Assessing the contribution and effectiveness of coaching to workplace training and learning. An academic perspective.

Assessing the contribution and effectiveness of coaching to workplace training and learning.

An academic perspective.

Roberto Bonanomi

Senior Trainer HURACT


The use of coaching inside organizations within L&D and HRD domains is a practice, proactively sponsored by professional associations, practitioners and academies, which has been widely in use for a long time and seems bound to grow. In particular, coaching appears to have an important role in contributing to workplace training and learning.

However, coaching is not effective in all areas, and some doubts have emerged about the real knowledge ( and control ) we have of  the underlying mechanism that promotes such effectiveness and of possible undesirable side-effects and costs.

After having introduced the basic definition of coaching, this report aims to explore the areas of workplace training and learning on which coaching can have a more relevant impact, and to bring out potential drawbacks and flaws.

Coaching in workplace

Even though there is no unambiguous and commonly acknowledged definition of coaching, most of the existing ones share a few important characteristics.

D’Abate et al. (2003) in their nomological network found 23 characteristics which distinguish coaching from others methods, like mentoring or tutoring, and which can be used to identify various types of coaching, namely peer coaching and executive coaching. These characteristics range from demographic features (such as age and expertise of participants), objectives of the approach (acquiring new specific skills vs. developing individual characteristics), time frame (achieving a short term performance vs. addressing a long term development), etc. This topology identifies coaching as a form of structured developmental interaction where the coach can be either internal or external to the organization, belonging to the same or a different hierarchy, sharing the same or a different background. Coaching can be oriented to achieve a specific dexterity or goal or to develop a more general skill or objective and generally to the establishment of short-term relationships. The topology does not distinguish between coaching and team coaching although it acknowledges that coaching can be both dyadic and group-oriented.

Peer coaching is characterised by the fact that the coach belongs to the same organization and is lateral to the coachee, whereas in executive coaching the coach is usually external to the organization.

Bono et al. (2009), by bringing together various definitions, propose the following shared characteristics of coaching: it is a helping relationship between a client (coachee) and a consultant (coach), it is based on a formally agreed contract, it is considered as an individual learning process focusing on interpersonal and intrapersonal issues, it consists of a sequence of one-to-one interactions, it has the purpose of finding the resources (tools, knowledge, opportunities) that the clients need to develop themselves and become more effective.

Grant (2012) points out that even among professional bodies there is a common consensus on considering it as a helping relation aimed to direct personal and interpersonal resources toward creating positive change and personal growth.

With reference to philosophies or models of coaching, in their survey of executive coaching practices, Bono et al. (2009) identify the following philosophical approaches: behavioural, cognitive-behavioural, process-facilitation-orientated, goal-setting, neurolinguistic programming (NLP), psychoanalytic/psychodynamic, skill training. Palmer and Whybrow (2007) distinguish various types of theoretical models of coaching psychology: behavioural, cognitive-behavioural, existential, gestalt, motivational interview-based, narrative, NLP, person-centered, conversational learning-based, psychodynamic, solution-focused.

Some authors propose their own approach to coaching such as the GROW model (Whitmore, 2010) and the Co-Active Coaching model (Withworth et al. 1998), to name just a few.

When it comes to considering coaching inside business organizations, it must be acknowledged that coaching is considered as an integrated part of the Learning and Development (L&D) and Human Resource Development (HRD) domains.

Gold et al. (2013) classify coaching as an integrate training and learning method belonging to the HRD domain, alongside traditional off-job approaches such as lecture, discussion, case-study, etc.

CIPD (2015) reports that coaching by line managers or peers has been one of the most popular development methods in L&D of last years. According to CIPD, three-quarters of organisations they surveyed currently offer coaching or mentoring as part of their L&D programmes. Moreover they report that 65% of their respondents see the use of coaching by internal managers or peers to be bound to grow (vs. 13% that see it to decline) whereas the interviewees’ opinions are more balanced about the growth or decline of external coaching (26% to grow, 25% to decline).

