The science of coaching

Manager coaching direct report

The coaching industry appears to be experiencing an exponential rise in popularity, with one global survey of coaches estimating that the coaching industry is worth over $2 billion annually.1 Although academic research has slowly begun to build a case for the effectiveness of coaching,the credibility of coaching remains partially stifled by its widespread lack of evaluation and the dramatically varying approaches taken by coaches.3

It’s for this reason that it’s critical to identify whether there’s a science underlying coaching and, if so, what this looks like. Perhaps unsurprisingly, psychological research and theory together show that coaching is in fact underpinned by solid foundations. Here, I’ll discuss just five evidence-based components of coaching that underpin its effectiveness.

1.     Andragogy

Andragogy refers to ‘adult-led’ learning and can be compared with pedagogy, or ‘child-led’ learning. Whilst pedagogy assumes that education comes from above, such as from a teacher or adult, andragogy is more self-directed. Self-directed and intrinsically motivated learning generally leads to greater learning outcomes,4 suggesting that the andragogic approach taken by coaching should be particularly effective in facilitating learning and development.

2.     Challenging assumptions

At the core of many theories of learning in academic literature is the process through which a piece of information leads an individual to question their existing assumptions or beliefs. The role of the coach is often to question the logic underlying coachees’ statements or facilitate discussion around the findings of 360° feedback. Each of these practices can challenge coachee’s assumptions, helping to spark new perspectives and shifts in learning.

3.     Goal setting

Coaching often comprises goal setting, which has been found to be effective by myriad studies.5 These studies have highlighted that goal setting helps to increase performance through directing attention towards the goal, energising behaviour, increasing persistence, and encouraging an individual to seek out effective strategies to achieve the goal.

4.     Reflection

Effective learning requires continuous reflection on the discrepancies between intended and actual outcomes.6 Individuals need to be able to reflect on feedback, drawing lessons about the effectiveness of their actions. Although coaching is primarily future-focused, it often comprises some degree of reflection that can facilitate learning and development.

5.     Context

We all know that the current business environment is competitive, uncertain and complex. As a result, businesses are unsure what skills will become particularly important in tomorrow’s business world. Due to its focus on enabling people, rather than teaching them a defined set of skills, coaching better equips people to navigate future challenges, whatever they may be.



It’s clear, therefore, that there is a science underlying business coaching. Although I’m sure many people have known that coaching works for a while now, understanding the science underpinning this approach helps coaching practices to yield transformative shifts in behaviour and performance.



1ICF. (2012). ICF Global Coaching Study. International Coaching Federation.

2Jones, R. J., Woods, S. A. & Guillaume, Y. R. (2016). The effectiveness of workplace coaching: A meta-analysis of learning and performance outcomes from coaching. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 89, 249-277.

3Leonard-Cross E. Developmental coaching: Business benefit–fact or fad? An evaluative study to explore the impact of coaching in the workplace. International Coaching Psychological Review, 5: 36–47.

4 Black, A. E. & Deci, E. L. (2000). The effects of instructors’ autonomy support and students’ autonomous motivation on learning organic chemistry: A self‐determination theory perspective. Science education, 84(6), 740-756.

5Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 35-year odyssey. American psychologist57(9), 705-717.

6Villado A. J. & Arthur J. W. (2013). The comparative effect of subjective & objective after-action reviews on team performance on a complex task. Journal of Applied Psychology, 98, 514–528.