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Why Does Coaching Work? An Evidence-Based Perspective

Coaching facilitates psychological capital.

Key points

  • Leader and executive coaching is a common approach to self-development in the workplace.
  • A common question asked by those considering coaching is how exactly it changes one's behavior.
  • Evidence across social science research suggests that the reason coaching changes behavior is through what's called psychological capital.

Those of us who believe in the power of coaching sometimes have a hard time explaining why exactly coaching is helpful. Whether we’re the coach or the coachee, we tend to draw from one-off stories of success to explain its utility. This isn’t enough. Those interested in coaching, being coached, or implementing organization-wide coaching programs need to be able to explain what exactly is changing in the minds and hearts of coachees as they spend time interacting with coaches.

Research has finally begun to make this connection clearer. Across several recent studies, findings suggest that coaching facilitates what’s called “psychological capital” (PsyCap for short). In what follows, I outline the four dimensions of PsyCap and explain why coaching has the capacity to facilitate this positive development state.


The first dimension of PsyCap is self-efficacy, which is the belief and confidence in one’s capabilities. Self-efficacy increases when individuals set goals as well as when they reflect on successful experiences. Indeed, a key part of the coaching process entails developing goals with coachees, holding them accountable for goal pursuit, and reflecting upon and celebrating successes stemming from goal attainment.


The second dimension is hope, a motivational state characterized by a sense of agency toward achieving goals. Hope manifests as two interrelated components: having a sense of agency and an understanding of how to enact change. Coaches help in both regards. Coaches encourage and promote solution-focused thinking, helping coachees focus on what’s feasible and how to approach and implement change. Coaches are also responsible for ensuring that coachees engage in self-reflection, and in doing so, it ensures that coachees maintain a sense of determination by focusing on possible pathways to success.


The third dimension is optimism, which entails a positive attribution about the future. As stated by PsyCap researchers Youssef and Luthans, optimism entails having a “leniency for the past, appreciation for the present, and opportunity seeking for the future.” Research suggests that coaches unlock this mindset while working with their coachees through interventions that focus on being one’s best possible self. We have a tendency to get discouraged when things get tough, but coaches have the capacity to put things back in perspective.


The last dimension is resilience, which is the ability to bounce back quickly and effectively from adverse circumstances. Resilience is present when one proactively seeks out helpful resources as well as positively manages their circumstances. Coaches facilitate both behaviors in that they act as a consistent and stable sounding board as well as help coachees cope through cognitive reappraisal.

Explaining Why Coaching Works

No longer will coaches or coachees need to resort to anecdotes to explain the value of coaching. The evidence is clear. The reason coaching leads to success is that it facilitates psychological capital, a positive psychological resource that coachees can apply to their day-to-day work experiences. It is this psychological capital that acts as the linking mechanism between coaching interventions and a host of beneficial outcomes, including job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and job performance.

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