PhD in Business and Organizational Management

Research Corner 2020 – 5 Valuable Research Bites 2020

1. Bias in coaching: identifying and reducing biases in our practice

2. Relational Leadership – A novel view on leadership & leadership coaching

3. Coaching effectiveness – Impact of career coaching on well-being and goal attainment

4. The role of working alliance in coaching – A predictor of coaching effectiveness? 

5. Coaching presence – Demystifying the role of the coach & presence in coaching 

1. Bias in coaching: identifying and reducing biases in our practice

Biases kick in when we are stressed, preoccupied, distracted, or in a social media echo chamber. Our biases worsen when our self-esteem suffers a setback, or our individual or social identities are questioned. In these circumstances, stereotyping and identity bias surges, fueling defensiveness or more biased reactions. These are reflexive reactions, not reflective responses. 

The work of American scientist Jennifer Eberhardt adding to the work of the UK scientist Pragya Agarwal (Sway, 2020) explores the five universal features of bias and offers a better understanding around the profound nature of bias in coaching. Their scientific translations inspire us all to develop more awareness of our biases, and set our biases aside in order to treat every person as unique and valuable. 

For our coaching practice, it is vital to recognize that bias is generated reflexively by the brain. It is a distortion and blocks our access to what is emerging in the moment. When our biases are in charge, we are on auto-pilot and unaware of the uniqueness of the present moment and our clients’ experiences.

The good news?

Bias is not innate; it is a social construct. Bias develops and is sustained through social experience and is embedded in social structures. Bias can be deconstructed over time. 

Coaches are called to pay attention to bias, as follows:

1. Notice the brain’s biased activity of categorizing, generalizing, preferring, affiliating, judging, criticizing, or fearing something in or around the clients who are different, such as ‘difficult clients’.

2. Reflect your identity as it reflect self-bias – in what we prefer, and identify with. Self-bias limits our potential to be effective for our clients.

3. Be accepting and non-defensive when implicit bias and stereotypes are pointed out to you by clients.

4. Assume accountability for potential harm caused, often unintentionally, by your stereotypes and implicit biases.


Eberhardt, J. L. (2020). Biased: Uncovering the hidden prejudice that shapes what we see, think, and do. Penguin Books.

Agarwal, P (2020). Sway: Unraveling Unconscious Bias. Bloomsbury Sigma.

2. Relational Leadership – A novel view on leadership & leadership coaching

What is relational about leadership? The novel idea is that leaders are not the fundamental source of leadership. Leadership is conceived more as a democratic phenomenon. It emerges from interactions among individuals working together. Leadership is the socially constructed process, in which individuals that share work shape the way that gives them direction, provides alignment, and produces commitment among them. As such the focus of leadership development ought not to be on the individual leader, but on the team, work groups, and the organization. 

There is a recent emerging narrative that leadership programs do not really produce the impact that organizations need to successfully deal with complex change. Cynthia McCauley and Charlet Palus (2020) address this narrative in their case study and claim that current leadership development: 

  • is behavior-focused and fails to address mindsets that are the source of behavior
  • is leader-centric, ignoring the power shifts in society that elevates followers
  • assesses individual competencies or job performance to increase leadership effectiveness; they rarely include work-group climate or team performance
  • ignores that organizational systems need adapting to support broad individual change
  • does not account for how to deal with hierarchical system and expertise-driven disengaged collaboration in meeting complex challenges. 

The authors used the Direction-Alignment-Commitment (DAC) Framework to explore the relational nature of leadership in their study. The DAC framework supports the following three socially-produced leadership outcomes: 

  1. direction: agreement in a collective on overall goals, 
  2. alignment: coordination of work in a collective, and 
  3. commitment: mutual responsibility for the success and wellbeing of the collective.”

Case study outcomes

It was found that the DAC Framework encourages a shift in the mental model about leadership: 

“from what leaders do to what leadership produces in organizational outcomes, from leadership that “happens inside people” to leadership that “happens between people,” from heroic leaders to “leadership coming from anywhere,” from focusing on individuals to focusing on individuals and collectives.”

