Executive coaching is a growing industry (McKelley & Rochlen, 2010); some organisations have benefited (McKenna & Davis, 2009; Nelson & Hogan, 2009) from its retention or morale gains to remain competitive in today’s economy (Dagley, 2007; Koonce, 1994). Organisations have seized this opportunity to implement coaching as part of their executive development programmes (Feldman & Lankau, 2005). Coaching has allowed some executives to become more effective leaders (Nelson & Hogan, 2009, p.17). Others may have negative perceptions of coaching or consider it expensive (Dagley, 2007). Kampa-Kokesch and Anderson (2001) argue that previous research revealed little or no studies conducted on the effectiveness of executive coaching (Nowack & Heller, 2001; Feldman & Lankau, 2005). This essay outlines the problem, identifies and discusses the various approaches used to study the effectiveness of executive coaching, types of studies, evidence and the evaluation of alternative research perspectives in the existing executive coaching literature.
There is limited knowledge about the effectiveness of executive coaching due to the lack of theoretical research conducted to examine the underlying processes (Feldman & Lankau, 2005; Kauffman & Coutu, 2009). A review of 10 different sources from the executive coaching literature has uncovered some interesting findings. Some of these interesting findings include men’s perception on coaching, processes, techniques and principles which can make or break a coaching relationship. Coaching is diverse, thus boundaries are needed to ensure the appropriate mix and scope of associated outcomes (Fieldman & Lankau, 2005). Therefore, the research question could be framed (Higgs et al., 2009) to focus on the effectiveness of executive coaching during the initial coaching phase. For example, what are the executives’ perceptions of the practical value of coaching during the initial engagement phase? (This would be a philosophical hermeneutics approach using interviews.) To better understand this issue, it is first necessary to understand the key findings in the executive coaching literature.
Review of literature and key findings
Factors that tend to form the basis of an effective coaching session include empathy (Eggers & Clark, 2000, p.69), positive thinking (De Hann et al., 2011) and establishing a productive relationship. Others, such as McKenna and Davis (2009), call the common factors ‘active ingredients’. They point out that four active ingredients account for the variance in psychotherapy outcomes. This raises another question ‘can personality traits predict psychotherapy outcomes?’ (Conte, 1991, p.66).
Recent study by Nelson and Hogen (2009) found that personality characteristics predict leadership effectiveness and organisational outcomes (Nelson & Hogen, 2009). Results from Levenson’s (2007) research show that the complexity of the executive’s role and the relationship between the organisational environment and individual performance will likely have an effect on the business. Even though business results can be improved through the executive’s role and relationship in the organisation, studies demonstrate it can be challenging to alter male executives’ behaviour to conform to executive coaching practices that will enhance the organisation’s effectiveness (McKelley & Rochlen, 2010). Men adhered to less traditional gender roles and ideologies when coaching was seen as a less stigmatising service available to them (McKelley & Rochlen, 2010). Some argue that a written contract between executives and coaches can ensure coaching success (Natale & Diamante, 2005). While others suggest that trust can be built between coach and client easily and quickly with presupposed goals in mind (Eggers & Clark, 2000, p.68).
Some argue that coaching is an ‘expensive fad’; however, empirical facts show that coaching is effective for achieving presupposed goals (Evers et al., 2006). Some view coaching as only needed by those with remedial problems, others view it as a form of enrichment session for well off executives (Connor & Pokora, 2007), which raises some concerns (e.g. ethically legitimate techniques taught by the coach (Bjorkeng et al., 2008)) over the ethical conduct required for coaching to be effective (Williams & Anderson, 2005). Despite its criticality, ethics in executive coaching are rarely featured in research or conference papers (Passmore & Mortimer, 2010). Nonetheless, effective coaches can be sensitive to issues such as difference and diversity (Connor & Pokora, 2007).
Due to the many techniques, processes and principles used in coaching, a more complete understanding of the coaching practice is required (Kauffman & Coutu, 2009). A strong theoretical foundation and integrated approach can effectively sustain the coaching practice (Peel, 2005). ‘Without a stronger theoretical foundation and empirical research, coaching runs the risk of falling into a passing trend that has no advocates because it has no evidence’ (Feldman & Lankau, 2005, p.845). Next, this paper will investigate the research approach for each respective source, types of evidence, and the patterns and gaps to formulate alternative perspectives on the problem.
