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Dr Rob Yeung is chartered psychologist and coach at consulting firm Talentspace

It is worth distinguishing between two major categories of one-to-one coaching. Managerial coaching is guidance provided by a line manager or supervisor to a subordinate, with the manager having official authority over the subordinate. In contrast, external coaching – sometimes called ‘executive’ coaching – involves a professional coach without formal power over the individual coachee.

Managerial coaching aims to improve the performance of employees in order to benefit the organisation. However, some styles are more effective than others.

Pressure-based coaching derives its name because managers provide instruction but also extensive pressure to get results. Pressure-based managers communicate their expectations vigorously and reprimand poor performance. Such managers may also publicly criticise employees’ mistakes, set penalties and appear visibly upset when performance expectations are not met, while employees frequently worry about their performance and strive to avoid failure.

Most managers believe that they provide facilitative coaching while many employees report that they actually use the pressure-based style

Growth and fulfilment

Facilitative coaching, by contrast, happens when managers provide direction and create a climate in which growth and the fulfilment of employees’ needs are encouraged. Facilitative managers are less autocratic and invite employees to specify topics and goals of interest to them.

Managers using this coaching style usually provide praise and reassurance to orient employees on reaching both organisational and personal goals. Employees receiving facilitative coaching usually feel inspired and strive towards success.

In an influential study on managerial coaching, researchers headed by Christy Weer at the US’s Salisbury University monitored 714 managers and their direct reports over the course of 54 months. As time went on, employees working for pressure-based managers reported reductions in their commitment towards their organisations while also experiencing reduced performance. In contrast, employees working for facilitative managers reported increasing levels of commitment towards their organisations and experienced higher performance.

Fear of failure

Pressure-based tactics can coerce short-term productivity gains. However, facilitative coaching beats pressure-based coaching over the course of years. With the latter, employees learn to fear failure more than they seek out success.

External coaching should ideally be thought of as something that provides additional benefits alongside high-quality managerial coaching

Unfortunately, managers and employees disagree greatly about the coaching that is provided. Most managers believe that they provide facilitative coaching while many employees report that they actually use the pressure-based style. Clearly, this disconnect is a major problem that seriously hampers the ability of people within organisations to develop.

The right balance

Many organisations hire external coaches to provide one-to-one coaching for managers and executives. Increasingly, individuals also pay privately for support from external, professional coaches.

However, research suggests that external coaching should not automatically be substituted for the internal, managerial approach. Academics led by Rebecca Jones at the University of Worcester in the UK found that while both external and managerial coaching benefited employees, it was actually the latter that had the stronger effect.

External coaching should ideally be thought of as something that provides additional benefits alongside high-quality managerial coaching. Alternatively, individuals often seek support from external coaches when they feel that the managerial coaching they receive is of insufficient quality.

Filter feedback

Perhaps surprisingly, Jones and her associates also found that coaching was less beneficial when it included multisource feedback (eg 360-degree feedback). One reason for this may be that unfiltered feedback from colleagues and customers can often be so negative and unexpected that individuals become upset and less able to focus on their development. Coaching may therefore generally be more effective without using written feedback collected from others.

External coaching also delivers better outcomes when coachees decide on the goals they wish to work on, according to analyses by Sina Gessnitzer and Simone Kauffeld at Technische Universität Braunschweig in Germany. A coachee who first suggests ‘I want to improve my networking skills’ followed by the coach saying ‘Yes, let’s do that’ is likely to get better results from coaching than when it is the coach who initially suggests ‘You could improve your networking skills’ followed by the coachee saying ‘Yes, let’s do that’. The implication is that good coaches should usually ask coachees to decide on their goals and objectives.

However, external coaching is not always successful. Analysing a large database of information on coaches and coachees, researchers led by the University of Central Florida’s Shirley Sonesh found that coaching was much more effective at changing behaviours than altering attitudes. In multiple contexts, coachees were observed to have improved their leadership skills, job performance and other skills. Changes in attitudes, such as levels of motivation and commitment to the organisation, were more resistant to change. This suggests that a coachee’s willingness to be coached is a vital prerequisite to getting benefits from coaching at all.