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Article by Mark Seabright

This article first appeared on Scienceforwork a non-profit foundation that provides decision-makers with trustworthy and useful insights from behavioral science. You can learn more about their work here:


Coaching -verdict -shutterstock _243995698-min

Key Points: 

– Coaching can be an effective way to increase individual performance

– On line coaching can be just as effective as face to face coaching

– More coaching does not mean better coaching

– Internal coaches are more effective than external coaches


Workplace coaching is now a popular way of delivering ‘one to one’ learning and development. Coaching is a helping relationship with an emphasis on active learning. At work, its focus on the immediate needs of the learner. This allows the learner the chance to apply new knowledge and improve performance almost instantly.

In 2012 the International Coaching Federation estimated that the coaching industry, which includes workplace coaching as well as personal and life coaching, was worth $2bn annually. Just over half of coaches, around 28,000 people, were workplace coaches, specialising in executive, business or leadership coaching. These are big numbers. But does workplace coaching work, and if so, how can businesses get maximum value from their coaching spend?

A 2015 meta-analysis of seventeen rigorous studies of workplace coaching by Rebecca Jones, Stephen Woods and Yves Guillaume provides some, but by no means all, of the answers. They found that workplace coaching has different effects on different aspects of individual learning and development. In terms of the way this type of coaching is delivered, we may need to revise some some cherished assumptions. What’s more, some types of feedback can undo the positive effects of workplace coaching.

Coaching outcomes – Good, Better, Best

Perhaps the most important finding from this research is that workplacecoaching works. In order to assess how effective workplace coaching is, Jones and colleagues grouped learning outcomes into

  • skill-based: acquiring and automating new behaviours such as technical or leadership skills
  • affective: changing attitude or motivation through improved well-being, self belief or work satisfaction
  • results: improving individual performance

Looking in detail at these three outcomes of workplace coaching – the researchers found a small to moderate effect of coaching on skill development and a slightly bigger effect on mood and motivation , but the biggest effect was on performance improvement.

effective of workplace coaching, science for work resized

The message is clear. To get maximum value from coaching, focus on improving individual performance.

A little light mythbusting

The researchers also compared the relative effectiveness of how coaching was delivered; what they called practice moderators. Surprisingly, they found:

  • The coach does not need to be in the room for the client to benefit. There is no significant difference between face to face coaching and blended (face to face, online and phone based) coaching.
  • More coaching does not mean better coaching. Neither the number of sessions nor the length of the coaching programme appeared to make a significant difference to the outcomes.
  • Internal coaches beat external coaches. Coaches who work in the business, but who are not in a line management relationship with the client, are more effective than coaches from outside the business. The researchers noted that this might be due to internal coaches having a better cultural and organisational understanding than people outside the business. This understanding might give internal coaches more knowledge about how the individual can be more productive and effective.
  • NOT providing 360 degree feedback has a large positive effect on coaching outcomes.  This could be due to the distracting and potentially conflicting nature of feedback from different people, especially if they are using different criteria to evaluate success.

These findings may be unpopular with large coaching organisations, but they send out a clear message to the businesses that already have, or are considering, large and expensive face to face external coaching programmes.

Relative Effectiveness Resized

Workplace coaching – good practice guidelines

The verdict from this research is clear. When it comes to workplace coaching, best results are likely to come from focusing on improving individual performance.

In terms of how workplace coaching is delivered, these guidelines may not apply to all businesses in all situations. But if you are involved in designing or delivering workplace coaching, then bear in mind that:

  1. Coaching doesn’t need to happen face to face. You can save time and money using online coaching.
  2. Internal coaches are more effective than external coaches. You may want, for example, to consider developing a coaching culture rather than outsourcing coaching to external organisations or individuals.
  3. Neither the number of coaching sessions nor the length of coaching programme has an appreciable effect on outcomes. Setting clear coaching objectives will help both coach and client to know when they are done.
  4. 360 degree feedback can undo some of the benefits of coaching. Coaching programmes that use methods such as 360 degree feedback could improve their effectiveness by dropping this time-, energy- and cost consuming process.


Unanswered questions

While these findings provide much needed clarity in relation to workplace coaching, there are still a number of important issues that this study does not cover, such as:

  • What are the preconditions for successful coaching?
  • What are the most effective coaching approaches? For example, is a short face to face session with an internal coach better than a longer online session with an external coach?
  • Do some of the widely used coaching models, such as GROW, work better than others?

Grover and Furnham’s (2016) systematic review of workplace coaching contains a partial answer to the preconditions for successful coaching. They suggest that the client’s readiness to be coached and the quality of the coaching relationship are likely to have a more significant impact than client expectations and the specific theories and techniques used. However, we cannot draw any firm conclusions until further high quality research is available.


Trustworthiness score

This study only included research with control groups or before-and-after measures. Due to the strict selection criteria and the efforts of the researchers we are able to give this meta-analysis a trustworthiness score of 90%. This means there is only a 10% chance that the findings are due to other factors, or random chance. Given that it may well be several years before there are sufficient high quality studies to update this analysis, we should recognise that this is the best available evidence on the effects of workplace coaching.

Article reproduced and kindly shared by science for work – a not for profit, evidence based research organisation.  To read more about science for work, click here:



Rebecca J. Jones, Stephen A. Woods and Yves R. F. Guillaume (2015). The effectiveness of workplace coaching: A meta-analysis of learning and performance outcomes from coaching.Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, ISSN Online: 2044-8325.

Grover S. and Furnham A. (2016). Coaching as a Developmental Intervention in Organisations: A Systematic Review of Its Effectiveness and the Mechanisms Underlying It. PLoSONE 11(7): e0159137.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0159137.

Mark Seabright

Mark Seabright

Mark is a consultant, coach and mentor who uses an Evidence Based approach with individual and corporate clients in the UK and Europe. He particularly enjoys working with clients on maintaining peak performance, developing current and future leaders, group dynamics and improving productivity at work.He has an MSc in Organisational Behaviour and a Post Graduate Certificate in Coaching from Birkbeck, University of London. He is also a Certified Accountant and highly experienced CFO with thirty five years business experience. His interest in T’ai Chi led him to write The T’ai Chi Way to Business Success (available on Kindle and iTunes).

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