Research approach and evidence
The most common research approach, based on the 10 selected sources, has been the survey research and experimental approach. In De Hann et al.’s (2011) research, a survey research approach was used with the help of a web-based questionnaire to gather statistical evidence (De Hann et al., 2011). The questionnaire consisted of closed and open-ended questions, in which open-ended questions captured participants’ thoughts on the outcomes and helpfulness of the coaching process (De Hann et al., 2011). Similarly, Kauffman and Coutu (2009) used the same approach to gather information about executive coaching behaviours and characteristics (Kauffman & Coutu, 2009). Statistical evidence was drawn from an online questionnaire via statistical analysis (Kauffman & Coutu, 2009). Further evidence was captured from five experts in the coaching field (Kauffman & Coutu, 2009). Each expert provided a subjective interpretation of the survey results based on their experience and knowledge in the coaching field.
Subsequently, an experimental research approach was used by McKelley and Rochlen (2010) to understand men’s perception and conformity to therapy or executive coaching. Statistical evidence was drawn from the statistical analysis of experimental data to determine factors such as ‘average levels of conformity to masculine norms’ (McKelley & Rochlen, 2010, p.7). The same approach was used by Levenson (2007) to draw links between coaching and its business impact (Levenson, 2007). Statistical evidence was obtained from statistical analysis on experimental data. Other forms of evidence were drawn from self-reports in case studies (Levenson, 2007).
Other researchers incorporated personal experiences into their selected approach to the research problem. For example, an action research approach was used by McKenna and Davis (2009) in which the researcher took part in the research (Lees, 1975). A literature review on psychotherapy was incorporated to provide background information to support each active ingredient (McKenna & Davis, 2009). Anecdotal evidence was drawn from the researcher’s own coaching experience in the form of ‘brief case examples’, to highlight the active ingredients (i.e. common factors in a client situation) (McKenna & Davis, 2009).
Although client situations can vary, perceptions derive from situations through another form of inquiry. Nelson and Hogan (2009) use the post-structuralist research approach to uncover the underlying links between personalities and occupational performance. Specific practical examples were drawn from literature in the coaching practice to illustrate ideas in the form of analogical evidence (Nelson & Hogan, 2009). For example, mischievous people can perceive coaching as irrelevant and may show little effort in the workplace (Nelson & Hogan, 2009).
The workplace is a great environment to examine the behaviours of executives. In Peel’s research (2005), he uses the grounded theory approach to substantiate theoretical claims that behaviourism forms the basis for effective coaching (Peel, 2005). An effective underlying and solid theory can contribute to the successful process of coaching (Eggers & Clark, 2000, p.68). Peel (2005) adopts a historical perspective by undertaking a literature review (Peel, 2005) and citing works of leading scholars, such as Kilburn (1996), Pavlov (1927) and Watson (1913, 1930), as forms of theoretical evidence (Peel, 2005).
Other forms of evidence, identified by Passmore and Mortimer’s (2010) research, include comparison and gaps in ethical codes, exploration of key sectors and ethical decision-making models used in coaching. Passmore and Mortimer (2010) use the systematic review approach to conduct a review on the limited literature on coaching ethics, with a reflection on the steps necessary to improve current coaching practices (Passmore & Mortimer, 2010).
Current coaching practices can be improved through an examination of the outcomes, experiences and self-efficacy beliefs related to executive coaching on experimental and control groups by the use of the quasi-experimental approach (Evers et al., 2006). A self-report questionnaire was designed with questions modelled under Whiteworth et al.’s (1998) co-active coaching model (Evers et al., 2006). Results from the questionnaire and quantitative analysis of the results (e.g. internal consistencies and correlations) provided evidence to understand distinctions in coaching experiences and self-efficacy beliefs.
Finally, an ‘integrated multiple perspective view on how the coaching process might work’ was introduced by Feldman and Lankau (2005, p.830) using the phenomenological research approach through a literature review. Evidence was cited from various academic research literatures around background, outcomes, phases and approaches in executive coaching (Lankau & Feldman, 2005, p.830).
Next, an alternative research perspective is identified for each selected source and an evaluation is made based on current research literature and evidence.
Alternative research perspectives
Research conducted by De Hann et al. (2011, p.25) forms a positivist perspective through the ‘subjective lens of the client of the intervention’. Alternatively, a post-structuralist perspective could inform the researcher of the differences in qualities and relationship between the coach and client through a discourse analysis (Hopwood, 2011; De Hann et al., 2011). Researchers can use a sceptical perspective to determine the underlying structures (e.g. principles, contexts, etc.), and thus understand exactly how helpful coaching is for clients (Murdoch, 2006). However, there are limitations: language does not exist as a system of differences between two fixed subjects from a post-structuralist perspective (Murdoch, 2006).
