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What HR can do to maximize the positive ‘ripple effect’ of coaching

Amy Lavoie
Amy Lavoie
Amy Lavoie is Chief People Officer at people development platform Torch. As an internal HR practitioner and an external consultant, Amy has spent her career studying and practicing the science of happiness and success at work—guiding some of the world’s biggest brands on how to engage their people for outsized performance. She has also helped lead the development and integration of people science into products, messaging and services for Glint, LinkedIn and Microsoft’s most important HR solutions.

Does coaching have a broader impact than the manager immediately supported and developed by it? Many of us suspect the answer is “yes,” but until now, there’s not been any data to say either way.

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At last, we have the data to indicate that by investing in a manager’s capabilities with coaching, the benefit extends beyond that individual. In Torch’s new research, 91% of respondents saw positive changes in their skills after their manager received coaching.

Of the top 10 changes respondents say they saw in their manager who received coaching, the most common was that the individual had become a “better manager or leader overall.”

That means that HR needs to start thinking about leveraging this side effect, which we might term the positive “coaching ripple effect.” But to get there? Let’s explore what this new data tells us.

The impact of coaching on communication

We set out to answer the following question: When people begin to behave differently due to coaching, what changes, if any, do their direct reports experience? The data shows that direct reports see their managers change from coaching in multiple ways, with most citing significant changes in the range and depth of their communication skills.

Respondents observed more frequent and transparent communication from their manager, improvement in their manager’s ability to receive and deliver feedback, and even better communication among team members. “Since my manager’s coaching, the standout change at work is the evident shift in how our team communicates,” one line of business practitioner wrote. “Meetings have transformed into focused, open and inclusive sessions, valuing every team member’s input. This shift has nurtured better collaboration.”

All in all, six of the top 10 selections from respondents fall under positive change in communication, which extends beyond being clear and concise and having “executive presence.” In contrast, the findings illustrate that the best communicators are open to feedback, empathetic feedback-givers, active listeners and experts at managing difficult conversations.

When managers grow, direct reports change, too

Now, we can definitively say that, as a result of their manager getting coached, employees are developing new skills, shifting their mindset and having a better overall employee experience. Research suggests that 44% of workers’ skills will need to shift in the next five years and that the most important new skills include relational or soft skills like self-awareness, flexibility and resilience.

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And when a manager helps their team develop new skills, this benefits individuals and organizations. Nine out of 10 respondents say they developed new skills as a result of their manager being coached, including continuous learning (51%), coordinating with others (49%), building high-performing teams (48%), and better self-perceived communication (47%) and strategic skills (41%).

With 51% of respondents sharing that their manager has helped encourage them to learn continuously, in some cases by encouraging a growth mindset, it’s no surprise that mindsets, in general, are another big area where employees are experiencing change.

A growth mindset is the belief and attitude that one’s abilities and intelligence can be developed and improved through effort, learning and persistence. Our data shows that 67% of respondents are more likely to seek opportunities to develop new skills, and 61% are more likely to see mistakes or failures as opportunities for growth after their manager has been coached—strong indicators of a stronger growth mindset.

Even better, more than two in three respondents strengthened their sense of self-efficacy, the belief in one’s ability to accomplish a task, based on their perception of their competence and effectiveness.

See also: 5 benefits to rebooting the performance review with a coaching mindset

What about employee experience? This category is about how someone feels at work—their sense of psychological safety and belonging and whether they feel valued and recognized for their efforts and who they are. An employee’s experience of safety and belonging is crucial for retention and performance.

When psychological safety isn’t present, it can result in employees not speaking up out of fear of retaliation, and a lack of psychological safety can have a “disproportionately toxic impact on engagement and belonging,” write authors Maren Gube and Debra Sabatini Hennelly in The Harvard Business Review.

And on this vital metric, according to our respondents, coaching leaders also helps. Seventy-nine percent of the team members we spoke to in organizations where coaching and mentoring are embedded report a moderate level of improvement in their experience at work since their manager received coaching.

This shows up in two key ways. First, 65% say they can be more of themselves at work, and 72% say they feel safer offering their opinion, even if it’s different from their manager or the rest of the team. Second, 63% agree that they feel more valued for their unique skills, and 64% feel their contributions are valued more often.

More time spent in coaching can drive a stronger ripple effect

Interestingly, there was a significant difference in the impact of the ripple effect on direct reports when the manager had six months or less of coaching versus seven months or more.

Compared to managers who experienced less coaching, managers who were coached for seven months or more had a stronger impact on direct reports’ work satisfaction, organizational commitment, positive attitude at work and sense of psychological safety.

Retention, promotion and team performance are most likely to be positively impacted by the coaching ripple effect. Other research further verifies coaching’s organizational impact. The International Coaching Federation found that organizations that offered coaching strategically (i.e., offered multiple modalities for coaching, had a dedicated budget line item for coaching, etc.) were more likely to have high-performing employees, were more likely to retain those high-performing individuals and reported greater employee engagement scores across the organization.

Research also shows that direct reports of coached managers are more likely to be satisfied at work, to stay and to be committed to their organizations.

Why is this happening? We think it’s emotional contagion when our emotions inspire similar emotions in others. Social research shows those who have power, like managers, are more likely to see their emotions spread among direct reports, creating a loop of positivity. In parallel, leaders who express positive emotions boost their teams, leading them to feel more hope, resilience and optimism.

Employees who feel more positively are higher performing and create higher-performing teams—which, in a positive feedback loop, reinforces the leader’s positivity and leads to other positive outcomes like performance and retention.

There’s an important caveat to all of this research—the positive coaching ripple effect can’t happen without support. CEOs and leaders across the organization must create a culture that supports the shifts in behaviors that help all employees succeed. For instance, managers won’t necessarily try to become better at listening or delivering feedback if those behaviors aren’t rewarded or valued organizationally. Evidence suggests a really powerful way to amplify the ripple effect is by creating a coaching culture inside your organization.

Summing up, HR leaders today can’t afford to invest in solutions that don’t scale or provide lasting change. This data suggests that coaching could be a cost-effective way of maximizing investment and positivity by letting the “ripple effect” start happening in your environment to help your organization in multiple ways.

For more on this topic, read the full Coaching Ripple Effect research report here.