Working Alliance Theory, goals, tasks, bonds, and evidence on the coaching relationship

The findings of a link between the quality of the coaching relationship and coaching outcomes parallel the consistent research findings over decades of a robust link between the quality of the relationship between therapist and client, and the outcomes of therapy or counselling programmes. This link is most frequently measured in research studies using Working Alliance, a relationship factor believed to occur in all helping relationships.

Working Alliance Theory (Bordin, 1994), originating in a psychotherapy context, is a broadly accepted relationship framework and contains two main assumptions:

  • 1. It measures the degree, level, and kind of collaborativeness and purposiveness of the work taking place, regardless of the conceptual approach taken by the practitioner.
  • 2. The Working Alliance exists as an interchanging, reciprocal relationship.

Working Alliance (in coaching often interchangeably referred to as the coaching alliance) refers to the quality and strength of the collaborative relationship between the client and practitioner.

There are three distinctive, interrelated features underlying purposive, collaborative work in the alliance:

  • • Goals - consensus about and commitment to the goals of coaching.
  • • Tasks - mutual agreement on the behavioural and cognitive aspects relating to the coaching work.
  • • Bonds - trust, respect, rapport, or connection between coachee and coach.

Explicit discussion, negotiation, agreement, and (sometimes) renegotiation of these three features plays a critical role in helping create trust and respect in the coaching alliance.

It is noteworthy that defining the coaching relationship—much like defining coaching—is often not as straightforward as it might appear, both for researchers and practitioners. General to more specific use of the term “coaching relationship” are utilised, ranging from:

  • • the coaching relationship as a proxy for the coaching process in itself;
  • • as a construct within individual conceptual approaches (e.g., person-centred);
  • • a component factor of the coaching relationship (e.g., coaching alliance or working alliance);
  • • rapport or other mutual relational characteristics in the interpersonal dynamics; or
  • • a combination of two or more of the above usages.

The argument for a degree of functional similarity between coaching and the coaching relationship, with therapy and the therapeutic relationship, has been made as part of the search for the common factors—or active ingredients—in coaching (De Haan et al., 2016; McKenna & Davis, 2009; O'Broin & Palmer, 2010a).

Working Alliance has been increasingly discussed in the coaching and coaching relationship research. The majority of research studies measuring the coaching relationship and its association with coaching outcome have used an equivalent measure of the Working Alliance (sometimes also termed the coaching alliance). These findings suggest that it is an important relationship factor to consider in coaching processes and coaching outcomes, although more work needs to be done to establish whether other related factors also play a part in coaching processes and influence coaching outcomes (see Henderson & Palmer, 2021).

In the coaching literature, a working definition of the coaching alliance has been coined as follows:

The coaching alliance reflects the quality of the [coachee] and coach’s engagement in collaborative, purposive work within the coaching relationship, and is jointly negotiated and renegotiated throughout the coaching process over time.

(O'Broin & Palmer, 2007, p. 305)

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