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Developing coaching through research

Sarah Corrie


Imagine that some years ago, you coached someone who achieved transformational results through the work you did together. This client never forgot your impact and one day you receive a call from a solicitor who explains that your former client has left you a gift in then- will. The solicitor tells you that your inheritance is a substantial sum of money - more than enough to be able to take a year out of your regular work and cover all of your salary needs and expenses. However, the terms of this gift are that during this year out you will devote yourself to undertaking a specific piece of research. The topic and focus of the research are entirely down to you - you can investigate whatever you like and use the methodology of your choice. The project could be a large-scale multi-centre research trial or a small-scale, in-depth analysis of aspects of your own practice, but regardless of its focus you can rest assured that there is sufficient money available to frilly fund the project and to pay for any additional resources that you need. Putting aside for a moment any practical or ethical sensitivities, how would you react to such a proposition? Would it feel like the opportunity of a lifetime, or a sentence to endure? Would you know exactly what you wanted to research, or would you be left floundering, wondering where to start? Would you ultimately accept the gift or decline it, and what are the factors that would inform your choice?

Research is central to establishing the integrity of all professions concerned with enabling human change. The thoughtful and judicious application of research findings has the potential to benefit all levels of coaching delivery, from the services that coaches provide to their clients, to the commissioning of coaching and perhaps, ultimately, to public policy. Thus, research has a vital role to play in supporting the advancement of coaching and in shaping perceptions of its credibility.

At the same time, for many of us, research can often feel remote or even daunting - an activity separate from practice carried out by individuals and communities whose interests, priorities and skills differ significantly from our own. If, then, you responded with a degree of anxiety (or even horror!) to the fictitious scenario at the start of the chapter, know that you are not alone. For some, the concerns of the practitioner and those of the researcher seem to exist in two separate worlds.

However, when research and practice become polarised, everyone loses. As coaches we lose because we are deprived of access to creative and robust knowledge that can support, challenge and refine our practice. Our clients lose because they are working with coaches who are not stimulated in their thinking by the varied ideas, perspectives and findings that research offers. Equally, researchers lose because they are disconnected from the wealth of context-specific knowledge that typifies professional practice including the myriad procedural rules through which coaches bring knowledge to life for the benefit of their clients. Thus, research has much to learn from practice in the same way that practice has much to learn from research. Where the two work together as complementary' endeavours, both are enriched, and our clients are more likely to receive the best of what coaching has to offer.

The aim of this chapter is to facilitate a thoughtful engagement with the many ways in which we can investigate our practice, learn from experience, and vitalise our work. In order to achieve this, we shall explore some of the challenges involved in creating a seamless partnership between coaching research and practice in an era dominated by the notion of evidence-based practice. We then explore how research might be conceptualised more broadly as a context for learning and discovery, taking account of the role that coaches have as both producers and consumers of knowledge. Finally, in the spirit of this broader conceptualisation, the chapter introduces a visual representation of some of the factors that shape our enquiries. This is offered in the hope that it might enable you, the reader, to arrive at a personalised, contextually astute and reflexive response to the many contributions that research has to offer our discipline.

Whilst reading this chapter, I would like to invite you to remain open to reexamining your own relationship with research as both a consumer of others’ work and as a producer of your own. I also invite you to consider whether, in the light of the ideas presented, it would be beneficial to you to revise any prior beliefs about research in order to support your learning and development. Ultimately, by engaging in this journey of exploration, my hope is to nurture a refreshed understanding of research that can help you create more effective contexts for discovery of your own, and to equip you to ask the questions that matter most - to you, your clients and the coaching community.

Why research matters: the accountability agenda

The field of coaching is at an important point in its development. In recent years, the popularity of coaching has grown substantially - both as a service requested by clients1 and as a career choice for practitioners. At an organisational level, many managers now see coaching as a necessary competence. Coaching skills are also increasingly expected of professionals including occupational, clinical and health psychologists. Coaching, it would seem, is a flourishing industry.

