity, life satisfaction or leadership skills. However, given that the included studies met rigorous criteria to be part of this research, I’ll use this paper as a jumping board to take a closer look at some of the included studies, outcomes, and how they’ve been measured.
This might give you some insight into what you can expect from your coaching!
As you can imagine, when dealing with a myriad of individual coaching processes across eleven studies, to make sense of this diversity, the outcomes needed to be further clustered. For that, Kraiger et al. (1993) provided a concept-based categorization as cited in Cannon-Bowers et al. (2023), classifying outcomes into three distinct categories: affective, cognitive, and skill-based.
The first category contains all affective outcomes: These encompass attitudinal, emotional, and motivational measures – it’s a spectrum ranging from increased productivity and resilience to improved sleep quality and overall flourishing.
The list is extensive. If you’d like to see it in full, take a look at the original paper. The list includes coaching outcomes such as the following. All variables have increased, if not stated otherwise.
- Life satisfaction
- Resilience, health, and sleep quality
- Affect balance; less anxiety, chronic stress and worrying
You might wonder how these outcomes have been measured. Most of them by validated psychological scales.
Let’s take life satisfaction as a first example. Onyishi et al. (2020) used the so-called Satisfaction With Life Scale, developed by Diener et al. (1985) as cited in Diener (n.d.-a).
As a client, you rate a handful of statements before and after the coaching intervention like
- ”In most ways my life is close to my ideal.”
- “So far I have gotten the important things I want in life.”
- “If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing.”
Let’s take another example from Onyishi et al. (2020). The metric affect balance evaluates the balance between experienced positive and negative emotions. It was measured with the Scale of Positive and Negative Experience by Diener et al. (2009) as cited in Diener (n.d.-c).
As a client, you are invited to think about what you’ve been doing and experiencing during the past four weeks. Based on that, you rate a list of pleasant as well as distressing emotions and moods – the difference in the rating for negative and positive affects is the affect balance.
Another outcome that might have caught your attention is flourishing. Onyishi et al. (2020) measured this with the Flourishing Scale by Diener et al. (2009) as cited in Diener (n.d.-b), measuring positive relationships, feelings of competence, and having meaning and purpose in life. You rate statements like
- “I lead a purposeful and meaningful life”
- “I am engaged and interested in my daily activities”
- “I am optimistic about my future”
Remember, these developments are not only statistical data points but real, tangible improvements in people's lives! Since my clients and I evaluate the coaching at the end of the coaching process, I can confirm many of the listed affective outcomes.
What about the cognitive outcomes?
The list of cognitive outcomes, however, is not that long. Cognitive outcomes cover the acquisition of knowledge, problem-solving and cognitive strategies. Unfortunately, there’s just one study in the meta-analysis that measured this type of outcome (Ballesteros-Sánchez et al., 2019).
The cognitive outcomes have been measured based on the Project Manager Competency Development Framework by the Project Management Institute (2017, as cited in Cannon-Bowler et al., 2023). According to Cartwright (2008), the referenced cognitive ability includes for example effectively resolving issues and solving problems or seeking opportunities to improve the project outcome.
In my experience, acquiring knowledge can be an important element of coaching. Depending on what you need to know in order to achieve your coaching goal. This can focus on different aspects of human development – leadership, communication, relationships or health, for example.
Furthermore, at the end of a coaching process, many clients report having developed a new repertoire or strategies to deal with upcoming challenges, having had a mindset shift, or changed core beliefs – one could classify them as cognitive outcomes and, in my opinion, they overlap with the following category: the skill outcomes.
The category of skill outcomes relates to the acquisition and automaticity of new skills, such as negotiation or delegation skills. According to Cannon-Bowers et al. (2023) the included studies showed improvement in outcomes such as
- Psychological capital
A cornerstone in many Business Coaching journeys, leadership skills, were evaluated using various methods.
Williams & Lowman (2018) let participants and their supervisors each choose one out of eight leadership competencies from the organization’s performance-management system as the coaching objective.
To me, especially in the context of large corporations, this makes sense. Corporations usually have leadership guidelines and models that you can deduct concrete leadership behavior from. During coaching, improving one specific behavior pattern might be a reasonable focal point.