The authors describe three developmental threads of leadership development:

  1. The shift from understanding leadership development as solely the development of individuals to understanding it as the development of collectives (that include individuals). Rather than Individual leaders as the target of leadership development, leadership development is expanded broadly to include teams with a focus on developing leadership cultures.
  2. The shift from leadership development is universal and generic to leadership that is local and highly contextualized, adapted and shaped by team leaders on the ground.
  3. The shift from leadership development designed to enhance conformity and the status quo, to leadership development designed to increase diverse participation and to disrupt the status quo.

Outcomes can be applied in coaching on three levels, as follows:

With self as leader:

  1. Considering the role they could evolve into if the focus of leadership was the social construction by leaders and followers of a leadership culture of beliefs and practices.

With leadership coaching clients:

  1. Exploring the beliefs and practices of a leader’s work group that lead to shared goals, alignment on the work needed to reach goals, and optimizing the group’s commitment to both of these activities.
  2. Considering exploring the DAC framework of socially constructed leadership and its potential to accelerate organization change or reinvention.

Exploring ways to improve a work group’s leadership culture by supporting everyone to step up to identify beliefs and design practices that cultivate the desired collective outcomes.


McCauley, C. D. & Palus, C. J. (2020). Developing the theory and practice of leadership development: A relational view. Leadership Quarterly.

3. Coaching effectiveness – Impact of career coaching on well-being and goal attainment

Employability literature emphasizes that higher education ought to support “students to increase their confidence, self-belief and self-efficacy through their university studies.”. A number of studies have confirmed that coaching has a significant positive effect on self-efficacy. However, despite coaching being recognized as an effective learning tool, coaching has not been used to any significant extent with students – or researched for its effectiveness – in Higher Education institutions.

The role of Higher Education in the UK has been highly polarizing initiating the rise of McKinseyism thinking that “what cannot be measured has no value” amongst policy makers and academic managers. 

Universities have turned into places of learning without debates or political activity and resemble corporate institutions that exude “numbing brainlessness, everywhere the same suffocating absence of thought and imagination, the same absoluteness about the unquestioning conformity.” 

Preoccupation with academic rankings not only leads to a materialistic mindset in academia but it also affects students’ prospective graduate employment. 

Against this background, Joanna Molyn (2020) conducted a quasi-experimental longitudinal mixed-methods study to examine the link between coaching, students’ self-efficacy and the employability efforts of students from a ‘widening participation university’ (a university which aims to offer education to students regardless of their socioeconomic status, income, age, disability or ethnicity) in the United Kingdom. As such, her study investigated effectiveness of coaching used as an employability-enhancing tool.

In particular, the comprehensive and methodologically robust study examined 

– what aspects of the coaching relationship are most effective in changing students’ career self-efficacy beliefs, outcome expectations and employability efforts

– the impact of gender, ethnicity, perceived social support, socioeconomic status, cultural influences and gender role models on students’ self- efficacy beliefs, outcome expectations and their employability efforts

in the context of the changing role of Higher Education. 

Using Social Cognitive Career Theory (SCCT) as the main theoretical framework, coaching was positioned as a learning experience within SCCT as it recognizes the links between psychological and social effects of gender and ethnicity, the social-cultural environment and career opportunity structures. 

The current study found that students

– identified many benefits of career coaching, including improved resilience

– perceived their coach as a role model. This is consistent with other findings in the literature about the impact of role models. 

However, the current study did not manage to capture quantitatively the effectiveness of coaching. The possible explanation for these findings might be that people overestimate their abilities at the baseline leaving little room for change as a result of the intervention. 

Additionally, the current study found that

– practical advice was of importance to students

– similar backgrounds, age, gender or ethnicity, the same country of origin played an important role in building effective coaching relationships. These findings are consistent with other studies 

– ethnicity strengthened or weakened students’ employability efforts 

– students believed that they had as many career options as others as long as they put effort and motivation into it. 