However, the growing demand for, and availability of, coaching tells us nothing about its effectiveness. Indeed, historically the field has been criticised for making fervent pronouncements about effectiveness that exceed the evidence which supports such claims (Briner, 2012). Although tire coaching industry has developed exponentially since the 1990s when life coaching courses were in abundance and coaching-specific research was virtually non-existent (Grant & O’Connor, 2019), there is no room for complacency. Coaching is still an emerging discipline, an unregulated profession and as yet has no nationally agreed standards or training routes. Thus, if coaching is to maintain its credibility, and to assert confidently its place alongside more well-established helping professions, being able to make claims through recourse to something more robust than enthusiastic anecdotes is vital.

Critics such as Briner draw our attention to one very important function of research - namely, its ability to hold us accountable for the claims that we make. Conceptualising research as a vehicle of accountability and thus, justification has been increasingly privileged in recent years, gaining ascendancy through the movement of evidence-based practice. Introduced originally into healthcare by Sackett et al. in 1996, the principle that practice should be evidence-based has become so central to how the professions establish their credibility and how collectively we think about ‘best practice’ that it warrants consideration as a phenomenon in its own right. This is considered next.

The ascendancy of evidence-based practice

As perhaps the clearest and most well-developed manifestation of how research holds practitioners accountable for their work, evidence-based practice has been defined as:

the conscientious, explicit and judicious use of current best evidence in making decisions about the care of individual patients . . . integrating individual clinical expertise with the best available external clinical evidence from systematic research.

(Sackett et al., 1996, p. 71)

In extending this definition to coaching, Grant and O’Connor (2019) define evidence-based coaching as:

the intelligent and conscientious use of relevant and best current knowledge, integrated with professional practitioner expertise in making decisions about how to deliver coaching to coaching clients and in designing and delivering coach training programmes.

(p. 4; italics in original source)

Both definitions, although originating from within different professional contexts, capture a value which lies at the heart of evidence-based practice - namely, a commitment to ensuring that the services we deliver to our clients are based on the best available knowledge about what works for whom. This commitment also signals to the professions the moral necessity of basing our work on robust data, systematically gathered and impartially interpreted (Come, 2003, 2010; O’Donohue & Henderson, 1999). For an emerging profession such as coaching, therefore, the pursuit of an evidence-base affords significant advantages. These include:

  • • Ensuring that we keep our knowledge up to date for the benefits of our clients;
  • • Improving the quality of the services we offer through developing our work;
  • • Maintaining standards;
  • • Increasing confidence in the sendees that we deliver (our own and those who buy or otherwise commission coaching services) and because of this:
  • • Enhancing credibility;
  • • Protecting clients against the uncritical application of method, technique or intuition and
  • • Providing an ethical basis for providing a service for which we charge fees.

On initial examination, it can feel difficult to even question such a seemingly obvious and valuable innovation. After all, who could truly argue against the idea that our clients deserve anything but the expert application of the latest evidence of what works? Who would not want a conscientious coach who is striving to underpin their work with state-of-the-art knowledge? Evidence-based practice, then, is an inherently plausible idea. Yet, as the Italian Marxist and political activist Antonio Gramsci observed, ideas that are plausible to the point of seeming beyond question are precisely those that require scrutiny.

Towards an understanding of evidence

As Grant and O’Connor (2019) observe, despite the rhetoric, using the research literature to inform practice in the way that evidence-based practice advocates is no easy task. First, a number of research methodologies are complex. Making sense of statistical data and the premises that underlie their correct application, for example, requires specialist knowledge that may be inaccessible to many coaches. Second, if we are to draw on evidence to justify our claims or shape our practice, we need to be clear what is meant by evidence and how we can recognise ‘good’ evidence especially if we are not trained in research methodology.

Attempts to define and categorise the multiple forms of evidence available to us have tended to result in hierarchical representations of different types of data. Consider, for example the widely adopted classification proposed by the Department of Health (1999):

  • • Type I evidence: at least one good systematic review including a minimum of one randomised controlled trial.
  • • Type II evidence: minimum of one good randomised controlled trial.
  • • Type III evidence: at least one well-designed study without randomisation.
  • • Type IV evidence: minimum of one well-designed observational study.
  • • Type V evidence: opinion of experts, service users and carers.

