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Two coaching paths lead to same outcome

To set goals or not set goals, that is the question. The answer from a study of external executive coaching for a group of corporate leaders is that for coachees, facilitative coaching showed similar outcomes to goal-setting coaching.

Note: This article was published by the Institute of Coaching on March 14, 2021. Join Institute of Coaching using the Wellcoaches Sponsor discount.


Coaches want to provide the best to their clients, applying the most effective tool for the moment. This month, let’s focus on a randomized controlled study that compares the two most common coaching processes – goal setting process and facilitation process, led by article author Janette Williams.

Williams co-authored the 2018 article describing the study, titled: The Efficacy of Executive Coaching: An empirical investigation of two approaches using random assignment and a switching-replications design.

While the study focused on executive coaching, the results are relevant to health and wellness coaching.

Williams and Lowman (department Chair) co-authored the 2018 article describing the study, titled: The Efficacy of Executive Coaching: An empirical investigation of two approaches using random assignment and a switching-replications design.

Coaching interventions

A 2009 survey of executive-coaching practices identified seven approaches most used in coaching, and the first two were selected for the study, as the most frequently used and familiar to experienced coaches:

1. process/facilitation-oriented

2. goal setting/goal-focused behavior modification

3. cognitive–behavioral

4. neurolinguistics programming

5. psychoanalytic/dynamic

6. skills training

The coaching intervention was four one-hour sessions over 4-6 weeks delivered by 16 external, professional coaches (11 females, 5 males) with formal psychological training at the master’s or PhD levels. Coaches had at least two years of coaching experience and were paid $75 per session.

The coaching protocol was manualized to standardize the coaching sessions. Coaches completed six hours of training and practice of the two coaching approaches – goal-focused and process-oriented. The coaches confirmed the integrity of the coaching approach by answering four “process integrity” questions via online survey after each coaching session. A goal-focused question was “I help my coachee identify and set realistic and challenging goals.” A process-focused question was: “I tailor my own approach to fit the preferences and needs of the coachee.”

Each participant selected one of eight leadership competencies (sourced from the organization’s performance management system) as the coaching objective, which was agreed with their supervisor. The eight competencies to select from were:

1. Provides strategic perspectives

2. Inspires and motivates, energizes team to achieve goals

3. Drives for results, sets high standards of excellence

4. Collaborates, promotes high level of cooperation

5. Walks the walk, demonstrates honesty and integrity

6. Develops others, sponsors employee development

7. Builds relationships, stays in touch with employee issues and concerns

8. Demonstrates courage, not shying away from conflict

Outcomes measurement

The overall leadership behaviors were measured using the Leadership Practices Inventory (LPI) that has been administered to more than 3 million people. The LPI addresses five dimensions, each with six items, totaling 30 questions:

1. Model the way

2. Inspire a shared vision

3. Challenge the process

4. Enable others to act

5. Encourage the heart

The LPI results were not shared with coachees; they were used only to measure the benefit of coaching as rated by the coachees and supervisors.

Research design

The study included 64 mid to senior leaders (50/50 female and male) in a multi-billion dollar corporation who agreed to participate in the research, of which 23% had received executive coaching in the past. The 39 direct supervisors (15 females, 24 males) also agreed to participate and rate their direct reports. Most of the coachees and supervisors held bachelor’s degrees or higher and four or more years of management experience.

The study methodology is complex:

1. A single-blind procedure was implemented, which means that the participants and supervisor were not aware of the two coaching approaches or the research goals.

2. There were two study phases and four groups – in the first phase, two groups got the two coaching approaches (half got one approach and half got the other approach), and two groups acted as a control with no coaching.

3. In the second phase, the participants switched roles, the two groups who got coaching now got no coaching, and the two groups who served as the control group in the first phase, received the two coaching approaches (again half got one approach and half got the second approach).

4. A pre-coaching LPI assessment was given to all participants and supervisors, and the assessment was repeated twice - at the end of the first phase and 5 weeks after the end of the second phase.

Study Results

The coachee ratings showed an increase in leadership competencies and behaviors for the coaching groups and not for the control groups. As rated by the supervisors, there was improvement, but it was not statistically significant.

There was no significant difference between the approaches of goal-focused and process-oriented coaching on leadership competencies or behaviors as rated by the coachees. Furthermore, there were no differences between the two approaches in the post-coaching follow-up.

Not surprisingly, the study limitations include the short duration of the coaching intervention and the two phases, and the low number of coaching sessions. Changes in coachee behavior may not have been fully developed or observable by supervisors at five weeks after four coaching sessions.

The LPI didn’t precisely align with the single coaching goal set by coachees and agreed with their supervisors. Last, in the real world, coaches would typically adjust coaching processes to meet coachee needs, often alternating between goal-focused and process-focused approaches, a hybrid approach. Takeaways for Coaches

1. While the coaching program was brief, a reasonable conclusion is that coaches can combine goal-oriented sessions with process-oriented sessions without compromising coaching outcomes.

2. It is helpful for coaches to ask clients which process might work best for each session or the overall program, focusing on goals or process.

CITATION: Williams, J. S., & Lowman, R. L. (2018). The efficacy of executive coaching: An empirical investigation of two approaches using random assignment and a switching-replications design. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 70(3), 227–249.

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