Tough Love vs. Just Plain Tough: Brain Gives Clues to Train Better Coaches

It's an age-old debate played out from Little League to the big leagues; from the playroom to the boardroom: What is the most effective way for teachers, bosses and other coaches to interact with those they manage?

Organizational behavior expert Richard Boyatzis, PhD, and cognitive scientist Anthony Jack, PhD, say the answer is found in the minds of those who are being coached-in their visual cortex to be exact.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the team showed that marked changes took place in students' brains in reaction to different coaching approaches.

"Students tended to activate the areas associated with visioning more with a compassionate coach-even when the topics they were thinking about weren't so positive," Jack says. "People respond much better to a coach they find inspiring and who shows compassion for them, rather than one who they perceive to be judging them."

On the other hand, coaches who emphasized weaknesses and flaws or tried to "fix" the problem for the coached person caused the students to defend themselves, and they closed down.

"People typically coach others with a bias toward correcting what the person is doing wrong. Our study suggests that this turns off their vision for the future and gets in the way of sustainable change," Boyatzis says.