Coaching is Largely a Sham and Leaders are Largely Born and Not Made Part II

March 29, 2009 by Ken Nowack

“Don’t measure yourself by what you have accomplished, but by what you should have accomplished with your ability.”
John Wooden


Coaching has been around as long as anyone can really remember.  Executives have always had trusted advisors, mentors, Board Members and outside confidants to help them succeed. Mostly it has been informal but in the last few years coaching has become a common “perk” and accepted method of developing talent at all levels of the organization but primarily for those at the top.

However, as Alyssa Freas has written about in a recent Harvard Business Review article, it truly is a “Wild West” out there with a “buyers beware” attitude needed1.  One of my publications in 2003 discussed the explosion in coaching and asked whether it is a fad or something that indeed adds value to sharpen the insight, skills and competence of leaders and non-leaders2.

What Evidence Do We Have that Coaching Works?

From the survey of 100 respondents who received coaching, Manchester Consulting estimated that coaching resulted in an average return of 5.7 times the initial investment. Furthermore, coaching contributed to a perception of increased productivity for 53 percent of respondents and improved quality of work for 48 percent of the respondents. Of those receiving coaching, 61% reported a significant increase in their level overall level of work and job satisfaction.

Olivero (1997) demonstrated that a conventional management training program in the public sector, combined with eight weeks of one-to-one coaching, resulted in a significant increase in productivity of the program participants compared to a control group.

Thatch (2002) tracked 281 executives participating in a six-month coaching and multi-rater feedback intervention.  She discovered that the combination of multi-rater feedback and individual coaching increased leadership effectiveness up to 60% according to direct report and peer post-survey feedback ratings.

Smither et al., (2003) studied 1,361 senior managers who received 360-degree feedback with 404 of these managers working exclusively with an executive coach to review their feedback and set individual goals. Managers who worked with an executive coach were significantly more likely than the other managers to set specific rather than vague goals, to solicit ideas for improvement from their supervisors and demonstrated greater improvement than other managers based on direct report and supervisor ratings.

These studies are typically and frequently cited when someone asks about “evidence based” research suggesting coaching is effective.  It’s easy to conclude from these few studies that indeed coaching is as effective as practitioners and consultants would lead you to believe that it is.

What Evidence Do We Have That People Change?

A very recent thorough literature search on the topic reveals few well designed studies really demonstrating the overall effectiveness of coaching.

Most interestingly, meta-analytic evidence of over 600 studies by two researchers named Kluger and DeNisi suggests that one-third of all feedback interventions, a cornerstone of all coaching models, can actually cause a decrease in performance. So, obviously coaching may not always be the panacea to convert “competent jerks” into “lovable stars” or even uniformly effective3.

A recent meta-analysis of 26 longitudinal studies of multi-rater feedback indicated significant but very small effect sizes that suggest that performance improvements will be practically modest (statistically the effect sizes were very small) for those most motivated and capable of changing behavior4. Finally, Atwater, Waldman, Atwater and Cartier (2000) reported improvement following an upward feedback intervention only resulted for 50% of the supervisors who received it5.

Maybe if the right coach is lined up with the right client with right genetic predisposition to learn and grow and the right environment exists to support behavior change leaders will become effective.  At least three things are pretty clear based on the current evidence based research on coaching effectiveness:

  1. People have natural “set points” for personality traits that are associated with leading and leadership effectiveness.
  2. Motivated people do change but not dramatically over time (small effect).
  3. Feedback to clients may do actual emotional harm that leads to disengagement and demotivation.

Let me know what you think….I’ve got to get back to another one of my largely ineffective coaching engagements….Be well….
[tags]emotional intelligence, leadership, talent management, born versus made, executive coaching, personality, happiness, heritability, leadership effectiveness, kenneth nowack, ken nowack, nowack[/tags]

  1. Sherman, S. and Freas, A. (2004), The Wild West of executive coaching, Harvard Business Review,. Vol. 82 No. 1, November, pp. 82-90 []
  2. Nowack, K. (2003). Executive Coaching: Fad or Future?. California Psychologist, Vol. XXXVI, No. 4, 16-17 []
  3. Kluger, A. & DeNisi, A. (1996). The effects of feedback interventions on performance: A historical review, meta-analysis and preliminary feedback theory. Psychological Bulletin, 119, 254-285 []
  4. Smither, J., London, M. & Reilly, R. (2005). Does performance improve following multisource feedback? A theoretical model, meta-analysis, and review of empirical findings. Personnel Psychology, 58, 33-66 []
  5. Atwater, L.A., Waldman, D., Atwater, D., & Cartier (2000). An upward feedback field experiment. Supervisors’ cynicism, follow-up and commitment to subordinates. Personnel Psychology, 53, 275-297 []

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist (PSY13758) and President & Chief Research Officer/Co-Founder of Envisia Learning, is a member of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations. Ken also serves as the Associate Editor of Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. His recent book Clueless: Coaching People Who Just Don’t Get It is available for free for a limited time by signing up for free blog updates (Learn more at our website)

Posted in Engagement, Leadership Development, Relate

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