AI and Executive Coaching: Is The Human Connection Really Necessary?

AI and executive coaching

When you think of technology, what do you think of? The Industrial Revolution? Y2K? Apple? Over the past 20 years, there have been a significant number of technological advancements, but have you ever considered the impact of these advancements on each generation? As someone who identifies as both a Millennial and a member of Gen Z, I grew up in a time when modern technology was just beginning to take shape. Just as I witnessed MySpace evolve into Facebook and cable boxes evolve into streaming services, my generation grew up alongside the technology that we commonly use today. Technological advances defined and shaped the way we interact and the way we work with one another. Now more than ever, people connect through technology, not despite it. As technological advances define significant moments, they become the moment. This begs the question: what is the technological phenomenon that is defining Generation Alpha & soon, Generation Beta? The answer – Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Although controversial and met with skepticism, AI will soon become a household name like the iPhone or Alexa. We will have AI to assist with education, healthcare, and business ventures. However, the introduction of AI brings concerns – especially about the replication of human value. It makes one think about how humans coexist in a future where one has the option to use AI or human intelligence to build skills or solve their problems. What drives people to choose one over the other?

These questions are increasingly important in my job field, the Human Resources industry. Businesses rely on human capital for support, ideas, and motivation. It’s the people that make the business work. When we want to get the best out of people, we leverage executive coaching as a tool for professional development. I think it is effective because it incorporates connection, empathy, experience, and trust, all of which are characteristics that other humans can bring to the table. However, with the introduction of AI-based coaching platforms, I am beginning to wonder if the people I work with would be better served and prepared for the business of the future by interacting with an AI-based coaching platform for their development. In coaching, is human interaction the key, or would AI coaching platforms be a perfect addition to my toolbox?

Goals of Executive Coaching  

Coaching is often suggested when an employee needs improvement in communication, leadership, team structure, and personal growth. When leaders need guidance to address complex situations, a coach can help move things along by offering an objective lens, support, accountability, and trust. In the scope of a coaching engagement, sensitive information about a leader or a company is often discussed. A core component of what makes coaching successful is the ability to have a trusting one-on-one conversation to focus on improving in the areas needed. Without trust within an engagement, it is hard to feel positive about the goals you set forth, plan to attain, and the feedback you will receive.

A good coach will actively listen to what is being said and can also ascertain what is being left unsaid. They observe body language and context clues from the individual and their environment. Rather than offering solutions from their expertise, they challenge the leader’s perspective, thus prompting independent thinking and change. This includes the ability to apply broader thoughts and exploration to the coachee’s situation. It also allows for reflection before and after a coaching session. Coaching maturity is rooted in experience and allows for sensitivity and intellectual approaches to the situations the coachee shares. As mentioned in the article: Comparing artificial intelligence and human coaching goal attainment efficacy, coaching can be beneficial for the following reasons: improving performance and skills; enhancing well-being, goal-directed self-regulation; better work/life balance; heightened self-awareness, increased confidence, and strengthened interpersonal skills, just to name a few. Will AI truly be able to replicate these results?

Pros of AI   

When thinking about the use of AI in coaching, some capabilities that are exclusive to technology come to mind. Forbes points out that AI Coaching allows for 24/7 access. Having an AI coach at one’s fingertips allows for a coachee to utilize the service at their convenience and frequency. The time that the session occurs is not dependent on the availability of the coach. Also, if an immediate need arises, the coachee does not have to wait until the next session, or even the next day, to receive support. While the quality of that support may vary, it does address a need for instant access that humans cannot.

As the system has high, and in most cases limitless, capacity boundaries, leveraging AI-based coaching tools allows organizations to democratize coaching. In other words, companies can offer coaching to more people in the organization, including those at lower levels who may have limited access to other opportunities for personal development. An AI tool can support multiple people simultaneously whereas a human coach has clear limits on the number of leaders they can work with. Not only is this a capacity challenge, but coaching multiple people within the same reporting structure can create a conflict of interest for the coach and inhibit their ability to be effective. Since AI is consistently objective, relationships across the organization are not formed and thus do not get in the way of coaching recommendations.

When goals are properly defined, AI can automatically share articles, highlight tips, and offer suggestions on actions to take to build specific skills. It sends reminders at a cadence the user decides and can help users to create a personal development plan. With regular input, it tracks behaviors and can pinpoint common derailers as they pertain to effective leadership styles and company culture. Metrics are easily obtained and monitored by sponsors, thus return on investment is simpler to communicate to decision-makers. These are clear wins.