However, students’ positive self-efficacy beliefs were inhibited by students’ negative perception of themselves. Most students reported having limited access to social capital, that is social support. 

What does that mean for us coaches and coaching practice?

Coaching, as part of a university’s employability strategy, may be a way to address students’ sense of lack of social support. Creating opportunities for students to build social capital should become an important part of universities’ employability agenda. This can be achieved by providing role models with whom students can identify. It is also important that career services use different strategies to reach out to ethnic minority students as these students tend to underuse them. The effectiveness of career coaching can be also increased by allocating career coaches with immigrant background and a career success record to immigrant students.

Career coaches ought to pay attention to how to

– address and integrate students’ sociocultural context into career coaching services

– focus on overcoming ethnic and cultural stereotypes

– encourage students with an ethnic minority background to identify with and connect to support networks in their environment

Training of career coaches should include self-efficacy enhancing strategies. Finally, it is recommended that widening participation universities adapt an employability model that recognizes socioeconomic, cultural and ethnic barriers students in order to support employability efforts of their students more effectively. 


Molyn, J. (2020).The Role and Effectiveness of Coaching in Increasing Self-Efficacy and Employability Efforts of Higher Education Students. EPiC Series in Education Science, 3, pp. 178-187.

4. The role of working alliance in coaching – A predictor of coaching effectiveness? 

While executive coaching is becoming increasingly important, it seems that we need to radically change our understanding of the impact of working alliance – that is, the quality of the coaching relationship – and the role of the client on coaching effectiveness. Previously reported to be an active ingredient of coaching effectiveness, working alliance as the manifestation of shared tasks, goal orientation and bonding/rapport between coach and client appears to not drive coaching outcomes: client’s perception of relating well with the coach produces higher overall outcomes for the client but it is hardly influenced by sessions. 

A most recent academic journal article (de Haan et al., 2020) critically reviews two recent large-scale, randomized controlled trials (RCTs) in executive coaching to drive further exploration into the topic of the coaching relationship as a predictor of coaching outcomes. These studies are important as RCTs represent the methodological gold standard in coaching research. 

One of the trials was designed at senior levels in an industrial setting (de Haan et al., 2019) and the other was an experiment with coaching in a business-school context (Molyn et al., 2019). Each trial demonstrated considerable and significant coaching effectiveness.

Molyn et al’s (2019) randomized-controlled-trial sample, which was longitudinal indicates that – contrary to previous consensus – it seems that working alliance is not strongly related to coaching effectiveness. The strength of the coaching relationship only correlates with a higher effectiveness score from the beginning of the coaching relationship, but it does not significantly correlate with increasing outcomes through further coaching conversations.  In other words, the study could not demonstrate significant effects of working alliance on the change of effectiveness during the coaching. 

The important insight for coaching outcome research is that the client’s relationship scores do not seem to drive outcomes: the client’s sense of relating well with the coach gives clients a higher outcome overall but is hardly influenced by the sessions themselves. In fact, Molyn et al’s (2019) study found the client’s resilience scores to be a much better predictor of outcome and that the predictive power of the other client variables (e.g., self-efficacy, hope, mental well-being, expectancy) investigated in the study were carried by resilience alone.

This means it is now harder than before to associate active ingredients (e.g., working alliance, hope, social support) with the change through coaching per se. The authors of these studies believe that this means that we will have to revise our thinking about coaching effectiveness profoundly. 

A concurrent meta-analysis on the impact of the coaching relationship (Grassman et al., 2019), shows consistently that working alliance is linked to but does not predict coaching outcomes. Findings of this meta-analyis coincide with the outcomes indicated in Molyn et al’s (2019) RCT that, at different time points, working alliance does not correlate with any increase in coaching outcome from the second session onwards. 

How to explain the recent insights into the role of working alliance?

