Findings: There is statistically relevant empirical research to suggest that a focus on relationship in executive coaching, and leadership in organisations, yields better, more sustainable results for the individual and the organisation concerned.

The Work of Jack et al, ((Jack, A.I., Boyatzis, R.E., Khawaja, M.S., Passarelli, A.M. and Leckie, R.L., (2013)), is a key piece of research in understanding the interaction between relationship, meta cognition, and positive outcomes for coaching clients.

The work of Jack et al was presaged by a meta study conducted in 2010 by Diamond et al ((Diamond, L.M. and Fagundes, C.P., (2010)). The work of Diamond et al explored the connection between attachment style, and the impact of that attachment style on the psychobiology of those in the attachment relationship (the way in which the relationship affected the brains of those involved in that relationship). Like so much of this work, Diamond et al, reference Richard Bowlby, ((Bowlby, J. (1973)). In short Bowlby posited that the relationship between caregiver and infant profoundly affected the psychobiological system of the infant, through the care giver - infant relationship. To quote form Diamond:

“Briefly, infants who did not receive adequate “external” help with emotion regulation from their caregivers are thought to sustain developmental deficits in their own self-regulatory capacities.” - Diamond et al., ante.

The work of Diamond et al used electrodermal activity to posit a connection between attachment style, and Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal (HPA) and autonomic nervous system (ie stress) response. Diamond et al see their research as:

“consistent with the notion that attachment insecurity is consistent with deficits in emotion regulation”. - Diamond et al., ante.

Jack et al, pick up on this theme again by referencing the work of Eisenberger et al, ((Eisenberger & Cole, 2012)). Eisenberger’s work on the neural substrates of social pain found as follows:

“Eisenberger et al. (2011) show that neural activation in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) mediates the tendency for attachment figures to reduce the perceived distress caused by a painful stimulation.”

The work of Einsberger and others engaged in the study of psychobiology is crucial. It supports the original visionary work of Bowlby and others, that relationships affect brain function, by identifying specific areas of brain function, that down regulate distress in the presence of a secure attachment relationship.

There is of course nothing new in this – the concept of the “therapeutic alliance” is a fundamental aspect of psychotherapy. In the World of coaching, we seem to be at the stage where we can at least agree relationship is in play during the coaching dyad, however there is very little empirical research on why it is important in the executive coaching dyad.

The work of Jack et al, directly measured the impact of attachment style on the brain of the client in the coaching dyad. Jack et al used FMRi to assess the comparative effectiveness of two distinct forms of coaching – PEA (positive emotional Attractor) and NEA (Negative emotional attractor) approaches. The first approach is compassionate and strengths based. The Second is negative and focuses on weaknesses as areas for improvement. Their metastudy of the available papers, and their own research into the field, suggests PEA is significantly more likely to result in sustainable positive behavioural change in the client.

Quoting Jack, “Frontal asymmetry has long been associated with positive versus negative coaching. Lateralization of frontal brain activity has long been associated with positive emotion and/or approach behaviors (left) versus negative emotion and/or avoidance behaviors (right).”

As with Eisenberger et al, with the work of Jack et al we see further empirical and consistent evidence supporting the contention that PEA coaching (out of a secure attachment relationship with the coach) activates specific areas of the brain that facilitate long term sustainable changes in behaviour. To quote from Jack:

“….these findings support our theoretical predictions that the PEA is associated with visioning (the mirror neuron system), engagement of the PNS (para sympathetic nervous system),and approach motivation; whereas the NEA is associated with engagement of the SNS and avoidance motivation.” - Jack et al, ante

The research of Jack references Boyatzis’ later work on resonant and dissonant leaders ((Boyatzis, R.E., Passarelli, A.M., Koenig, K., Lowe, M., Mathew, B., Stoller, J.K. and Phillips, M., 2012)). This research provides further statistically relevant evidence on leadership style and psychobiological impact – resonant leaders activate areas of the brain involved in visioning, empathy, social connection and positive affect. Dissonant leaders do not.

Per Boyatzis, using FMRi, we see here negative (ie under) activation in the left posterior cingulate cortex in response to recalling memories of dissonant leaders in consistent in 8 subjects

The research of Ochsner et al ((Ochsner, K. N., Bunge, S. A., Gross, J. J., & Gabrieli, J. D. (2002)), Liebermann (Lieberman, M. D. (2009), Fleming et al (Fleming, S. M., Weil, R. S., Nagy, Z., Dolan, R. J., & Rees, G. (2010), and others, indicates that we can harness and develop our own meta cognitive capabilities to mediate our own HPA (stress) response more effectively.

We believe that the above research supports the following contentions:

• The development of secure attachment relationships (through PEA coaching or resonant leadership), switches on those areas of the brain involved in managing relationships more effectively, being creative, and managing change (stress).

• The development of the clients own capacity for meta cognition (through PEA coaching), delivers similar neurobiological results, on a long term sustainable basis.

To get copies of the research papers by Jack and Boyatzis, or to get our full review of the current research into the links between relationship, coaching and meta cognition, email: