Coaching: What is it and does it Work?

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Coaching: What is it and does it Work?

Nobody so far has discovered how by training to produce wisdom. (F.C. Bartlett, The Mind at Work and Play, 1951)

Man is the only one that knows nothing, that can learn nothing without being taught. He can neither speak nor walk nor eat, and in short he can do nothing at the prompting of nature only, but weep. (Pliny the Elder, The Natural History)

Business coaching is big business. A business coach might charge a client anything up to £10,000 for six to eight meetings of a few hours. But what do they do and how are they different from various other professionals? Are coaches like counsellors or therapists?

There have been many attempts to make distinctions, consider the ’C’ and ’T’ words and their definitions:

Coach: A Private Tutor who instructs or trains a performer or sport player. They train intensively by instructions, demonstration and practise.

Confessor: A person who gives heroic evidence of religious faith.

Confidant: One to whom secrets are entrusted.

Consultant: Usually a business expert who gives professional advice or services.

Counsellor: A person who gives professional advice.

Teacher: One who teaches or instructs.

Therapist: A person trained in methods of treatment and rehabilitation other than the use of drugs or surgery.

Trainer: Someone who trains — preparing for a test or contest and bringing a desired

degree of proficiency in a specified activity.

It has been argued that essentially coaching consists of one-to-one developmental discussions. It aims to provide people with feedback on both their strengths and weaknesses. It is a relatively short-term activity, except executive coaching, which has a longer timeframe. It is a non-directive form of development. It focuses on improving performance and developing/enhancing an individual’s skills. Coaching activities have both organizational and individual goals. It assumes the individual is psychologically healthy and does not require a clinical intervention. It works on the premise that clients are self-aware, or can achieve self-awareness. Personal issues may be discussed but the emphasis is on performance in the workplace.


What criteria should one use to choose a coach? The following list is a good start:

Training: Has the coach had formal, independent, accredited training in coaching?

Experience: What is their total experience of coaching and of business in particular?

Style & Chemistry: Do they inspire trust; seem similar in energy, politics and humour?

Intellectual Framework: What is their theoretical approach/ process? Can they explain it?

Measuring success: How outcomes will be measured; when, why and how?

Supervision: Is the coach supervised and supported by others?

Self-Awareness: How aware is the coach of his/her strengths and weaknesses? What is their motivation for doing it?


It has been suggested that coaching works in the same way as counselling and therapy because of four reasons.

I. The therapeutic alliance: Through therapy, patients and clients get acceptance, attention, care, respect and support. It is this sense of being understood and assisted that is essential to cure and development.

II. Self-examination : The whole therapeutic process encourages greater self-monitoring and self-analyses which often, in-and-of itself, suggests solutions.

III. Morale: Clients often report being happier and more optimistic because they believe their coping mechanisms and strategies have improved and that the overcoming of their personal difficulties is possible.

IV. Commitment to change: Agree to, and indeed attending, therapy voluntarily and paying for that therapy is a reaffirmation of commitment to change, which is the best predictor of change.

One important study isolated four important factors that account for coaching success:

First, client factors. It is, in short, more important to know who (what kind of person) has the problem than what the problem is. This accounts for a whopping 40 per cent of the effect. It’s called readiness for coaching. It is a mixture of willingness and ability to learn, to change, and to embrace challenge.

Second it’s the relationship between client and coach. The coach can explore and exploit the therapeutic alliance. It’s about collaboration, consensus and support. It’s the effective and affective bond. Again, this has to be tailored to the client. It is about building and maintaining a positive, open, productive and hopefully transformative alliance. The distracted, fatigued or unprepared coach is a poor coach. The alliance is usually based on set and agreed goals and tasks.

The third is client expectations and an ingredient that buys you 15 per cent of the result is that old-fashioned quality sometimes called hope, now called expectations. It is about expectation of improvement, finding new paths to goals and ’agency thinking’: the belief one can if one tries. Coaches speak and leak the message that successful change or progress is possible. They actuate hope by credibility building at the beginning of the relationship.

Fourth the theory and therapy. It accounts for 15 per cent of the power of coaching. The use of healing rites and rituals. The coach’s backgrounds influence their focus. While some look at organizational competition, conflict, dominance and power, others may look at self-awareness and encourage personal SWOTS: the standard old strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats.

Theories organize observation. Some coaches share them with their clients, others don’t. Clearly the good coach needs to know what works for whom. But coaches also need to know about the business world and the dilemma of conflict of interests between the client and the organization. Coaches really have to be business savvy.

Coaching only works if the client is able, ready and willing. It works well if the bond is good: and if the coach instils hope for change. Would an internal mentor do as well? Perhaps. But the external, unbiased, objectivity of an outside coach is often very preferable.


Grover, S., & Furnham, A. (2016). Coaching as a Developmental Intervention in Organizations: A systematic review of its effectiveness and the mechanisms underlying it. Plos One 11(7) o01559137.

Kauffman, C., & Coutu, D. (2009). The Realities of Executive Coaching (pp. 1—25). Harvard Business Review: HBR Research Report.