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Research Review: The Role of “Identity Work” in Coaching

In a recent article published titled, “Tying leaders' identity work and executive coaching research together: an overview of systematic reviews and agenda for research,'' researchers review key elements that contribute to the effectiveness of coaching, particularly in the context of executive or leadership coaching. It highlights that a coachee's success in coaching largely depends on factors such as their motivation, belief in their own abilities (self-efficacy), personality traits, and their orientation towards goals. The most common benefits of effective coaching include improved performance, increased self-awareness, and clearer goal-setting.


The research introduces the concept of "leaders' identity work" as a crucial part of the coaching process. "Identity work" refers to the efforts individuals make to shape, redefine, and understand their roles and selves within the context of leadership. This process is considered an active ingredient in coaching that can significantly influence the transformative effects of coaching interventions. Essentially, coaching can help leaders re-evaluate, reconstruct, and strengthen their leadership identity, which is seen as a lasting benefit of coaching.


While the research suggests a need for further research to better understand the dynamics of these processes—how individual traits, relationships, and group dynamics interact and affect coaching outcomes—the study provides a good foundation for a new area to review to improve coaching effectiveness, namely leaders’ identity work.



The methodology

The methodology included a structured approach to reviewing and analyzing published systematic literature reviews (SLRs) on executive coaching, using the Cochrane Overview of Reviews (COR) framework for a systematic, transparent, and replicable process. It involved selecting SLRs focused on executive coaching delivered to leadership or managerial roles from 2010 to 2022, employing a dual search strategy across major databases and supplementary sources. Following rigorous screening and quality assessment using the Risk of Biases Assessment (ROBIS) tool, data on active ingredients and outcomes of executive coaching were extracted and categorized. 


The study then transformed quantitative data into qualitative descriptions for thematic analysis, aiming to identify patterns related to leadership identity work. This comprehensive methodology ensured a detailed synthesis of existing knowledge on the impact of executive coaching on leadership development, with a specific focus on identity work as a central theme.


Findings

Findings from the study provide insightful observations about the elements that contribute to successful executive coaching. The below summary captures the essence of the findings, highlighting the multifaceted nature of executive coaching. It emphasizes the importance of individual characteristics and motivation in achieving successful outcomes, and points to the transformative potential of coaching on leadership identity and performance.


Key active ingredients in executive coaching

  • Variety of Influential Factors: The study identified 27 specific factors that influence the effectiveness of executive coaching. Among these, motivation, general self-efficacy, personality traits, and a learning-oriented approach to goals stand out as the most crucial.

  • Diverse Definitions of Motivation: Motivation was defined in various ways across different studies, indicating its multifaceted role in executive coaching. Whether it's the intrinsic drive of the coachee or their initial motivation before coaching, it plays a significant role in the outcomes.

  • Self-Efficacy as a Cornerstone: A strong sense of self-efficacy among coachees is consistently linked to better coaching results, underpinned by a quality coaching relationship.

  • Importance of Personality Traits: Traits such as conscientiousness, openness, and emotional stability are highlighted across all studies, though their impact on coaching outcomes can vary.

  • Learning Orientation Enhances Outcomes: A coachee's focus on learning and growth positively affects their performance, especially when coupled with pre-coaching motivation.


Most reported outcomes of executive coaching

  • Top Outcomes: Enhanced performance, increased self-awareness, and improved goal-setting abilities are the most commonly reported benefits, indicating long-term effects of coaching.

  • Performance Improvement as a Key Goal: Boosting the coachee's performance is often the primary focus, though the specific steps leading to this improvement remain less clear.

  • Other Notable Benefits: Gains in self-insight, stress reduction, and overall well-being also emerge as significant outcomes, with varying degrees of support across studies.

  • Leadership Identity Change: A few studies specifically link executive coaching with changes in leadership identity, suggesting coaching can profoundly influence how leaders perceive themselves.


A new analysis on the elements and results of executive coaching

  • Characteristics of Coachees: The study categorizes influential factors into traits (like personality and self-beliefs) and states (such as readiness and engagement), showing how these aspects interact with the coaching process.

  • Outcomes Categorized: Outcomes are divided into "forming" (developing skills and behaviors) and "transforming" (changing mindsets and identities), illustrating coaching's dual role in enhancing performance and facilitating personal growth.


The link between leadership identity development and executive coaching

The study sheds light on how executive coaching over the last decade has played a crucial role in shaping leadership identity, emphasizing the authentic development of leaders. See below for a summary:


  • Influence of Coaching on Leadership Identity: Coaching not only helps leaders understand their roles better but also encourages them to embody their leadership identities genuinely. This process enhances leaders' self-awareness, confidence in their leadership abilities, openness to new experiences, and adaptability, all of which are essential for a leader's growth and ability to handle changes.

  • The Role of Identity in Motivation: Leaders who see themselves as such tend to engage more deeply with executive coaching. This engagement is driven by their motivation to grow as leaders, suggesting that recognizing oneself as a leader is a critical step before seeking development through coaching.

  • Engagement During Transition: Leaders are likely more open to coaching when they are going through significant changes or challenges that require them to rethink their identity. This finding aligns with the idea that coaching can be most beneficial during times of transition, supporting leaders in adapting to new roles or environments.

  • Cognitive Development’s Impact: The effectiveness of coaching can also depend on a leader’s level of cognitive development. This aspect highlights how leaders’ ability to process and make sense of complex information can enhance the coaching experience, leading to transformative learning.

  • Connecting Identity Work with Coaching Outcomes: Several outcomes linked to coaching were identified, including a stronger sense of leadership identity, authenticity in their role, moments of significant personal growth, and a more pronounced leadership presence. These outcomes not only showcase the transformative nature of coaching but also its ability to bolster confidence and self-awareness among leaders.


Considerations

Despite the promise of this study, challenges exist in categorizing interrelated research variables and avoiding circular reasoning in conceptualizing identity work as both an ingredient and outcome of coaching. These findings underscore the need for further research to refine methodologies and expand understanding of how executive coaching influences leadership identity development, amidst a backdrop of varied professional standards.


Reference

Szekely, V., Whiley, L.A., Pontes, H. and McDowall, A. (2024), "Tying leaders' identity work and executive coaching research together: an overview of systematic reviews and agenda for research", Journal of Work-Applied Management, Vol. ahead-of-print No. ahead-of-print. https://doi.org/10.1108/JWAM-10-2023-0110



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