Employee Development as a Competitive Advantage

Contemporary organizations understand that continuous employee development is an important way to create and sustain a competitive advantage. A common developmental practice is the use of employee coaching. In fact, the International Coaching Federation (ICF) reports organizations today currently spend more than $2.3 billion annually on organizational coaching initiatives.

Highly Coachable Employees Are Essential to Improving an Organization’s Bottom Line
Current research and practice around the topic of coaching focuses primarily on the role of the coach (i.e., the ability of the manager to coach employees effectively). While a focus on the coach makes sense, it ignores one half of the coaching relationship, namely the coachee and his or her willingness to receive and actively contribute to coaching. This concept – employee coachability – is defined by organizational scholars as an employee’s willingness and ability to seek, be receptive to, and act on constructive feedback in ways that drive development and improve performance. In other words, highly coachable employees proactively seek out and ask for constructive feedback, are more willing and better able to accept this feedback and can better develop strategies to implement the useful feedback they receive.

Employee Coachability: A Trait and a Skill
While many think employee coachability is exclusively an inherent character trait, management science research clearly indicates that it is both a trait and a skill. Researchers and practitioners therefore suggest employee coachability as a critical factor that organizations should hire for and elevate through targeted coachability skills training. Interestingly, a three-year, longitudinal research investigation found a lack of coachability as the top reason why new hires fail.

The Overlooked, Yet Crucial Half of the Coaching Equation
Overlooking the role of the coachee, or the person being coached, is a fundamental flaw in our current approach to organizational coaching. This is something that both researchers and practitioners must address. Historically, we have given little attention to employee coachability, even though coaches intuitively know that their effectiveness depends on the receptivity and efforts of the person being coached. Indeed, researchers have concluded that coachees are active participants in the coaching process, and they can either enhance or undermine the effectiveness of coaching, regardless of the coach’s efforts and the quality of the coaching. Thus, the current exclusive focus on the coach ignores an important, yet untapped factor in the coaching equation.

Elevating employee coachability, in turn, improves the manager’s coaching ability. Organizational researchers demonstrate that managers who have highly coachable employees can provide more specific, constructive developmental feedback to employees who are receptive to, rather than defensive of, this feedback. Thus, improving employee coachability optimizes the entire coaching interaction and its resulting outcomes (e.g., employee development, individual performance improvement, sales force effectiveness).

Improve Employee Agility and Adaptability – Performance in Times of Change
A recent ICF report indicates that 77% of HR practitioners and leaders state that their organization is in a constant state of change, with goals, priorities, and strategies continuously shifting. Organizational scholars characterize the nature of the current work environment by the term VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous).

In other words, the landscape of our work environment is extremely fast-paced and ever-changing. As a result, researchers and practitioners widely regard the ability of employees to adapt to novel situations in the workplace and thrive during times of change as more crucial now than ever before. Echoing these sentiments, organizational experts suggest that agile and adaptable employees are indispensable for organizations. To this end, many organizations invest in large-scale change management initiatives (e.g., restructuring, expansions), but fail to prepare and equip individual employees properly and effectively with the skills necessary to succeed and prosper in today’s unpredictable work environment.

According to global HR & learning leaders, employee coachability offers organizations an effective method for accomplishing change management at an individual (employee) level. Recent research conducted in the health sciences/bio-pharma industries demonstrates that highly coachable employees are significantly more agile and adaptable than their less coachable counterparts. This means highly coachable employees are better able to effectively handle and succeed in turbulent work environments or those involving change, such as the current VUCA environment.

For example, research suggests that highly coachable employees are more effective than less coachable employees when faced with new tasks/procedures/strategies, company expansions, change management initiatives, and mergers & acquisitions. Additionally, recent coachability research indicates that highly coachable employees achieve greater sales and job performance. So, while highly coachable employees are significantly more agile and adaptable, they also reach considerably higher performance levels than employees lower in coachability, even in tumultuous, complex work environments.

Develop a Stronger Talent Bench
Most organizations understand the importance of developing and sustaining a strong talent bench, as it provides them with human capital resources crucial for achieving success and a competitive advantage. Elevating employees’ coachability also accelerates individual development, thereby increasing individual and organizational performance. Recent research focused on employee coachability demonstrates that highly coachable employees are more promotable than their less coachable counterparts. Interestingly, this same research suggests coachability actually decreases as employees increase in tenure and age.

