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Feedback: Looped out?

Updated: Feb 2, 2023

It’s safe to say that coaching - whether in large corporations, start-ups, or non-profits – is a booming industry.

The rise in coaching is no doubt linked with the rapidly transforming nature of work and organisation, as well as with higher employee expectations for workplace wellbeing and career development.

One of the big challenges currently facing organisations centres around retention. For many employees, a tangible commitment to their development through opportunities to retrain and/or upskill are key reasons to stay, and organisations are increasingly turning to coaches to facilitate this.

Organisations that already have a learning culture are more likely to benefit from coaching, though many still need to become more robust in developing such a culture.

So in response to increasing demands for evidence-based theory and professional standards, academics are beginning to define and develop coaching as a significant and homogeneous practice.

But despite the rapid growth in demand for professional coaching practitioners, there is still a lack of robust research-informed evidence to overcome the challenges faced by organisations when employing external coaches, such as what selection criteria or evaluation benchmarks to use.

And coaching senior leaders can be costly, with some corporate coaches in the industry charging in excess of £3,000 per session. So how do businesses know whether that coaching has been effective in developing their talent?

In our recent survey, we ask participants how progress in coaching is fed back to the organisation, and nearly 60% state that no feedback at all is provided. When you consider that we also found that the cost of coaching was over £600 per session for a quarter of participants, this certainly raises some questions.

One factor for this could be unrealistic confidentiality clauses. The coach is responsible for setting the boundaries and therefore should be clear about what should and shouldn’t remain within them; and clear with all stakeholders: the coachee as well as the sponsoring organisation.

This is why on a practical level referring to, and being informed by, an ethical code is so crucial for the coach.

We see one of the goals of coaching as being about encouraging greater levels of authenticity and also 360 awareness: of self, of others and of one’s environment. But where does feedback fit into this?

A starting place might be a framework developed for multi-stakeholder contracting – involving the coach who provides the coaching, the coachee who receives the coaching and the organisation the coachee works for (and therefore paying for the coaching).

In this framework, systematic 360 feedback is provided, with coach and line manager observations being crucial for the coachee’s learning and progress tracking. Progress check-ins between line managers and coachees provide the opportunity for conversations focused on goals and expectations, and allow for behavioural changes to be properly recognised, planned for and implemented.

A 2013 study found that coaches experience negativity when coachees were not receptive to feedback, which withheld progress in coaching. Whereas, coaches described having a good relationship with their coachees when they were able to provided honest, direct feedback.

Indeed, in a systematic review of the literature in 2020, it was found that 7 studies indicated feedback as an important mechanism for executive coaching. The review also notes that the value of that feedback should depend on various other factors like credibility of the source, context of the feedback delivery and the content of the feedback being delivered (furthermore, feedback can of course have a negative impact on coachees if perceived as a personal judgement or attack).

Articles abound in the business press about feedback: how it is prepared, received, and what happens when it doesn’t go down well.

But where no feedback is given, many valuable opportunities are missed: to fully explore and reflect on what is being heard (and indeed not communicated) in the coaching; to address questions that arise; to engage differently with and strengthen relationships with feedback providers; and to create meaningful behavioural changes that will improve effectiveness.

Preparing and delivering feedback is challenging (particularly since often the positives are skipped over by the recipient with the potential for confrontation over the negatives) and providing feedback can elicit feelings of surprise, confusion, awkwardness, embarrassment, and even anger or shame in the person receiving it.

So given this, it’s understandable that organisations shy away from conversations about coaching feedback.

But when delivered effectively and through a mutually-agreed framework, the organisation will be modelling transparency, humility, and openness, tackling any lingering questions, and hopefully compassionatelydiscussing the behaviours needed to change.

It takes time, energy, vulnerability, and courage on all sides to take part in a constructive feedback conversation; and then more again to go through the necessary steps to effectively process, learn from, and act upon the feedback.

Great organisations don’t just give feedback, they work to help their talent understand it, and commit to and follow through on actions to create meaningful and lasting change.

And in turn, through this talent can evolve great leaders, with deeper insights on their strengths and gaps, with stronger relationships and consequently, delivering a greater impact on their colleagues and the organisation.

So from a coaching perspective, perhaps it’s time for wider conversations about finding a balance between ethics, ROI and accountability with all stakeholders; and equally, to ask what a lack of engagement in the feedback loop says about the greatness of our organisations.



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