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Research Review: Evaluating the Effectiveness of AI vs. Human Coaching in Achieving Goals

As the realm of artificial intelligence (AI) continues to expand into various domains, the question of how AI will impact the executive coaching industry continues to be a hot topic of discussion. A groundbreaking research study, titled "Comparing AI and Human Coaching Goal Attainment Efficacy," shed light on the potential of AI coaching by comparing the goal attainment of coachees using an AI coaching model versus human coaching. Below we examine some of the key takeaways and considerations executive coaches should be aware of today.

The research

Researchers Terblanche, Molyn, Haan, and Nilsson performed two longitudinal randomized control trials that were both conducted over a 10-month period. Study 1 involved human coaches, while Study 2 introduced an AI chatbot coach. Data was collected through online surveys across eight time-points. They compared the efficacy of human coaches and an AI chatbot coach in achieving client goals, also known as “goal attainment” (Terblanche et al., 2022).

The results

Both coaching formats demonstrated significant increases in goal attainment compared to control groups. “A surprising result is that the AI coach rivaled the human coaches in participant goal attainment.” The AI chatbot coach proved to be "as effective as human coaches at the end of the trials" (Terblanche et al., 2022). The success of AI coaching is associated with its strict adherence to goal attainment theory, which compensated for its lack of nuanced intelligence. AI coaching's convenience and availability, coupled with increased usage frequency, further contributed to its performance.

Source: Terblache et al., 2022
Source: Terblache et al., 2022

Key takeaways for executive coaches

Accessibility of coaching

Findings indicate that the scalability of AI coaching has the potential to enhance the reach of coaching, thereby bringing its advantages to a wider demographic. This holds significant promise, especially in regions with lower incomes where coaching opportunities are scarce, as well as for individuals in remote areas who have limited access to face-to-face coaching sessions.

Enhancing human coaching demand

Contrary to concerns that AI might replace human coaches, the study proposes a different perspective. AI coaching's introduction may actually expand the “demand for human coaches” (Terblanche et al., 2022). As individuals experience the benefits of coaching through AI, their exposure could foster demand for more advanced and intelligent human coaching, ultimately creating new opportunities for skilled human coaches.

A call to mastery

A fundamental distinction between human and AI coaches lies in the human coach's deeper understanding and embodiment of "maturity." Human coaches can coach at four levels according to Megginson and Clutterbuck (2010):

  1. “Models-based”: Coaches who follow a “set, mechanistic process rather than exploring the complexities of the client’s world.”

  2. “Process-based”: Coaches who use a “slightly more flexible approach using an expanded but limited set of tools and techniques.”

  3. “Philosophy-based”: Coaches who have a “broader mindset to the client’s situation and practice reflection before and after coaching sessions.”

  4. “Systemic eclectic”: Coaches that can “exhibit a sensitive, intelligent approach to the client situation, and utilize the most appropriate approach given the context” of the situation. (Megginson & Clutterbuck, 2010 & Terblanche et al., 2022)

AI coaches are limited to the initial level, "models-based", when compared to the spectrum of human coaching techniques. AI coaches are currently unable to “integrate knowledge and apply learning across domains” or navigate “complex situations” (Terblanche et al., 2022). While AI coaching's mechanistic execution of goal theory compensates for its lack of nuanced intelligence, the higher-order reasoning and nuanced thinking performed by a human executive coach remains unmatched. Because of this, human coaches are encouraged to enhance their coaching strategies beyond simply model-based coaching, emphasizing uniquely human traits like nuanced reasoning, empathy, and emotional intelligence.

The main takeaway

While AI may not replace human coaches entirely, this research highlights its potential to complement coaching practices and expand its reach. By integrating AI coaching within the context of goal attainment, executive coaches can leverage the strengths of both AI and human coaching to enhance their services, ultimately benefiting clients and broadening the accessibility of coaching to diverse populations. Furthermore, this study's findings underscore the importance of continuous professional development for human coaches beyond the first level of coaching, while embracing AI as a tool to enrich coaching practices.


Megginson D, Clutterbuck D. Further techniques for coaching and mentoring. New York: Routledge; 2010.

Terblanche, N., Molyn, J., & Nilsson, V. O. (2022). Comparing artificial intelligence and human coaching goal attainment efficacy. PLOS ONE, 17(6), e0270255.

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