Contribution and effectiveness of coaching to workplace training and learning

Coaching can actually provide several, different contributions to the workplace training and learning process.

A recent meta-analysis of the outcomes of coaching on learning and performance focused on internal and external workplace coaching, confirmed that coaching is positively related to effective, skill-based, and individual-level results outcome criteria with an effect size comparable to the ones of other classical training methods (Jones et al. 2016).

We have identified the following areas in which coaching can contribute to workplace training and learning:

– process chain of training;

– process of learning for development;

– training and learning at group/team level.

Coaching can contribute to the process chain of training

Usually coaching is not seen as a tool whose aim is to achieve a simple transfer of knowledge. Indeed, the effect of coaching is not necessarily dependant on more experienced individuals sharing their knowledge with less experienced ones and coaching does not require the coach to be an expert in the subject the coachee is involved (Whitmore, 2010). Mentoring would be more appropriate in such a case, given the nature of the relationship between an experienced mentor and a less knowledgeable mentee (Noe et al. 2010).

This is not to say that coaching doesn’t have a role in training!

In the first place, coaching can be used as a tool to support training and professional development. Coaching can serve tactically as a tool for sharing ideas, skills and information within a training session. Berg and Karlsen (2012) report that team coaching and peer coaching were used to involve participants in learning and practising managerial skills, like emotional intelligence, empowerment, self-management. Moreover, Aderibigbe and Ajasa (2013) report peer coaching being used strategically as a collaborative tool aimed to enhance continuous professional development (CPD).

In the second place, coaching can be considered a vehicle for the transfer of training. Ford and Weissbein (1997) define the transfer of training as the application, generalizability and maintenance of newly acquired knowledge and skills. Weisweiler et al. (2013), using the lens of social psychology, advocate that some particular social factors improve the transfer of training, namely: goal setting, transfer climate, self-efficacy, social relations, cognitive dissonance, social hindrance. As a matter of fact, coaching has an important impact onto the transfer of training in two different areas: (1) promoting goal-setting/feedback and the establishment of a favourable transfer climate and (2) promoting self-efficacy. With reference to the first area (promoting goal-setting/feedback and the establishment of a favourable transfer climate) we should remember that that the Goal Setting Theory (GST) suggests that people who pursue a difficult and clear goal and who receive meaningful feedback perform better than people who don’t (Locke and Latham, 1990, 2006). Weisweiler et al. (2013) quote several studies focused on the positive impact of goal-setting and feedback on training outcomes, underlying the fact that they can be used in pre and post-training phases to constitute a performance-target-comparison. Now, goal setting and feedback are deemed to be two of the fundamental ingredients in the coaching recipe. Grant (2012) advocates the importance of goal-focused coaching and puts forward a comprehensive model for tackling multiple and different kinds of goals. Coaching can contribute to the transfer of learning by creating a setting where objectives can be properly defined and constant feedback can be given about training outcome expectancy. In fact, Kirwan and Birchall  (2006) point out that goal setting, and interventions that include goal-setting and feedback (such as coaching) are viewed as facilitating transfer of training. Moreover, internal coaching can be seen as a proper setting for superior and peer support and, in turn, this is considered as an important form of favourable climate for the transfer of training (Dermol and Čater, 2013). With reference to the second area (promoting self-efficacy) it is worth remembering that self-efficacy refers to one’s belief or self-judgment in one’s own ability to succeed in specific situations or to reach specific goals (Bandura, 1994, 1997). Self-efficacy has been acknowledged as having a positive impact on learning (Colquitt et. al. 2000) and, moreover, can increase the motivation to transfer that, in turn, is one of the key factors enhancing the transfer of learning process (Kirwan and Birchall, 2006). Leonard-Cross (2010) reports that internal, workplace developmental coaching has a positive impact on the individual level of self-efficacy. Therefore, coaching can promote self-efficacy that, in turn, affects the transfer of training.

