The Practice of Coaching

What is Evidence Based Coaching?

With less than 100 years of published material in relation to coaching, the bulk of which has been published in the last 20 years (Grant & Cavanagh, 2007), coaching psychology finds itself the “new kid on the block” competing with the well-established communities of health, sport and clinical psychology. On the surface it has power in novelty, attracting attention for its unique premise, positive message and promise to deliver results. However, while on lookers with little in-depth knowledge of the scientific process appear impressed and ready to sign up for the next coaching course, those with more rigorous background in evidence-based practice are hesitant to accept coaching psychology into the club of professional disciplines. In order for coaching to prove itself and progress beyond novelty, it must first define what evidence-based practice is (and what that looks like for coaching psychology), address the strengths and weaknesses of coaching, and develop rigorous practices for future establishment as a discipline.

What is Evidence-based Practice?

To understand what evidence-based practice (EBP) is, we should first turn to more established disciplines and draw from their definitions for a basic understanding. Both psychology and medical disciplines have a distinct focus on integrating the best available research or evidence with individual patient values (Practice, 2006). However, psychology takes this one step further to define the purpose of EBP: “to promote effective psychological practice and enhance public health by applying empirically supported principles of psychological assessment, case formulation, therapeutic relationship, and intervention” (Practice, 2006). From these two definitions and purpose statements, we know that EBP places a high value on empirical evidence from tested methodologies. But is there more to EBP than this?

Many definitions of EBP in coaching psychology place a value on empirical evidence, though the definition has grown to include a wider base of meaning. One article defines evidence-based coaching (EBC) as “shared empirically validated knowledge, rigorous peer-reviewed publishing, a common language and clear and explicit links to the wider knowledge base” (Grant, 2005). Being such a young and emerging discipline with little research published (particularly empirical research), this definition produces great challenges for coaching. In the same stroke, however, it gives coaching a roadmap for how it may progress.

Strengths of EBC

Moving towards an evidence-based coaching (EBC) model encourages three significant outcomes for coaching psychology. First, it forces on the emerging discipline the need for verified results. With so many lay-coaches and people “looking to get rich” with their own self-improvement method (Grant & Cavanagh, 2007), coaching runs the risk of imploding from a lack of reputation and credibility unless EBP is employed. The call for EBC is thus better understood as a call for rigor. Should coaching psychology heed this call and deliver empirical studies of the effects its outcomes, the likelihood of establishing coaching psychology as a profession and distinguished discipline increases.

Second, EBC encourages the community of coaches toward the design and acceptance of its own regulatory body. While many associations and societies of coaching already exist, they are largely left unchecked allowing bodies to make bold claims about their own expertise and deliverables not necessarily based in fact. Grant & Cavanagh (2007) refer to one such false claim by Sherpa who published material stating, “since there’s no significant competition, the Sherpa process is the only credible standard for executive coaching”. The implementation and acceptance of a regulatory body for coaching psychology can ensure that false and hyperbolic claims such as this are not allowed to flourish. Such practices damage the reputation of coaching as a whole, and put at risk the un-informed client of buying psychology “snake oil”.

Third, and finally, EBC encourages the discipline of coaching to draw on a wider knowledge base, which further verifies coaching’s application in numerous areas of human development. Studies on the theory and application of coaching conclude that there are four key areas of knowledge directly linking research and practice of coaching. These areas are: philosophy, adult learning, business and economic science, and behavioural science (Grant, 2005). Armed with an appreciation of the relevance of these areas of knowledge to the study and practise of coaching, the future of EBC is bright with opportunity to expand beyond the simply executive coaching and life coaching, and start exploring new fields of application.

Weaknesses of EBC

While the strengths of an evidence-based approach to coaching certainly go some distance to establishing the field, there are still significant challenges for the implementation of EBC. First, there is a shortage of confident and willing coaches who can contribute the empirical research needed to establish the discipline (Grant & Cavanagh, 2007). While the majority of contributors to works of empirical study come from a professional background in psychology, the bulk of coaches do not. This means a large and talented base of practitioners are being under utilised and their knowledge, experience and expertise left out of studies that would otherwise benefit from their contribution. These coaching practitioners, having no access to journals or psychology databases, may be further left behind as research advances without them, further damaging the discipline by creating silos of knowledge: those who are academics and those with only lay practical experience.

Second, EBC requires the discipline to develop advanced training programs to remedy the knowledge gap described above. However, coaching psychology is still so early in its development that there are few experts to lead these programs and the evidence required by universities to justify the establishment of courses is already thin. Those desiring to advance evidence-based coaching are left wondering, “Where do we start?” As a solution, Grant (2005) suggests: “coach training programs should explicitly address the theoretical and empirical foundations of coaching; provide training in sound research methodologies, basic statistical and data-analysis skills; and foster informed critical thinking skills in student coaches.”

Development of Rigorous Practices for Future Establishment as a Discipline

To avoid coaching psychology devolving into a genre of self-help books and faddism akin to Scientology’s Dianetics, coaches must develop critical thinking skills and apply them vigorously to new ideas while testing theories, methodologies, evidence and claims. The industry must distinguish itself from pseudoscience if it is to prosper as a discipline, but at the same time, the industry must not take itself so seriously that it is caught up in a scientific arrogance that innovation is stifled or slowed (Grant & Cavanagh, 2007). Coaching psychology needs both momentum and rigor if it is to continue to grow.

Evidence-based practices are the next stage in the evolution of coaching. Without it, coaching will not reach the foundational expectations of its peers to join the community of scientific disciplines, nor will it see the creation of a regulatory body, or the acquisition of a wider knowledge base.

Grant, A. M. (2005). What is evidence-based executive, workplace and life coaching? In A. M. Grant, M. Cavanagh & T. Kemp (Eds.), Evidence-based Coaching vol:1: Theory, Research and Practice from the Behavioral Sciences (pp.1-12). Bowen Hills Qld: Australian Academic Press.

Freedman, A. M., & Perry, J. A. (2010). Executive consulting under pressure: A case study. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 62(3), 189-202. doi: 10.1037/a0021247

Grant, A. M., & Cavanagh, M. J. (2007). Evidence-based coaching: Flourishing or languishing? Australian Psychologist, 42(4), 239-254. doi: 10.1080/00050060701648175

Grant, A. M., Green, L. S., & Rynsaardt, J. (2010). Developmental coaching for high school teachers: Executive coaching goes to school. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 62(3), 151-168. doi: 10.1037/a0019212

Practice, A. P. A. P. T. F. o. E.-B. (2006). Evidence-based practice in psychology. Am Psychol, 61(4), 271-285. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.61.4.271

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