The finding that coachability drives promotability stems from the fact that highly coachable employees signal their genuine desire for continuous growth and improvement through their behaviors (i.e., feedback seeking, receptivity, and implementation), demonstrating to the organization they can develop to take-on more responsibility and higher roles. Research also suggests that highly coachable employees are more promotable because, relative to their less coachable peers, they develop knowledge, skills, and abilities necessary for success in advanced roles. Thus, coachability skills prepare employees for greater career success and provide their current organizations with stronger and faster-developing talent.

Amplify the Effectiveness of All Training Initiatives: Coachability as a Development Multiplier
Organizations invest in employee training because they believe a skilled workforce translates into a competitive advantage. This explains why companies in the U.S. alone spend well over $164 billion annually on employee training and development. Furthermore, the Association for Talent Development (ATD) states that per-employee training expenditures continue to increase every year, which signals that organizations invest more and more each year in developing their employees. Given that organizations make significant investments in employee training and development, how can they ensure they maximize their return on these investments?

Global HR and learning leaders suggest that elevating employee coachability is a “training and development, multiplier” – and should be an early skill development investment in organizations to maximize future training investments. This is because, by definition, highly coachable employees hold growth mindsets (i.e., they believe they can elevate current skillsets), are more receptive to developmental information and proactively implement feedback and training to develop and improve performance.

As a result, regardless of the training topic (e.g., account management, advanced selling skills, new company processes and procedures, navigating a new market channel, etc.), highly coachable employees (i.e., those with strong coachability skills), compared to those lower in coachability, are more likely to and more effective at retaining and transferring new training material back to their jobs. Coachability amplifies the effectiveness of all training initiatives an organization employs – and is therefore regarded as a learning and development multiplier or amplifier.

Coachability Outcomes and Impact
Coachability improves job and sales performance, and increasing employees’ coachability can accelerate their development, thereby increasing both individual and organizational performance. Coachability skills significantly improve managerial coaching interactions, a critically strong driver of sales force effectiveness. Coachable employees also have steeper career trajectories, which enables organizations to develop stronger talent benches, a key driver for succession planning. In sum, highly coachable employees provide incredible value to their organizations, and the value the company receives from hiring coachable employees and elevating current employees’ coachability through skill training can far exceed its investment.

Empirical Research Findings on Employee Coachability in Organizations
The data in Figure 1 comes from a quantitative study conducted in late 2019 in the Health Sciences/Bio-Pharma Industry, with 287 participants (coaches and coachees). The study looked at whether, and to what extent, employee coachability impacts employee job performance, agility/adaptability, and promotability. The findings reach significance at a level of P < .01. Furthermore, all effect sizes in this study are classified as large/strong. This means employee coachability strongly impacts employee job performance, agility/adaptability, and promotability.

The Figure 2 findings come from a quantitative study conducted in the Health Sciences/Bio-Pharma Industry, which received acceptance into an academic, peer-reviewed journal – the International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring (IJEBCM) — for publication in February of 2021. This research undertaking examined not only the impact of employee coachability on critical organizational outcomes (i.e., job performance, adaptability and promotability), but it looked at whether an employee’s coachability or a manager’s coaching ability more strongly impacts the achievement of these major outcomes. Findings from this research indicate that employee coachability influences employee job performance, adaptability, and promotability to a significantly greater extent than managerial coaching behaviors.

Specifically, this analysis examined the difference in job performance, adaptability and promotability across individuals low and high in coachability – and who received the same coaching. In other words, we explored the question: if individuals low in coachability receive the same coaching as those high in coachability, what is the difference in the outcomes they achieve?

The coaching behaviors we examined are as follows:

(1) the quality of feedback provided by coaches;
(2) the way in which coaches deliver the feedback (e.g., in a considerate and thoughtful vs. abrasive manner);
(3) the psychological safety of the environment the manager-coach creates within his or her team;
(4) the level of support for feedback seeking supported by the manager-coach;
(5) the quality of the relationship formed between coach and coachee (i.e., founded on high trust, respect and rapport).

Our results demonstrate that highly coachable employees perform at a 9% higher level, are 28% more adaptable, and are 30% more promotable than those lower in coachability, even when receiving the same coaching.

Jake Weiss, Ph.D., is president of Coachability Consultants. Email Jake at jake.weiss@coachabilityconsultants.com.

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