Hierarchies of this kind provide an important insight into the implicit assumptions that underpin the notion of research as accountability. For example, although hierarchical position is not synonymous with usefulness and the type of evidence required depends on the nature of the enquiry', Sackett et al.’s (1996) original definition of, ‘integrating individual clinical expertise with the best available external clinical evidence from systematic research’ (p. 71) does seem to encourage us to cast our vision to the upper levels. This is perhaps because with each move up the hierarchy, the evidence is believed to become more compelling as a function of its greater objectivity and decreasing bias. Thus, types I and II evidence have come to represent the gold standard for the professions and therefore, that to which coaching has also aspired. Indeed, knowledge that takes the form of types I and II evidence is often what scholars and buyers of coaching look to in order to appraise the standing of the field. Equally, Briner’s (2012) critique stems in part from the fact that historically, there has been a lack of randomised controlled trials demonstrating the efficacy of coaching interventions. However, as an emerging discipline that is still developing its own distinct knowledge-base, a dearth of randomised controlled trials in coaching (at least relative to other fields of practice) is not perhaps surprising. So what type of research has coaching produced so far and how has coaching research fared when examined through the agenda of accountability?

The body of research that underpins coaching has grown substantially in the last two decades (Fillery-Travis & Corrie, 2019). Alongside an expansion of studies overall as well as a diversity of contexts in which these studies are conducted, the journals and books devoted to coaching research have increased considerably. As coaching research has established itself, several scholars have provided summaries of the research that currently characterises the field.2 In looking across the literature in its entirety Fillery-Travis and Corrie (2019), for example, identify three distinct strands of coaching research: (1) coaching outcomes (e.g. early studies looking at return on investment, randomised controlled trials, customised surveys incorporating multi-rater feedback), (2) process studies (e.g. Fillery-Travis and Lane’s (2006) identification of three core clusters of relevant factors: coach attributes, client attributes and coaching practices) and (3) the more recent body of research investigating the coaching interaction (i.e. the relational elements of coaching and how these influence the outcomes obtained). Along similar lines, Grant and O’Connor (2019) have also identified three dominant strands of coaching research: outcome studies, coach-coachee relationship studies and the characteristics of effective coaches and studies investigating how coaching works. Taken as a whole, although there is still some way to go, our research shows promise in enabling the development of a distinct knowledge-base and in demonstrating its credibility through mapping its claims against the type of evidential hierarchy outlined earlier. However, in positioning our research in this way, we also confront some challenges.

First, as noted earlier, the ‘evidence’ of evidence-based practice is believed to become more compelling as a function of its decreasing bias and greater objectivity. However, objectivity is a tall order for all social sciences where multiple confounding variables are ever-present (see the British Psychological Society, 2016, for a detailed exploration of these issues). Moreover, evidence is not fixed. What ‘works’ in one setting may not translate to other populations, social contexts or historical moments. This is of particular relevance given that we are now living and working in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world (Barber, 1992) where simple, linear cause-effect relationships rarely apply (Cavanagh & Lane, 2012).

Additionally, in making sense of the different forms of evidence to which we are exposed and through which we are expected to justify our claims, it is necessary to remember that we live in a culture that is heavily invested in numerical data (Wheatley, 1999). In the context of commissioning and evaluating coaching, numbers and measurement still tend to be equated with status and authority. However, an uncritical allegiance to numerical data may have some unintended consequences in that it (1) decontextualises the evidence-gathering endeavour;

  • (2) encourages us to seek simple measures to capture complex experiences and
  • (3) runs the risk of polarising science and practice as opposed to seeing them as complementary activities within the same cycle of discovery Thus, the belief that it is possible to build an evidence-base for coaching that is stable, constant, objective, decontextualized and reassuringly numerical is inherently problematic.

One potentially useful Tens’ through which we might better understand, critique and debate the pursuit of evidence-based coaching comes from the 20th-century Italian Marxist and political activist Antonio Gramsci (see Hoare & Sperber, 2016). Imprisoned for his political beliefs and activism dining Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship, Gramsci wrote the now celebrated ‘prison notebooks’ which may offer us a way of making sense of our own historical context.

Gramsci understood that political power was ultimately achieved not through controlling the economy or the institutions that govern society but rather through transforming the cultural beliefs that go towards creating what he termed senso commune (loosely translated as ‘common sense’), a collective body of assumed, unquestioned knowledge about the nature of the world through which we navigate our way through life. Once a political stance, creed or idea becomes part of a society’s common sense it acquires the status of ‘normal’; that is, it becomes a reality that is so obvious to any sensible, fair-minded person that it ceases to become a legitimate topic for reflection, discussion or debate. In essence, by making a belief or perspective ‘normal’ it becomes immune to challenge.

