Do mental health stigma and gender influence MBAs’ willingness to engage in coaching?

By Konstantin Korotov and Julia Anne Millard

Do mental health stigma and gender influence MBAs’ willingness to engage in coaching?


Purpose –While much research has been done on how attitudes toward therapy relate to engagement in it, the willingness to engage in coaching has not yet been studied. As coaching continues to grow in popularity and makes its way into curricula of Master of Business Administration (MBA) programs, it is worth examining what factors may influence people’s attitudes toward this new type of psychological support. With frequently noticed and discussed similarities between coaching and therapy, the purpose of this paper is to examine whether particular antecedents of engagement in therapy, namely mental health stigma and gender, would be equally relevant for engagement in coaching by MBA students.
Design/methodology/approach – This was survey research with 54 MBAs at a major European business school.
Findings – The results suggest that while gender does influence an individual’s attitude toward therapy, it does not influence an individual’s attitude toward coaching. Stigma, however, still impacts attitudes toward both therapy and coaching.
Research limitations/implications – This paper focusses on attitudes. Further research could explore how closely attitudes result in specific behaviors, such as requesting a coach or agreeing to be coached when suggested by MBA program educators.
Practical implications – Implications concern positioning of coaching within MBA programs and preparation of coaches and educators.
Social implications – Gender neutrality of willingness to engage in coaching suggests opportunities for acceptance of other forms of psychological support.
Originality/value – This paper is one of the early investigations of willingness to be coached, particularly in the MBA context.
Keywords Business education, Business school, Mentoring and coaching in HE, MBA, Coaching
Paper type Research paper

Coaching and therapy

Coaching, as defined by the International Coaching Federation, involves a “facilitative, one-to-one mutually designed relationship between a professional coach and a key contributor who has a powerful position in the organization.” The focus of the coaching is on “organizational performance or development, but may also have a personal component as well” (Kampa-Kokesch and Anderson, 2001, p. 208). Sometimes, however, coaching is described as a blend of consulting and therapy, with an emphasis on future, as well as individual, performance in a business context (Coutu and Kauffman, 2009). A recent review by Cox et al. (2014) identified 13 theoretical approaches to coaching, with most of them originating in psychotherapy. The resemblance of coaching approaches to those used by mental health professionals, as well as the often-discussed issues of how best to handle coaching situations that might require mental health interventions, raises important questions regarding the differences between coaching and therapy (Hart et al., 2001; Cavanagh, 2005).

The growing application of coaching in business (Stern, 2004; Coutu and Kauffman, 2009) and business education, including Master of Business Administration (MBA) programs (Butler et al., 2008; Wood and Gordon, 2009; Korotov, 2012; Korotov et al., 2012), is, at times, explained by the fact that coaching helps individuals build competence, as well as modify perspectives and behaviors, which are also goals in therapy. It is believed that coaching preserves self-esteem while an individual is coached (Kombarakaran et al., 2008). Some authors emphasize that coaching helps organizations to have the most well-functioning, high-performing executives possible (Kampa-Kokesch and Anderson, 2001; Kets de Vries, 2006, 2014).

Reviews of coaching research (Douglas and Morley, 2000; Boyce and Hernez-Broome, 2011; Nelson et al., 2011) suggest that previous studies have been mostly focussed on the definition, processes, and outcomes of coaching, as well as characteristics of a coach that may be important for the effectiveness of coaching. The coachee-related factors that could impact people’s attitudes toward engagement in coaching have only recently started garnering the interest of researchers, with few empirical studies available (Franklin, 2005; Nelson et al., 2011). However, there have been many studies examining the reliance of coaching on aspects of positive psychology, which, in short, emphasizes mental health rather than mental illness, as in traditional psychological interventions (Biswas-Diener, 2009; Foster and Lloyd, 2007; Harvard Mental Health Letter, 2008).

Still, coaching is a form of professional help (Kilburg, 2000), and it deals with people’s behaviors, attitudes, cognitions, etc. – many of which are psychological phenomena. People, in general, are often reluctant to deal with psychological issues (Kessler et al., 2005). Furthermore, people with mental health problems are often viewed as inferior, incompetent, dangerous, and threatening to society (Corrigan, 2004). Research has shown that such stigmas affect an individual’s willingness to engage in psychotherapy (Corrigan, 2004; Vogel et al., 2007a). In addition, studies have identified certain socio-economic factors, such as gender and age, which will predict how amenable a person is to therapy (Komiya et al., 2000; Leong and Zachar, 1999; Fischer and Turner, 1970; Good and Wood, 1995).

As coaching, a relatively new form of psychological support designed to make high-functioning people perform even better (Biswas-Diener, 2009), becomes more widespread and enters the curricula of business schools (Butler et al., 2008; Wood and Gordon, 2009; Kets de Vries and Korotov, 2012; Korotov, 2012), it is useful to ask how people perceive coaching relative to psychotherapy. Furthermore, one may ask if it is possible to predict their attitudes toward coaching, in order to better understand how it might be received in the business education setting.