Another notable instrument used by Williams et al. (2016) was the Leadership Practices Inventory. It examines competencies such as modelling the way, inspiring a shared vision, challenging the process, enabling others to act, or encouraging the heart (Wiley, n.d.).
Zuberbuhler et al. (2020) used another approach to measure leadership skills. Here, they were classified into four dimensions: working alliance, open communication, learning and development, as well as progress and results.
In case you wonder what’s meant by ‘psychological capital’, it includes qualities such as optimism, hope, and resilience (Zuberbuhler et al., 2020). These qualities empower individuals to overcome obstacles and seize opportunities. In my opinion, its elements overlap with some of the affective outcomes.
The study's results are comprehensive; however, it's noteworthy that none of the included papers had data fitting into a potential results category, such as increased sales. This was an added category described by Jones et al. (2016) as cited by Cannon-Bowers et al. (2023).
Here’s my practical perspective on that: Some clients view coaching as a means to achieve specific goals, such as securing a new job or increasing their income, making these result outcomes especially relevant.
However, while these tangible outcomes can be undeniably vital, the heart of coaching lies in affective and skill-based transformations – fostering resilience, enhancing leadership acumen, and ultimately, empowering individuals to thrive and flourish in both their professional and personal lives.
Now that we explored affective, cognitive, skill, and result outcomes: what does that all mean for you?
Exploring the coaching outcomes is indeed fascinating. However, it’s worth noting that not all of the included studies involved objectives set by the clients themselves. It's crucial to differentiate between objectives or goals and actual outcomes, as they can intersect but aren't synonymous.
Goal or Outcome?
For instance, a common objective among my coaching clients might be in the realm of “I am authentic in my role as a leader.” While this can be a goal for many clients, it can also be an unintentional outcome for others – you work on your professional development, explore values, work on core beliefs,… and all of this can lead you to be more authentic in your professional role.
Or the other way around: Self-efficacy is another vital aspect of human development. It’s the belief in our ability to achieve specific goals. While self-efficacy is seldom a client-set goal of coaching, it frequently emerges as a result! Clients find their self-efficacy increasing as they progress through the coaching process, gaining confidence in their abilities to navigate challenges and accomplish their objectives.
Goals are Dynamic
Another coaching-inherent dynamic can make researching coaching objectives tricky: They can, and often do, evolve and transform during the coaching journey due to various factors
- Changes in personal circumstances
- Shifting priorities
- New insights gained through coaching sessions
Moreover, goals are often interrelated, and one goal becomes a stepping stone toward accomplishing another. Therefore, objectives are not set in stone, and in coaching, we are flexible to ensure that the sessions remain relevant and impactful throughout the process.
That’s why the meta-analysis conducted by Cannon-Bowers et al. (2023) is insightful: it demonstrates a positive impact on a wide range of outcomes.
Your Coaching Outcomes
When reading through the outcomes of Business Coaching, have you recognized some of your own work-life objectives? I invite you to answer some questions:
- What coaching objectives resonated with me the most?
- Which other goals for my work life do I currently have?
- What could it mean for me and my life to achieve them?
- How would my work life look like after I achieved them?
- How does that make me feel?
During our pre-coaching call, you share your coaching objectives with me. I give you feedback on whether coaching is a good place to address them. In our first session, you explore these goals further and we write them down, so you have them at hand at all times. They create our guidelines for the upcoming sessions.
In the final session of your coaching, we ensure your results and reflect the whole coaching process. You receive an evaluation form via email from me so you have enough time and space to reflect on both your goals and outcomes.
The evaluation encompasses not only the attainment of objectives but also the quality of our coaching relationship, the relevance of insights gained, and the nature of the process. Beyond achieving specific goals, your overall satisfaction with the coaching experience is also important to reflect on.
The scientific as well as the practical affective, cognitive and skill outcomes of Business Coaching are diverse – just as individuals and their unique aspirations are!
While the scientific understanding of the coaching process and its outcomes continues to evolve, I’m glad there’s more groundbreaking research with supporting evidence for what coaching clients and practitioners experience in their daily work: yes, Business Coaching works.