The authors explain this phenomenon as working alliance being important in terms of a general readiness for coaching (i.e., for initial or average values of outcome), but not for the impact or effectiveness of the coaching intervention itself. 

Until Molyn et al’s (2019) study there has only been correlational research into the impact of the alliance, involving a single measurement of working alliance. Therefore, causality has been beyond the reach of other studies (Grassman et al., 2019). 

As a consequence, the authors believe that working alliance has perhaps been mislabelled as a relational variable, one that might tell us about the strength of the relationship, while it may be more of a measure of clients’ propensity to relate (i.e., not a relational variable but a client- related variable). As such, on measuring working alliance, we may need to interpret clients’ self-reports as clients’ specific disposition towards a well-working coaching relationship and how easy or difficult clients feel disposed to engage in the coaching relationship positively (i.e., engage in tasks, goal orientation and bonding).  

Coaches ought to pay attention to how to

– create valuable and useful coaching experiences for clients as clients rate their experience in coaching with a ‘halo effect’

– generate optimism for clients in coaching as specific active ingredients seem to be no more than general factors that may relate to but do not predict client outcomes

– support clients’ positive feelings and stamina in coaching as these factors seem to be more important for clients’ development than coaching techniques and working alliance. 

There seems to be much work to do to generate insights about what makes coaching effective in the future. Most of the active ingredients to date are related to clients rather than anything that emerges in the sessions. Therefore, it will be important to start thinking differently in terms of outcomes. Longitudinal trials are needed in future coaching research investigating variables that can capture clients’ whole experience in an integrative manner (i.e., verbal and non-verbal interactional processes between coach and client, personality as a state-like rather than trait-like variable, session-specific factors).


de Haan, E., Molyn, J., & Nilsson, V. O. (2020). New findings on the effectiveness of the coaching relationship: Time to think differently about active ingredients? Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 72(3), 155–167.

de Haan, E., & Gray, D.E., & Bonneywell, S. (2019). Executive coaching outcome research in a field setting: A near-randomized controlled trial study in a global healthcare corporation. Academy of Management Learning and Education 18(4).

Grassman, C., Scholmerich, F., & Schermuly, C.C. (2019). The relationship between Working Alliance and client outcomes in coaching: A meta-analysis. Human Relations, 73(1), pp. 35-58.

Molyn, J., de Haan, E., Stride, C., & Gray, D.E. (2019). The contribution of common factors to coaching effectiveness: Lessons from psychotherapy outcome research. Quantitative Psychology, submitted, 2019

5. Coaching presence – Demystifying the role of the coach & presence in coaching 

ICF identifies coaching presence as the key to mastery in coaching and as the most important skill that makes the difference in coaching effectiveness. As a core competence, it is defined as the ‘ability to be fully conscious and create spontaneous relationship with the client, employing a style that is open, flexible and confident. It is dancing in the moment.’ However, apart from practitioners’ experiences as containers of personal wisdom, there is little to no evidence of what consitutes presence for clients and coaching effectiveness. Some scholars and practitioners even question the very essence of measuring coaching presence wondering, “Can you and should you measure a phenomenon like presence at all?”. 

Being recognized as a skill, presence is indeed measurable – as any skill is measurable – and even if we question its essence, in true line with our attitude to curiosity in coaching, what would keep us from not being curious about the extent to which we can generate deeper insight about what constitutes ‘dancing in the moment’ in coaching presence?

With this inspiration, Tünde Erdös engaged in conducting an international longitudinal observational study (Erdös, 2020) investigating 184 video-taped coach-client interactions to start making deeper meaning of the relational aspect of coaching presence. The idea was to explore the nature of reciprocity of presence: presence as emanating from the client and shaping the way coach can be present and vice versa. 

So far, the majority of coaching training programs (apart from a few schools including but not excluding Co-Active Coaching, Somatic Thinking, Integral Coaching) train presence as a coach-specific skill, something that the masterful coach brings to the coaching room.