Although Gramsci’s context was very different from our own and indeed from the political and historical contexts in which both evidence-based practice and coaching have emerged, his insights may have something valuable to teach us about the rapid absorption of evidence-based practice into our society. Specifically, it could be argued that the importance of pursuing an evidence-base has acquired the status of ‘normal’ and as such is so inherently plausible that it is beyond question and thus immune to critique or change. Examining the rise of evidence-based practice through a Gramscian lens may, then, help us fashion a more thoughtful response to our current ways of accumulating coaching-specific research, as well as helping us consider afresh what we want and need our knowledge to do for us.

Along similar lines, Come (2010,2014) and Sturdee (2001) have argued that it is vital to understand evidence-based practice as a social phenomenon that has emerged in a specific political, economic and historical context where evidence has an investment value to those that produce it. For these reasons Sturdee (2001) encourages us to give serious consideration to the following types of question as we seek to make sense of the knowledge that is produced by others and generate our own:

  • • Who decides what counts as evidence?
  • • Who owns the evidence (and is therefore entitled to make statements and set precedents on the basis of it)?
  • • What is the best way to use the information obtained?
  • • What is the likely impact?
  • • Who gains and who loses from this information?
  • • Who are the stakeholders who have an investment in the data we gather?

Thus, seemingly clear, logical and straightforward questions about the effectiveness of coaching, or the effectiveness of one intervention relative to another, can serve complex and unspoken agendas which we need to understand in order to avoid being disadvantaged.

Expanding the research agenda: beyond the call for accountability

In positioning research as a socially embedded and politically informed endeavour; rather than one that produces objective data, the intention is not to undermine the value of research or to question the need for accountability. Rather, it is to encourage a more reflective approach to the knowledge that underpins coaching, to raise our awareness of the complex factors that sit behind the flaming of research as a means of evidencing our claims and to become attentive to the many agendas that coaching research might serve, including who might benefit or be marginalised by those agendas. Indeed, if evidence is not immutable and objective but crafted and contextualised, we might be inclined to consider some novel and potentially illuminating questions including:

  • • How do we want to define research for the purposes of our discipline?
  • • What is the range of activities that we might consider as falling under the umbrella of research - how narrow/focused vs broad/inclusive do we want our research to be?
  • • How does coaching develop a research agenda that matches the needs of the field at this point in its development?
  • • To what extent do we want to replicate the approaches to evidence-based practice that have dominated other fields.
  • • Are there other options and if so, what might these be?
  • • Should we understand research primarily as bringing greater objectivity to our practice, with a strong emphasis on the rational or do we want to see research also as harnessing our imaginative capability?
  • • If the latter, what types of methods would we need to create to enable this?
  • • What would an innovative, ground-breaking mutually informative relationship between research and practice look like?

In considering our responses to these questions it is important to appreciate that research is not a singular activity. In order to consider what might be optimally fit for purpose for the development of our field, we need to be clear about how we are defining research - the range and scope of enquiry that falls within this activity, and the types of methodologies that are permissible to use in progressing the field.

Nutley et al. (2007) have defined research as, ‘any systematic process of critical investigation and evaluation, theory' building, data collection, analysis and codification’ (pp. 298-9). This broad and inclusive definition implies that research legitimately encompasses a very wide range of activities, perspectives and methods of investigation. Of course, not every coach - researcher or practitioner - will engage in every type of research, for reasons of interest or opportunity. Nonetheless, Nutley et al.’s (2007) broad and inclusive definition is likely to appeal to the priorities of practitioners who always need to balance rigour with relevance. Consider, for example, du Plock’s (2004) positioning of research where, from within the field of psychotherapy, he embraces forms of investigation as diverse as (1) helping a trainee access literature that is relevant to their studies, (2) being asked to facilitate an awayday for a group of professionals, (3) analysing part of a therapy session and drawing on relevant literature to support this, (4) reading about a medical condition after a family member has received a diagnosis, (5) taking an issue from therapy to supervision and (6) writing a paper on a topic that attempts to fill a gap in the cunent literature.