Subsequently, Peel’s (2005) research presents a post-structuralist perspective to uncover the truth about the existence of behaviourism theory in the effectiveness of executive coaching. An alternative perspective would be to consider a positivist perspective, observe social interactions, and record and analyse quantitative data presented in the form of statistics (Mackay et al., 2001). Behaviours could be observed through a causal–experimental approach. For example, as highlighted by Baker and Buckley (1996), the ‘impact of coaching feedback and improvement in performance’ in the coaching process (Peel, 2005).
Similarly, Passmore and Mortimer’s (2010) research could employ the positivist perspective to seek an understanding of the ‘the effectiveness of ethical decision-making in the workplace’ through an experimental approach. Statistical evidence could be analysed to understand the levels of effectiveness in recurrent thinking. Likewise, McKenna and Davis (2009), and McKelley and Rochlen (2010) could use the positivist perspective, through an experimental or survey research approach, as a way of drawing statistical information for further insight.
The benefits from a positivist perspective include: robust evidence through well-designed experiments (Gray, 2009); wide coverage of various situations; and rigour and replicability in scientific research (Usher, 1997). However, the weakness is that positivists tend to assume that cause and effect can be identified and extracted from quantitative data for predictive analysis (Mackay et al., 2001). A positivist would assume that social facts could be put into a more generalised, self-evident category (such as placing negative feedback in a general feedback category) (Mackay et al., 2001). In addition, a defined and agreed understanding of effective outcomes is needed (Gray, 2009), such as how to measure the effectiveness of executive performance.
Similarly, Nelson and Hogan’s (2009) research examined the underlying effectiveness of occupational performance and personalities. This research was conducted using a post-structuralist perspective. An alternative would be to use a symbolic interactionist perspective, using an ethnographic inquiry approach (Crotty, 1998). The perspective aims to understand observations from the participant’s perspective (Crotty, 1998). Likewise, Feldman and Lankau (2005) focused on a phenomenological perspective, Evers et al. (2006) and Levenson (2007) focused on a positivist perspective, all of which could have alternatively used a symbolic interactionist perspective.
The benefits of the symbolic interactionist perspective include: an importance placed upon the understanding of socialisation (Anderson & Taylor, 2010), encouraging direct, extensive first-hand analysis of how interactions are shaped (Ferrante, 2010). However, the limitations are that generalisations of observations are difficult to determine (Ferrante, 2010), there is an ‘unconcern of social structures’ and a lack of consideration for people’s emotions (Meltzer et al., 1975, p.120).
Women’s emotions can be expressive more than men in the workplace and is usually associated with less power in the organisational environment as mentioned by Hochschild (1983) (Ashkanasy et al., 2002). McKelley and Rochlen’s (2010) research, which originally focused on a positivist perspective, could alternatively be viewed from a feminist perspective, such as ‘women’s perception and conformity to therapy or executive coaching’. A feminist perspective has the goal of setting collaborative and non-exploitative relationships so that the researcher can avoid objectification (Cresswell, 1998). The benefits would help women develop their freedom by creating personality attributes for success or to choose from the available opportunities in the organisation (Baehr, 2007). However, women may have limited power, as males still have the dominant positions in most institutions (Cameron, 2005, p.496).
Lastly, Kauffman and Coutu’s (2009) research based on the positivist perspective can alternatively be viewed using critical theory or emancipatory research perspective through a participatory action research approach (Hopwood, 2011). This would allow researchers to work directly with participants to define and act on the problem (Hopwood, 2011). The benefits would be the ability to sceptically understand self-interest and political interests (Higgs et al., 2009), and emphasise the social and historical context of the research (Mackay, 2001). However, limitations may be confined to being explicitly political and, as stated by Marx (1983), ‘the relentless criticism of all existing conditions’ (Merriam, 2001, p.55).
Common factors (De Hann et al., 2011; McKenna & Davis, 2009), individual behaviours and characteristics (Helson & Hogan, 2009), and conformity to the coaching process (McKelley & Rochlen, 2010) have been found in effective coaching practices. However, there is little theoretical research on how or why executive coaching is successful (Feldman & Lankau, 2005, p.830). Likewise, there is no complete definition or organisation for the coaching profession in its entirety (Kauffman & Coutu, 2009). As emphasised by Nelson and Hogan (2009), Hart (2001), Blattner and Leipsic (2001), Joo (2005), and Witherspoon and White (1996), ‘there is considerable debate in the literature on the difference between coaching and psychotherapy’ (Nelson & Hogan, 2009, p.17).
A strong theoretical foundation and more empirical evidence are needed for the executive coaching practice to be sustainable (Feldman & Lankau, 2005). Further research using the positivist perspective could provide more empirical evidence to understand various patterns underlying coaching processes. Other forms of research perspectives could enhance research findings in the existing literature. Lan and Anders (2000) state that using more than one approach to research is not only possible, it is desirable (McNabb, 2002).
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