Last but not least, there is a cost component. HR leaders understand that executive coaching can be a substantial investment. By leveraging the expertise shared by millions on the internet, AI-based coaching can be offered for a fraction of the cost of an engagement with a human coach. Coaching at Scale: Investigating the Efficacy of Artificial Intelligence Coaching states “Employing AI coaching could significantly reduce the cost of coaching and democratize this service, allowing people ([and organizations)], who would not normally be able to afford it, to benefit.” This supports the ability to offer coaching to a wider audience and can even give employees an introduction to the coaching experience as a precursor to human coaching in the future.

Cons of AI   

When it comes to executive coaching, goal attainment is important because the leader’s goals often have an impact on business results. However, identifying the root cause of the issue and the right goal in the first place is necessary for the coaching to truly be successful. For example, if a leader reportedly needs to strengthen their communication skills, but they are unsure of what is causing them to be ineffective, they may be misled into an incorrect or incomplete solution when using AI. Current AI tools rely on input from the user to provide prompts that the system can respond to. The system accepts any input as truth and immediately goes to work to string together logical and practical solutions. AI does not stop to clarify if the right question is being asked, nor does it seek a deeper explanation than the one provided by the coachee. If Einstein was correct when he said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them,” then a true external perspective is needed to facilitate the behavioral changes that coaching is designed to address.

Reid Blackman at the Harvard Business Journal points out moral concerns when AI is involved. In the medical field, ChatGPT could be used to diagnose and treat patients. Although there is a chance this could be effective, there is also a chance of incorrect diagnosis and treatments leading to widespread false recommendations. In the coaching field, a Chatbot could easily recommend unattainable goals or ways of achieving goals that are not realistic for the leader’s position in the organization or level of access and influence. Thus, the recommendations may not be quite as tailored as originally intended. This can be improved by training users on how to strengthen their prompts, but that requires a level of effort that not all users would employ. Even when people know that AI is a system that they have control over when they submit themselves to its process, some leaders report feeling overly pressured to achieve it. They must respond to all the notifications and reminders or else they feel that they are falling behind or that they are not going to get a perfect score when progress against goals is measured and shared with sponsors.

There is also a lack of credibility that comes with AI relative to the experience that is offered by a human coach. Coaching with Artificial Intelligence suggests that AI is not capable of providing a working alliance, which affects a central aspect of coaching outcomes. This is due to its inability to comprehend culture, human interaction, and company structure. AI is also incapable of tracking and empathizing with the emotions of their coachees. While AI can estimate the human sentiment of a leader’s writing, it is not yet able to help someone feel that another human has been where they are and has found a way to the other side. AI does not have access to what is considered the “inner world” of an individual. The primary concern is that AI does not have the interpersonal sensitivity to create the level of connectedness needed to open people up to the possibility of change. Forbes states that AI does not allow for deeper aspiration and is thus incapable of pushing the coachee to reflect on their sessions in a way that human coaching does. Therefore, it is unlikely that AI alone can help a coachee to properly identify and reach their goals at the same level as a human coach. When all of this is considered, AI may not be capable of standing alone in a coaching world, but it can be of assistance.

How Human Coaches Can Leverage AI to Amplify Outcomes   

Although AI is sometimes met with skepticism, it is important to recognize how it can be a great benefit for the working generations to come. As a population, we are and will continue to be affected and defined by the technological advances that come to the surface, thus the use of AI cannot be disregarded or ignored. We can already see enhancements from incorporating AI into human coaching efforts. Many human coaches are working on multiple engagements, making their availability limited. Leveraging AI will allow coaches to use session time more effectively while the AI acts as a 24/7 “customer service representative” for instant support. AI coaching can easily be tied in to assist with aspects of engagements that can be automated or outsourced once the deep work transitions to execution. For example, according to Coaching and Artificial Intelligence: Concepts and Capabilities, AI can assess a leader’s SMART goals to ensure that goals are constructed according to the model. As these goals are set in place, the coach and the coachee can then check in with one another on how these goals are being achieved and reflect on the potential outcomes, ultimately leading to higher goal attainment.

AI coaching models certainly show promise and as with technological predecessors, they will continue to evolve. As we learn more about AI functionality in the coaching world and begin to benefit widely from the implementation of AI coaching into engagements, we will create the space for this technology to grow and allow future generations in the HR community to define this moment for themselves.

Hannah Selheimer

Coaching Operations Support Specialist