Although not everyone would agree with du Plock’s way of conceptualising research, the investigative endeavour's of coaches do and arguably should take multiple and varied forms given the vast amounts of data which we routinely collect to inform our work. Moreover, his examples highlight the need to attend more closely to what has been termed ‘practice-based evidence’ (Barkham & Mellor-Clark, 2000) in order to access the types of knowledge that are most compelling to coaches themselves. This is important because perceptions of relevance and resonance will likely impact how we respond to and use research (Corrie &

Callanan, 2001). In attempting to better understand the types of evidence that are particularly persuasive for coaches, Fillery-Travis and Corrie (2019) drew upon Bartunek’s (2007) use of the system of rhetoric developed by Aristotle. Taking the domain of academic writing as the focus of her analysis, Bartunek identifies three different domains of knowledge - logos, which appeals to logic and clarity of argument; pathos, associated with an appeal to our values, beliefs and affect and that often inspires us to action, and ethos, which is concerned with credibility and trustworthiness. Whilst Aristotle argued that all three were necessary for a text to be persuasive, Bartunek observed that practitioner audiences place great store by pathos, an observation with which Fillery-Travis and Corrie (2019) concur, especially given the emotional investment that practitioners typically have in their work.

Perhaps then, one way of understanding the disconnect that can occur between research and practice is where practitioners experience studies as paying insufficient attention to pathos in relation to the questions asked, the methodology selected or implemented or the way the data are reported. However, a privileging of pathos does pose certain challenges. Specifically, it requires us to consider how we differentiate what resonates with us because it is trustworthy from what resonates for less valid reasons (e.g. the results confirm what we already believe or because we like the writing style of the author who has conducted the study). This brings us to another kind of relationship that we have with research - namely, our role and responsibilities as consumers of research.

From producers to consumers: establishing a knowledge-management strategy

If evidence-gathering is a contextualised and socially embedded activity we need to recognise that coaching research has an audience and as consumers of research, we are part of that audience. As consumers, we may draw upon coaching research as a systematic route into a reflexive engagement with our work. For example, if cunent thinking is progressing in one direction and our individual practice is progressing in an entirely unrelated direction, knowledge of the literature can help us consider whether we are highly innovative in our thinking or simply off track. However, as noted earlier in the chapter, becoming a skilled consumer of the work of others is a complex undertaking. How do we consume wisely? How do we discern what is sound? What criteria do we apply to decide when and how to modify our practice in response to the findings of a particular study?

As the range, type, scope and quality of studies expands, being a skilled consumer becomes more of a challenge. Each of us needs to develop a robust knowledge management strategy. In formulating a response to this need, Grant (2016) has developed the Research Relevance-to-Coaching model - a simple and accessible way of helping those working in practice take the best of what coaching research may have to offer in their distinct domain. Briefly, this model comprises two intersecting axes: (1) an axis concerning relevance to coaching

(coaching-specific or coaching-related) and (2) an axis related to degree of strength (whether the research is weak or strong). Coaching-specific research is that which focuses directly on coaching, such as effectiveness studies that attempt to quantify coaching outcomes or in-depth qualitative analysis of specific events occurring within a coaching session. Coaching-related research refers to studies that have indirect relevance - for example, knowledge arising from disciplines such as psychotherapy, neuroscience, management and leadership - where the study might illuminate aspects of coaching practice. Strong evidence refers to well-designed studies whose methodology and outcomes are peer-reviewed and ideally replicated by other scholars. Weak evidence in contrast is where the studies are limited in number, involve small numbers of participants, are poorly designed and, in the case of quantitative studies, have low statistical power.

Grant’s (2016) model of classification is offered as an aid to those who seek a more robust approach to developing their understanding of coaching research. Although he cautions against its use as a definitive system of categorisation, it is a potentially useful way of bringing a clarity of purpose and perspective to a complex terrain that can otherwise feel difficult to navigate. However, with its consideration of strong and weak evidence, we can recognise the echoes of the type of hierarchy described previously: one that emphasises objectivity, seeks to minimise bias and favours wherever possible, a knowledge-base that is formed from within the discipline of coaching itself. We need to consider whether this is a sufficient basis for developing the field, particularly given the realities of delivering coaching in a VUCA world.