Swart and Harcup ( 2013) claim that coaching promotes the transfer of individual learning to organization learning through three basic mechanisms: enacting new behaviours, enacting the coaching approach and embedding collective learning. Indeed, they found that the coachees tended to reproduce the coaching approach they had been exposed to, in order to communicate to their team members. In other words, the coachees changed their attitude and behaviours towards their colleagues, mirroring the attitude and behaviour they were used to adopt during the coaching process. It is notable that this tendency to transfer the coaching approach was basically spontaneous. The same thing happened at group level.

As a matter of fact, to prove the contribution of coaching to transfer of training, Olivero et al. (1997) examine the effects of an executive coaching intervention and found out that training alone increased productivity by 22.4% whereas after the addition of a coaching campaign, the productivity increased by 88%.

Coaching can contribute to the process of learning for development

McDowall and Saunders (2010) state that training is usually defined as being more focused on improving the performance related to a specific job role whereas development takes a broader and more long-term perspective concerning the individual.

With regard to learning for development, coaching may play a significant role, because some approaches take a less goal-oriented and more holistic, person-centred perspective (Leonard-Cross, 2010). According to this perspective, coaching can contribute to learning for development in a multitude of ways.

For one thing, coaching can nurture the basic needs necessary to fulfil individual growth and intrinsic motivation. According to the Self Determination Theory (SDT), needs satisfaction is a prerequisite to develop intrinsic motivation, growth, integrity and well-being (Deci and Ryan, 2000). Moen and Federici (2012) wanted to measure the effect of coaching on need satisfaction at work and found that executive coaching largely affects autonomy and relatedness, and that coaching-based leadership affects autonomy and competence.

For another thing, Elston and Boniwell (2011) found that coaching can serve to reflect upon one’s own strengths and on how to apply them in the workplace, and consequently used the VIA Inventory of Strengths (Peterson and Seligman, 2004) model for a coaching intervention aimed to assess the strengths of a group of 6 women working in financial services whose awareness about such strengths led to their application and to positive emotions.

Finally, Baron and Morin (2010) report a study in which executive coaching increased self-efficacy related to managerial skills. Jones et al. (2006) report that executive coaching can contribute to managerial flexibility including proactive behaviour, adaptability and resilience.

Team coaching can contribute to training and learning at a group/team level

According to the Team Coaching Theory (TCT) (Hackman and Wageman, 2005) the leader (either a formal leader or a fellow group member) coaches the team through motivational, consultative and educational functions in order to maximize the team effectiveness. The educational function is an integrate part of team coaching, it consists of time for reflection during the post-performance phase. One of the studies aimed to test the predictions of TCT showed that team coaching functions actually enhance the team performance process (Liu et al. 2009).

Moreover, team coaching does not exclude traditional forms of training. Goldberg (2003) proposes that a team coach can act as a trainer, engaging members in skills acquisition and ask them to immediately put in practice the newly acquired behaviours and knowledge.

Furthermore, team coaching can also be used to improve team innovation capabilities. Rousseau et al. (2013) underline the importance of team coaching in stimulating innovation (generation of new idea, processes, products, procedure) in work teams.

Limitation of contribution and effectiveness of workplace coaching to training and learning

Notwithstanding all of the above, Blackman et al. (2016) report a systematic, critical review of 111 published empirical papers investigating business coaching. Their findings are partially convergent with the ones mentioned so far concerning the effectiveness of coaching, but they also report a number of issues to be addressed. Essentially, they underline that all the studies conducted so far have been carried out in real-world settings where it is difficult, if not impossible, to create the ideal conditions for a control group. Taking into consideration these and other researches, we can conclude that there are some limitations in the contribution and effectiveness of workplace coaching to training and learning.

In particular, we have identified the following:

– lack of full understanding of the mechanism that support effectiveness in coaching;

– lack of full understanding of outcomes and side-effect impacts of coaching;

– lack of full understanding of the costs of coaching.