Most importantly, it has not been investigated as a relational (it takes two to tango) and interactional (there is reciprocal influence) non-verbal process (energy as embodied interaction) in coaching that involves influencing – or even client teaching – the way in which coaches will show up in the coaching relationship. 

What? The client influences or teaches the coach? Is that not backward thinking? 

What is coaching presence really and how does it shape coaching effectiveness?

Erdös’s (2020) study investigating coaching presence as movement synchrony (the reciprocal and spontaneous non-verbal responsiveness to each other’s needs in the coaching process) focused on the 

– level of spontaneous – rather than imitated – responsiveness to each other with the whole body being the instrument informing us naturally – without conscious effort – about how motion energy between coach and client relates to clients’ feeling safe and reaching goals over time (use of self as concept of presence in coaching)

– level of reciprocity in motion energy and with which responses occur between coach and client and how working alliance influences the link between movement synchrony and clients’ goal attainment (dancing in the moment)

– level of clients’ self-regulation and the extent to which movement synchrony relates to clients’ self-regulation towards clients’ goal attainment (coaching relationship)

– role of the quality of the coaching relationship (working alliance) as a factor that influences but does not predict clients’s coaching effectiveness. 

The study found that 

– coaching presence as measured through movement synchrony can help & harm clients’ level of feeling safe in coaching (i.e., emotional and cognitive self-regulation capacity) and attaining goals

– presence can be viewed as a correctional mechanism in coaching situations where coaches get stuck (and apply heightened emotional and cognitive awareness that will show in their level of energy), or where the coaching process deteriorates, or where coaching seems to get off track 

– context in which coaching takes place (i.e., coach’s own processes, coach’s mood, coaching theme, goal and task-focus in sessions, the coaching room) appears to influence coaching effectiveness 

– in sessions where coach and client focus on shared tasks and goal orientation in an effective manner, coaching presence becomes irrelevant to how clients feel safe and can attain goals. 

Coaches ought to pay attention to how they 

– engage with clients seeking an optimum level of presence rather than simply seeking to ‘cocoon with clients’ for presence’s sake believing that presence is about ‘switching off the world around me’ to be ‘all there for my client’ (which may imply coach’s own need to be perfect rather than the skill to be present to how to support and respond to a specific need that client brings to a session)

– work with their own needs acceptingly (e.g., working with counter-transference experiences and sharing in the service of clients’ learning) rather than defensively in the coaching room becoming aware that their presence is shaped by how clients show up in each single session

– work effectively with clients’ responding spontaneously to coach’s needs – without any conscious act at play – as clients are the coach’s most immediate context, and as such they influence also the coach just as much as coaches as client’s most immediate context influence how clients show up with them  

– work with being present differently with each client: there seems to be no such thing as being present with clients ‘in the same way’: each session and client will shape the coach’s presence in a different way.

Coaching presence is a ‘state’ subject to change rather than a ‘trait-like’ constant of emotional awareness and consciousness as emanating from the body as the instrument that reliably tells us how we are doing any given moment. Coaching presence is contagious and involves both the coach and client. When either coach or client comes from this state, the other often slips into it, too. And this is the state that invites insight, expanded awareness, creativity, confidence, and agency; all qualities that help clients AND coaches grow, find resourceful solutions together and act upon them. And that is the goal of coaching: partnering with clients to support their growth. 

There is need to further explore coaching presence as it has not just been found to be measurable but also appears to be highly relevant as a relational factor that is not about the coach alone in coaching and coaching effectiveness. 


Erdös, T.  (2020). Change process beyond goals: The client in the context of the working alliance in coaching. PhD dissertation.

Erdös, T., de Haan, E., & Heusinkveld, S. (2020). Coaching: client factors & contextual dynamics in the change process, Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research and Practice, doi: 10.1080/17521882.2020.1791195

Erdös, T. & Ramseyer, F. (2020). Change process in coaching: Interplay of movement synchrony, working alliance, self-regulation and goal-attainment. Frontiers in Psychology, in publication.