Creating knowledge fit for a‘wicked world’

Despite the challenges of uniting research and practice, fruitful, seamless collaborations have arguably never been more essential. The challenges confronting us are changing. Brown et al. (2010) have conceptualised our era as increasingly characterised by ‘wicked problems’. Wicked in this context does not denote immorality but rather how such problems are diabolical in their resistance to our usual approaches to problem solving. For Brown et al. (2010), a wicked problem is:

a complex issue that defies complete definition, for which there can be no final solution, since any resolution generates further issues, and where solutions are not true or false or good or bad, but the best that can be done at the time.

(P- 4)

Examples of wicked problems include climate change, terrorism, poverty, the welfare system, health care, immigration, and organisational growth in the context of global competition, cost-contaimnent and a downward trending economy. Our relationship with technology might also fall within this category: on the one hand its increasingly dominant role in our lives provides many opportunities, including new ways of connecting with our clients (see Stokes, 2021). However, it also poses new challenges including how we engage with and navigate the digital world, the extent to which our personal data is being harvested without our consent and questions concerning the ownership, use and archiving of the massive amounts of data that social media generates.

Wicked problems have been noted by Brown et al. (2010) to have the following characteristics:

  • • They occur in a context of continual change/unprecedented challenges;
  • • They involve multiple stakeholders who have different/conflicting priorities, values and expectations;
  • • The factors driving the problem are complex and enmeshed;
  • • The nature of the problem shifts with each attempt to resolve it;
  • • There is no existing precedent that can inform how to proceed;
  • • There is no ‘right answer’ (and any solution implemented will have unintended consequences that create new dilemmas).

These characteristics pose significant challenges for our existing research methods, many of which were developed in the 20th century or even earlier. It is far from clear whether the body of coaching research needed to address the priorities of tomorrow can be developed from the research methods of today, and a brief examination of the literature within coaching and beyond would seem to suggest the need to expand and in some case replace the ways of conducting research that have characterised many of our enquiries to date.

One obvious example of this changing methodological landscape is the emergence of so-called ‘big data’ - that is, those datasets that are too vast or complex to be managed by traditional methods of data-processing and software programmes. Datasets of this size and scale are forcing a reconsideration of how we collect, store, analyse, share and update our knowledge. As a distinct field of enquiry, big data has the potential to transform our understanding of what is meant by evidence and the ways in which we use it to inform how we work.

Other developments are emerging thr ough philosophical challenges, with some scholars advocating the need for knowledge derived from epistemological and ontological perspectives that differ from the empirical worldview dominant in current representations of evidence-based practice. Whilst advocates of qualitative research have long championed the repositioning of psychological science away from a positivist ideology, a growing interest in critical realism is enabling novel contributions from within coaching and beyond. In clinical psychology, for example. Pilgrim (2018) has argued that a critical realist perspective is a means of ‘(rescuing) us from the rock of implausible positivism and the hard place of postmodernism’ (p. 12). Williams et al. (2016) have applied a critical realist approach to research aimed at enhancing professional practice in nursing. In coaching, Kovacs (2016; Kovacs & Come, 2017) applied realist evaluation to investigating the role of case formulation in complex coaching assignments arguing that the knowledge-base of coaching is optimally developed through seeking to uncover the generative mechanisms that produce different outcomes.

A further response to the investigative challenges of wicked problems has been transdiciplinarity (Nicolescu, 2002). Transdisciplinarity is concerned with complex and heterogeneous forms of knowledge and knowledge production, transcending the concents and methods of any single academic discipline. Its fusion of the cross-disciplinary perspectives champions both local context and uncertainty and ‘includes the practical reasoning of individuals with the constraining and complex nature of social, organisational and material contexts’ (Lawrence, 2010, p. 18).

Finally, the growing popularity of professional doctorates should also be considered. Professional doctorates are practice- rather than institutionally-based and located specifically in the candidate’s own work context. This ‘brand’ of doctorate aims to produce original contributions to practice and generates a form of knowledge that leads to professional or organisational change (CRAC, 2016). These advanced programmes of study also attest to the increasingly creative ways in which scholars are seeking to better unite the worlds of research and practice in order to generate knowledge that has relevance for the world around us.

