By far the weakest aspect of the life coaching world is its lack of empirical backing, say psychologists.

“If you listen to people who have received coaching, you know it has much to offer in terms of attaining personal goals and the joy that comes from that, but we need studies to back that up,” says psychologist Susan David, PhD, co-director of the Institute of Coaching at Harvard University’s McLean Hospital.

With their strong research focus, psychologists are key people to make this happen. There’s already much potential crossover: Psychological theories related to intrinsic motivation, goal performance, behavior regulation and well-being have not been fully translated into coaching studies, but could be, for example. Likewise, it would make sense to take what is known to work in psychotherapy and apply it to coaching, but few have done that, David adds.

Positive psychology findings are another natural translation point, says psychologist Carol Kauffman, PhD, the Harvard institute’s director.

“Coaches believe that clients are resourceful and whole, that working with strengths is a good idea, and that accessing positive emotions is a resource for the person,” she says. “There are now hundreds of studies in positive psychology that support that orientation.”

To help develop this nascent research area, the Harvard institute (www.instituteofcoaching.org) awards $100,000 a year in grants for coaching research, the only private foundation to do so. The institute is eager for proposals with scientific rigor, adds Kauffman.

Other countries may be further along this research path. At the University of Sydney in Australia, for instance, psychologist Anthony M. Grant, PhD, is director of a coaching psychology unit that offers master’s-level coaching psychology degrees, conducts extensive research on coaching and is one of the few research-oriented university-based coaching programs in the world.

He began work in the area in 1997, when he developed a solution-focused, cognitive-behavioral model of coaching that used goal attainment as a central feature. Since then, he and colleagues have conducted a number of coaching-outcome studies, including six randomized-controlled trials looking at the effectiveness of coaching in business, education and health settings. They’re also developing evidence-based approaches to executive and personal coaching.

The coaching psychology unit also is pioneering new approaches to goal attainment in coaching, testing the idea that for some high-powered people, goal attainment may be as much about doing less as doing more. This effort, which has $3.5 million of government backing, combines mindfulness training with coaching and leadership development. It aims to determine whether mindfulness can improve goal attainment, says Grant.

“We predict that by taking time for mindfulness practices, these executives will develop an ability to take alternative perspectives on problems they might face, and the ability to reduce stress,” says Grant.

Grant hopes psychologists get more involved in coaching and coaching research, areas he believes they initially ignored because they considered it too much like pop psychology.

“People want to improve their lives, they want to reach their goals, they want to learn how to be more successful,” he says. “Coaches who were arguably far less trained than psychologists stepped in to fill that need, while we stood on the sidelines. We need to engage in the coaching enterprise and find out which techniques really work.”

—T. DeAngelis