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Good Science - Good Practice: Coaching

Tom Giberson
Oakland University

Suzanne Miklos
OE Strategies

This issue brings some changes to Good Science–Good Practice. First, we thank Jamie Madigan for his many years of excellent service to our profession as coauthor of this column. Second, we welcome Suzanne Miklos to the column. Suzanne brings with her many years of success in the field, and we’re looking forward to her contributions. Third, our plan moving forward is to focus each column on a specific theme. When possible, we plan to build upon articles or debates going on in previous or the current issues of TIP.

For this issue, we focus on coaching as a method of leadership/management development. We have selected a handful of articles that inform the practice of coaching from a variety of methods: a case study, an empirical study, and a theoretical perspective. Training in I-O psychology certainly provides a solid foundation for coaching. We believe that although many professionals with a variety of backgrounds have entered the coaching profession, I-O psychology has a strong offering in terms of theory and ability to measure outcomes.

First, Gregory, Beck, and Carr (2011) recently proposed control theory as a natural framework for linking what happens in a coaching relationship to theory. Self-regulation is a core premise within control theory, which suggests we rely on a rational comparison of goals versus performance based on feedback, which in turn motivates us to reduce gaps between a goal and our current standing in contrast to that goal. Responses to goal-performance discrepancy can be improved by teaching self-regulatory skills. Goals and feedback are clearly keys to good coaching. Gregory et al. discuss the impact of higher order goals on those lower in our goal hierarchy as a tool for teaching coachees to recognize discrepancies. For example, a higher order, more abstract goal of career advancement will require that concrete relational and task achievement subgoals be recognized and put in place. A coach can help the coachee realize that not having relational goals specifically aligned to building a network and gaining visibility comes at a cost to the higher order goal.

Coaches also work with clients on setting realistic, challenging goals. Goal striving and self-efficacy are important in reducing gaps between performance and the goal. The coach’s provision of feedback is instrumental in providing clarity and maintaining motivation to reduce discrepancies. It is also helpful for a coach to emphasize mastery, rather than a performance orientation, and encourage an appreciation of feedback and feedback seeking. The article covers a number of basic skills that are ingredients of competent coaching and suggests a framework that can be a teaching tool for coaches who are engaging coachees in managing their own learning.

A second article, Turner and Goodrich (2010) was selected for its use of cases to illustrate the need to draw from multiple theoretical approaches to effectively coach. For example in the case of Beth, a midcareer executive who is being described as volatile and even abusive, understanding the psychological nature of anger is important. Cognition and emotion are related in a way that most coachees do not understand. Building a strong rapport and trust is important for Beth to feel comfortable enough to become self-aware of her patterns and defense mechanisms. In addition, Beth has worked in an environment that modeled and accepted this behavior, rendering social learning theory useful. Knowledge of the effective use of 360-degree feedback processes and the importance of leveraging strengths both contribute to effective action planning for a leader like Beth who has been given significant negative feedback.

Expertise in human development, emotion, and conflict dynamics are examples of knowledge and skill areas needed to effectively manage the complexity that emerges in coaching assignments. The authors point to the literature suggesting that high-achieving clients are at times at risk of derailment when there is an extreme focus on winning and succeeding. Research regarding emotion and cognition suggests that leaders require support when learning and sustaining new behaviors in emotional expression. The authors describe a trusting and accepting relationship as essential. In coaching assignments where emotional regulation is a goal, understanding the psychodynamic nature of emotions can help coaches better understand complex emotions such as anger. Social learning theory adds value in understanding where role models have influenced development of style.

Sharing knowledge about emotional processes and using tools to allow coachees to identify and manage triggers with the corresponding cognitive appraisal provides methodology to support a coachee prone to outbursts. Looking at the executive from the individual and system perspective is important to coaching intended to build improved interpersonal relationships. The authors describe how the use of multiple theories supported effective intervention in successful executives at risk of derailment.

These articles are useful in tandem because the control theory framework addresses a framework for a primary output of coaching: self-regulation. It can set the stage for the second article in which otherwise high-performing executives have undervalued relationship goals and have demonstrated a lack of emotional regulation. I-O psychology has tools to focus on the antecedent emotions and cognitions as well as the social dynamics that are to be mastered.

Sue-Chan, Chen, and Lam (2011) recently examined the relationship among leader–member exchange (LMX), coaching attributions, and employee performance. The authors were interested in the attributions that employees make with regard to their boss’s motives for coaching them. Specifically, they examined the extent to which LMX quality was related to the subordinates’ attributions of their superior’s motivation for coaching them. Further, the authors explored the extent to which attributions of their superior’s coaching motives were related to employee performance.

Leader–member exchange theory suggests that superiors and subordinates develop work relationships based upon social-exchange processes that vary in quality. To simplify, LMX suggests that higher quality LMX relationships develop wherein the superior and subordinate consistently adhere to the transactional agreements between the two; the more consistent, the higher the quality, the less consistent, the lower. Employees with higher quality LMX relationships tend to have greater access to desirable resources and opportunities than those with lower quality LMX relationships.

In other contexts, employee attribution with regard to others’ motives for seemingly altruistic behavior (e.g., citizenship behaviors) may influence the employee’s behavior more so than the behavior itself. For example, Ferris, Bhawuk, Feder, and Judge (1995) found that employee attributions with regard to interpersonal citizenship behaviors (whether to selfish or altruistic motives) influenced the employee’s job satisfaction. In the current context of coaching, will employee’s attributions of superior motives to coach influence their performance?

In summary, Sue-Chan, Chen, and Lam (2011) found that high-quality LMX was positively related to subordinate attribution of supervisor’s altruistic/other-focused interest to coach and that these attributions were positively related to both subjective and objective performance measures. Further, low- quality LMX was related to subordinate attribution of self-focused interests and lower employee performance. This suggests that superiors who engage in coaching with subordinates with whom they have low-quality LMX can actually lower employee performance via coaching.

The authors suggest several practical implications for coaching practice. First, superiors who wish to engage in coaching will achieve much better results if they already have a high-quality LMX with their employees. Second, organizations who encourage formal or informal coaching should consider training not only coaching skills but also techniques for improving LMX quality. Third, perhaps organizations could help employees become more aware of their attribution style—and encourage them to develop more accurate attributions, similar to training often provided to supervisors engaging in performance evaluations. Finally, organizations and managers who wish to engage in coaching should also consider the respective superior–subordinate relationships prior to encouraging coaching across all relationships, lest they do more harm than good!

Ferris, G. R., Bhawuk, D. P. S., Fedor, D. B., & Judge, T. A. (1995). Organizational politics and citizenship: Attributions of intentionality and construct definition. In M. J. Martenko (Ed.), Advances in attribution theory: An organizational perspective. (pp. 231–252). Delray Beach, FL: St. Lucie.

Gregory, J. B., Beck, J. W., & Carr, A. E. (2011). Goals, feedback, and self-regulation: Control theory as a natural framework for executive coaching. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice & Research, 63(1), 26–38.

Sue-Chan, C., Chen, Z., & Lam, W. (2011). LMX, coaching attributions, and employee performance. Group and Organization Management, 36(4), 466–498.

Turner, R. A. & Goodrich, J. (2010). The case for eclecticism in executive coaching: Application to challenging assignments. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 62(1), 39–55.