Whilst it is beyond the scope of this chapter to examine these initiatives in depth, the aim in headlining them is to highlight that what we mean by research and ‘doing research’ is changing in potentially unprecedented ways. Taken collectively, these perspectives and approaches on what research might look like offer exciting and innovative ways of supporting the field of coaching in creating, critiquing and refining the types of knowledge that befit the evolving needs of our clients and our communities (local, national and global). In looking across disciplines as diverse as behaviour analytics, philosophy, and transdisciplinarity and practice-based evidence, we can appreciate how such emerging trends might also open up new types of conversation between practitioners and researchers that enable the identification of common concerns and complementary knowledgegathering endeavours.

Emerging conversations: new connections, new horizons

So far in this chapter, the focus has been on how coaches might position themselves as producers and consumers of their own knowledge-base, but is there potential for coaching to adopt an additional role as innovators in research methodology? At the 5th European Conference of Coaching Psychology (2015) Professor Jamie Hacker Hughes, a former President of the British Psychological Society, described coaching psychology as setting an example for the Society in terms of its cross-disciplinary relevance, and its creative approach to interdisciplinary activity. What unites us as a conununity of practitioners and scholars is an interest in being at the vanguard of human change interventions, a desire to find innovative ways to enable individuals, organisations and conununities to flourish, and a commitment to extending psychological knowledge and practice to new stakeholder groups (as noted at the start of this chapter, coaching is a rapidly expanding field). Is there the potential, then, for coaching to be at the forefront of research innovation rather than attempting to demonstrate respectability by reproducing what has gone before? Could coaching even lead the way in helping other disciplines re-examine their relationship to research and how they produce and consume evidence?

It would be naive to assume that in the current climate of accountability we could side-step the dominant agenda of evidence-based practice. Nonetheless, it could be argued that with its broad knowledge-base and cross-disciplinary relevance, coaching is uniquely placed to reach across professional groups and facilitate what Nutley et al. (2007) have described as research enhancement strategies that ‘encourage greater variety of voices in opportunities for dialogue’ (p. 298). Seen in this light, it may be useful to conceptualise our research activities as providing an ‘organising context’ through which we can develop good investigative habits and acquire principles and methods that provide an optimal context for learning and discovery (Corrie, 2014).

In the spirit of capturing this broader positioning of coaching research, I offer the following visual representation of some of the factors to which it would seem imperative to attend (see Figure 4.1). Derived from work originally conducted in



Figure 4.1 Lenses through which to understand coaching research

2014 (Corrie, 2014), this representation of coaching research draws our attention to some of the issues, themes and perspectives highlighted in this chapter as a way of (1) aiding understanding of our individual positioning as both producers and consumers of knowledge and (2) becoming more collectively aware of the multiple agendas that our research can serve.

The foreground of Figure 4.1 identifies four core areas or Tenses’ through which we can, individually and as a community, examine our investigative endeavours in order to better understand what we have achieved so far and where we might now need to be headed. For example, questions arising from the first position, that of‘Context’, might include the following:

  • • What are the ‘hot topics’ in your particular area of coaching?
  • • Who determines what good evidence is in your specific context?
  • • Who is currently producing the evidence that influences you (i.e. who is shaping your actions as a consumer of research)?
  • • Who else is using this research?
  • • Who has a claim on your evidence?
  • • Who might use or misuse your evidence?
  • • For whom is your research good or bad news?

Questions arising from the second position, that of ‘Purpose’, might include the following:

  • • What purposes do you want your research to serve?
  • • What purposes do others want it to serve?
  • • What will ‘success’ look like?
  • • Who has the power to define success in relation to the research that you produce?

Questions arising from the third position, that of ‘Evidence’, might include the following:

  • • What type of fatowledge or evidence most resonates with you? This might be:
  • • Dialogues with other scholars and stakeholders;
  • • Professional guidelines;
  • • Your values, attitudes, beliefs, and/or those of your clients;
  • • Theories, models and frameworks;
  • • Research studies;
  • • Externally imposed requirements such as organisational or professional codes of conduct, national policy, etc.;
  • • Your own reflective practice;
  • • Feedback from clients and other stakeholders.
  • • Why is this type of evidence so impactful for you?
  • • What do you gain and lose by privileging these sources of knowledge over others?
  • • Who defines good evidence in your specific context?

