Human behaviour fascinates me!

Amongst the plethora of different styles, behaviours, preferences and responses, it is interesting to find patterns and insights that can help us and inform our coaching, training and consultancy activities.

I constantly study research in our own and related fields, I make my own observations and I regularly discuss the subject with colleagues, clients and my own supervisor.

I was interested to read the findings of an in-depth study on how executives respond to coaching, published recently in the Harvard Business Review*. It drew on the experiences of 2 executive coaches and their interactions whilst coaching executives over a period of 6 years.

Specifically, their investigation set out to establish if age or generation of participants influenced their propensity to learn and change behaviours. The work focused on 4 areas:

To see if the executives demonstrated enthusiasm towards the opportunity for coaching.

To gauge how well they understood their own behaviours and whether influences such as personality style, motivation, and cultural background affected them.

To assess their readiness to accept personal responsibility for interactions or events that didn’t go so well.

Degree of change
To measure how much they demonstrated noticeable change in their style, technique, and output during and at the end of the coaching.


The results of the study revealed some interesting insights of behaviours and attitudes to coaching across the age groups. It noted specific differences, and how these might affect the outcomes of coaching initiatives if they go unheeded.

The report noted that regardless of gender, executives in their thirties had lower ratings on self-reflection, and their level of change was less dramatic than that of executives in their forties and fifties.

The study also found that younger executives tended to respond better to solid recommendations with specific rules or guidelines to follow, however they tended not to show interest in understanding in greater detail why they behaved the way that they did.

Conversely, older executives were noticeably more curious about the reasons for their behaviour and wanted to explore this area more. They were less amenable to adhering to rules as a driver for behavioural change.

Why the difference?

The report suggests that age may influence how people receive and react to coaching. Specifically, those in the younger age range may have felt that being chosen to participate in coaching reinforced their perception of being talented in their role, and so saw this initiative as a bonus rather than a development opportunity.

The study revealed that older executives were more open to the concept of development and the opportunity to learn. They also welcomed being challenged.

The report goes on to observe that the younger executives tended to miss subtlety and nuance in human behaviour. They were more likely to function and respond to more specific indicators. They also often believed in the ‘right’ way to do things, whereas those in their forties and fifties were typically more willing to try out different approaches.

Old but not obsolete!

What fascinates me about this report is that it is turning on its head the notion that with age we become less willing to change and learn.

This really resonates with me, as I also find that my coaching clients, who are typically in their 40s and 50s, are very keen to develop. They have already had very successful careers, but they continue to want to stretch themselves to become even better. They are also confident and humble enough to recognise that there is still plenty of room for more development.

I’m curious about the report’s observations about the younger executive coachees. I have not seen such a consistent picture, but I will certainly be looking out for it and discussing it with colleagues, clients and other coaches in the coming months.

I hope this article stimulates your thoughts and generates some good debate.

* The study was first published in Consulting Psychology Journal in December 2016.

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