The Evolution of Workplace Coaching

September 15, 2022

Posted by Sara King

While workplace coaching has been around for a while now, with increasing prominence since the 1990s, it could truly be said that coaching is more accessible and prominent in our workplaces than ever. These days, workplace coaching skills are seen as an essential part of the leader toolkit, and many organisations have rolled out leader as coach training. In some workplaces, team leader titles have even shifted to “team coach” to emphasise the importance of coaching in empowering performance. External coaches used to be sole domain of C-suite executives, and now the growth of the coaching industry and AI platforms has made external coaching accessible to a much bigger pool of leaders within organisations.

While the coaching industry has grown enormously in the last three decades, with more emphasis placed on the training and qualifications of coaches, the emphasis of workplace coaching has also shifted quite significantly. While coaching targeted at performance enhancement or remediation is still common, there is renewed interest in developmental coaching and even coaching for wellbeing. Perhaps this is partly a response to the challenging context of a global pandemic and the increase in hybrid or remote working, but its origins certainly preceded 2020. 

Studies have identified that coaching can have positive effects on resilience and workplace well-being (Grant, Curtayne, & Burton, 2009)As far back as 2016, researchers were studying whether difference modalities of coaching (including virtual) could increase well-being in the workplace (Hultgren, Palmer, & O'Riordan, 2016). The conclusion that was drawn from those early studies was that the right approach to coaching could be helpful with improving workplace wellbeing, and potentially even provide opportunities for early detection of psychological issues.

Of course, recent experience has made both the capability and accessibility for virtual coaching more readily available but has also ramped up the need for coaching to consider the whole person. Studies completed within the context of the Covid 19 have highlighted the protective qualities of psychological flexibility in improving wellbeing (Dawson & Golijani-Moghaddam, 2020; McCracken, Badinlou, Buhrman, & Brocki, 2021). While I’ve written about psychological flexibility in a previous blog Coaching and Psychological Flexibility | BOLDLY, at its heart, one of the broader aims of coaching is to increase the resourcefulness and psychological flexibility of coachees. Being able to look at a challenge from multiple perspectives, identify a broader range of solutions and actions aligned to a goal and to explore one’s thinking are all possible focuses within coaching.

There are however some significant implications of coaching that focuses less on tasks and challenges and more on the whole person, their thinking and their wellbeing. The first is that coaches should be appropriately trained and skilled in the art and science of coaching. The second is that coaches should be trained to recognise the boundaries of their skills and experience and know when a referral to a more appropriately skilled professional is required. And the third is a question for which I don’t yet have the answer, which is what happens  in relation to Coaching AI platforms? It's not that I have any evidence that this hasn’t been considered – but it’s certainly made me curious about how this is addressed.

Back when I first became aware of workplace coaching as a leader, the emphasis was very much on improving performance or skills related to performance. Like most other “leader as coach” programs, my early training used the almost ubiquitous GROW model (Whitmore, 1996). Coach training, certification and qualifications have come a long way since then, with Mental Health First Aid now being a useful addition.

Which brings me back to my original point. The accessibility and availability of coaching is exploding with leader as coach, coaching via AI platforms and external coaching all in a massive phase of growth. So there are a few important messages here.

  1. There are a huge range of options available for coaching, and the evidence suggests coaching can be helpful in a range of situations
  2. The plethora of options means that we can make good quality of coaching available deeper into our organisations
  3. Given the broad range of issues now tackled within workplace coaching, appropriate training, qualifications and experience are essential, including Mental Health First Aid, to ensure that leaders and coaches are able to recognise the signs of issues that are beyond the scope of coaching and the bounds of their skills and experience and refer appropriately.
  4. Whether looking to build the capacity of leader as coach, or select external coaching options, quality training and quality assurance are essential.
  5. We should give careful consideration to how we address these human and ethical issues with the proliferation of AI coaching platforms. 

‍Dawson, D. L., & Golijani-Moghaddam, N. (2020). COVID-19: Psychological flexibility, coping, mental health, and wellbeing in the UK during the pandemic. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 17, 126-134. doi:10.1016/j.jcbs.2020.07.010

Grant, A. M., Curtayne, L., & Burton, G. (2009). Executive coaching enhances goal attainment, resilience and workplace well-being: a randomised controlled study. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(5), 396-407. doi:10.1080/17439760902992456

Hultgren, U., Palmer, S., & O'Riordan, S. (2016). Developing and evaluating a virtual coaching programme: A pilot study. Coaching Psychologist, 12(2), 67-75. 

McCracken, L. M., Badinlou, F., Buhrman, M., & Brocki, K. C. (2021). The role of psychological flexibility in the context of COVID-19: Associations with depression, anxiety, and insomnia. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 19, 28-35. doi:10.1016/j.jcbs.2020.11.003

Whitmore, J. (1996). Coaching for performance: Growing people, performance and purpose (Vol. null).