Lack of full understanding of the mechanism that support effectiveness in coaching

We have not found a straightforward indication of the contribution paid to coaching effectiveness by the coach’s background, the methodology used and their personality. Bono et al. (2009) compare the practices of psychologist and non-psychologist coaches, in terms of methodologies and activities undertaken and outcome of their work. They recorded relevant similarities in the activities performed and few differences in their level of effectiveness whose magnitude, small to moderate in size, was roughly equal to the one existing between psychologists belonging to different schools. Similarly, de Haan et al. (2016) found that the effectiveness of coaching intervention depends upon the strength of the working alliance but not on the coach or coachee’s personality traits or personality match. This lead to the hypothesis, supported by Blackman et al. (2016), that there should be some conditions for effective coaching that are different from the particular approach or tool being used such as : coaches and coachees’ characteristics, relational features, organizational context, the coaching process. None of them are specific to a given model, technique or theoretical approach.

Therefore, more research should be undertaken to understand and isolate the effectiveness of coaching from other moderator effects. Frese et al. (2003) point out that a good training evaluation research would need to employ a pseudo-training group (other than the control group) to ascertain the existence of effects like the Hawthorne or the placebo ones, in a similar way as the one used in psychotherapy research.

Lack of full understanding of the outcomes and side-effect impacts of coaching

First, Blackman et al. (2016) advocate that most of the studies have so far been focused on measuring effectiveness against participants’ feedback given during or immediately after the coaching, not considering long-time effects and organizational indicators. Moreover, they report that often, the goal the coachee strives to achieve is not necessarily the one that the organization is after, suggesting a possible clash between the effectiveness of coaching as perceived by the coachee vs. the effectiveness of coaching as perceived by the entire organization.

Second, there is no straightforward indication of the impact of organizational coaching onto those that have not been involved as coachees. Coaching inside organizations is often not an isolate event but part of a larger program of talent management (TM) (Iverson, 2016). In this situation, the motivation and commitment of employees excluded from such programs can be undermined (Malik and Singh, 2014) as well as the perceived corporate social responsibility (CSR) of the organization (Lacey and Groves, 2014). Thus, caution is recommended when embracing initiatives that promote talent development to avoid unexpected side-effects.

In addition, there is a gap into the literature about the effect on the individuals that are adopting coaching skills, i.e. managers that have been trained and asked to apply coaching behaviours toward their subordinates. Grant (2010) found that from the manager-coach perspective, the perception of pros of learning and adopting new coaching attitudes toward their subordinates overcomes the perceived costs only after about 6 months and no relation between the manager’s coaching skills and their own wellbeing was found.

Finally coaching could be also used in a way that is different from its explicit purpose, leading to improper outcome. Ben-Hador (2016) reports a personal case study in which coaching has been used to tacitly evaluate the coachee and as a tool for exerting power.

Lack of full understanding of the costs of coaching

The costs of coaching respect to other traditional training tools may be higher. Gold et al. (2013) emphasize that among the problems of coaching there is the amount of resources required. Blackman et al. (2016) report that there was no evidence of a superiority of coaching respect to other training tools. Giving the comparability of the effect size, and the apparent high cost of coaching, a comparative return of investment analysis between coaching and other training and learning tools would be beneficial.


In conclusion, we acknowledge that there are both contributions and limitations in applying coaching to workplace training and learning; that so far coaching has given its contribution to the process of training (in particular to the transfer of training and organizational learning) to the process of development (including leadership and management development) and to team training and learning.

Furthermore, there are evidences supporting the effectiveness of coaching and such evidences show an effect size comparable with the ones of other training tools.

Notwithstanding all of the above, limitations have emerged in particular regarding a lack of proper measure of outcomes, of full understanding of the underlying mechanisms involved in coaching effectiveness, of full understanding of its potential negative side-effects and of its potential costs compared to others techniques.

Therefore, despite the apparent superiority of arguments supporting the effectiveness of coaching as a training and learning “booster”, the abovementioned limitations are such that may risk to put off sceptical decision makers inside organizations from undertaking a long term commitment with coaching initiatives.


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