Questions arising from the fourth position, that of ‘Knowing How’, might include the folio whig:

  • • What is your knowledge management strategy?
  • • How will you synthesise current evidence with your own practitioner-based evidence?
  • • What will your response be if the available evidence and your own professional experience conflict?
  • • What types of conversation and with whom would help you advance your knowledge at this point in your career?
  • • What are the most important questions you need to ask right now?
  • • What are the under-valued questions that as a coaching community we need to champion?

The background in Figure 4.1 indicates how at any point in time we can align ourselves more closely with the role of consumer or producer (horizontal axis) and position ourselves as reflector on, or implementer of, any knowledge to which we are exposed (vertical axis). Within this broad terrain we might choose to locate ourselves at any point along these two axes as a function of the nature of the question in hand, our working context or the way in which our careers are configured. Thus, depending on how we position ourselves as consumers, producers, reflectors and implemented, we may find it useful to engage with the following questions:

  • • What issues and questions are most pressing for me in my practice right now?
  • • What methods of investigation would help me answer those questions?
  • • Do I have the knowledge to apply those methods or do I need assistance?
  • • What methods of investigation are most likely to help me grow in my learning and development more generally?
  • • What skills would I need to implement those methods of investigation to best advantage?
  • • To what extent can my approach be driven by my own agenda for myself and my career and to what extent do I need to take account of the concerns and priorities of others?
  • • What types of research, produced by others, do I think should inform my practice and why?
  • • What type of research strategy is needed to optimally advance the field of coaching?
  • • What are the strengths and limitations of this current research strategy?
  • • Who is currently most influential in deciding what counts as evidence in coaching?
  • • What might their agendas be?
  • • Who gains and who loses from the way collectively we have conceptualized, conducted and disseminated coaching research to date?

This is as yet an untested approach to landscaping some of the themes raised in this chapter and only time will tell if it has any value to those who wish to shape coaching through the enterprise of research. As such, it would fall short of the standards imposed by those who have a strict allegiance to current ways of thinking about evidence-based practice. Nonetheless, if we are to cultivate curiosity and creativity in our pursuit of novel perspectives and methodologies a willingness to share emerging ideas about how to make sense of our changing world would seem to be vital. It is in the spirit of this pursuit that this representation of coaching research is presented.


The field of coaching has witnessed an exponential increase in both supply and demand, and high-quality research is needed to inform all stages of its commissioning, creation, delivery and evaluation. However, helping the field establish its effectiveness is only one of the benefits that research has to offer. When we conceptualise research as concerned primarily with justification and accountability, we can lose sight of other roles that it can play in helping us learn and grow in a climate of discovery'.

In this chapter, it has been argued that far from being an objective and impartial endeavour, research is always embedded in specific political, social and historical contexts, even though these contexts can be difficult to discern. By adopting a broader, more inclusive definition of the range of activities that can be encompassed under the umbrella term of ‘research’ we can better appreciate how investigative endeavours of all kinds have a role to play in advancing the knowledge that underpins our discipline. The need to learn and grow within a VUCA world that increasingly confronts us with wicked problems opens up a wealth of opportunity for scholars everywhere to share their vision of how practitioners and researchers can work together to create a body of knowledge that can shape our exciting, dynamic and emerging field. Identifying some of the myriad ways of pursuing such an agenda really would be a conversation worth having.


  • 1 For ease of reading in the context of this chapter the term ‘client’ is used to refer to both the dir ect recipients of coaching and those who may have commissioned coaching, such as in tire case of an organisation commissioning coaching for one of its executives. Tire term ‘ coachee ’ is tised only where citing tire work of an author who has specifically used this label.
  • 2 It is beyond the scope of this chapter to provide a comprehensive summary of the different forms of research activity and these categorisations should not be considered a systematic literature review. For a more detailed review, the interested reader is referred to Fillery-Travis & Corrie, 2019; Fillery-Travis & Passmore, 2011; Grant & Cavanagh, 2007; Jarvis et al., 2006).


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Chapter 5

Th e contribution of coaching to mental health care

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