While there are multiple schools and approaches to coaching, Cox et al. (2014) argue that most of them originate theoretically from the field of psychotherapy. Evidence from studies on psychotherapy suggests that a person’s attitude toward mental health can have an impact on whether they pursue treatment for mental health conditions (Andersen and Newman, 1973). Moreover, using Andersen’s behavioral model, studies reported the predisposing variables of being female, Caucasian, unmarried, and younger to more frequent mental health treatment use (Nour et al., 2009; Good and Wood, 1995; Kessler et al., 2005). Similar to Andersen and Newman (1973) and Ajzen and Fishbein (2005) posit that attitudes toward behavior can be measured and, with caution, used as a predictive tool for behavior.

In contrast to therapy, there has been limited research examining the factors that could specifically predict the willingness to engage in coaching. In this paper, we are applying the behavioral models from Andersen (1995) and Ajzen and Fishbein (2005) to understand whether stigma and gender influence an MBA’s attitude toward coaching as a form of support. As the threat of stigmatization has been shown to prevent individuals from engaging in therapy, we question whether the same holds true for coaching. Kets de Vries (2006) claims, for instance, that coaching is now free from all stigmas. However, there is insufficient empirical evidence to support this claim. In regards to gender, it is considered the most consistent predictor of attitudes toward therapy, but as coaching becomes more widespread in MBA programs, will the same gender bias exist for coaching?

Mental health stigmatization and therapy and coaching

Studies have shown that over two thirds of individuals assessed in need of treatment by professionals do not engage in mental health care (Kessler et al., 2005; Andrews et al., 2001; Regier et al., 1993; Narrow et al., 1993). While there are many different reasons why a person would not elect to receive treatment, in a study by Corrigan (2004), people most often indicated stigma as the reason they decided not to seek psychological services when experiencing a mental health concern. In broad terms, stigma can be defined as a perceived shortcoming resulting from a personal or physical characteristic that is viewed as socially unacceptable (Blaine, 2000; Link and Phelan, 2001). This fear of stigmatization, or of being labeled socially unacceptable, is one of the primary reasons keeping people from mental health treatment. To avoid such stigmas, individuals will go so far as to forsake the chance at a cure for their ailments by not ever seeking treatment (Corrigan, 2004).

Sibicky and Dovidio (1986) have found that stigmas exist not only for people with a diagnosed disorder, or who have been institutionalized, but also for those who merely seek counseling. This begs the question of what other forms of psychological interventions could possibly fall victim to this stigma. Until now, researchers have focussed on the impact of stigmatization on mental health treatment in a general sense, occasionally looking specifically at psychotherapy, career counseling, and counseling (Vogel et al., 2007a, b; Jagdeo et al., 2009; Vogel et al., 2009; Ludwikowski et al., 2009; Corrigan, 2004).

This paper contributes to the existing literature in a new way by examining possible effects of mental health stigmatization in the context of coaching. Even though stigmas seem to be quite far-reaching when connected to mental health, one may be tempted to believe that coaching, particularly in its executive form (Kilburg, 2000), exists outside of the traditional mental health treatment domain and, as such, is able to escape the negative impacts of stigmatization. This is because, unlike therapy, coaching seems to have undergone a transformation from being seen as a professional embarrassment to a “highly coveted status symbol” (Kets de Vries, 2006, p. 254). Rather than focussing on what is wrong with an individual, coaching often borrows from positive psychology and emphasizes a person’s strengths in order to maximize his or her potential (Grant and Cavanagh, 2007). As a result of this change in perception, we expect that, while psychotherapy may still carry stigmas that sometimes prevent people from engaging in it, coaching is not impacted by this stigmatization:

H1A. The higher a person’s perception of stigma associated with mental health, the less open a person is to receive therapy.

H1B. A person’s level of stigma associated with mental health will not have a significant relationship on their willingness to receive coaching.

Gender and willingness to engage in therapy and coaching

One of the most consistent findings in research studies on attitudes toward mental health over the past few decades is that women are more willing to seek psychological help than men (Fischer and Turner, 1970; Sanchez and Atkinson, 1983; Good and Wood, 1995; Komiya et al., 2000; Kessler et al., 2005; MacKenzie et al., 2006; Kakhnovets, 2011). Recent studies have attempted to look deeper into the gender correlate and better understand what else gender could represent in this case, e.g. tendencies toward emotional openness, anxiety, or dominance (Kakhnovets, 2011; Barwick et al., 2009). Previous studies suggest a number of different emotional variables. For instance, Leong and Zachar (1999) argue that males have negative attitudes toward therapy because they are less benevolent and more socially restrictive than females, while Barwick et al. (2009) attribute this difference to the “external locus of control” construct, which is typically more dominant in men than women. Alternately, Good and Wood (1995) claim that there is a fundamental incompatibility between the male gender role and counseling. These different theories, along with many others, ultimately relate to the traditional male stereotypes that are prevalent in society, such as power, control, and dominance (Prentice and Carranza, 2002; Moss-Racusin et al., 2010).

Building on research from Robertson and Fitzgerald (1992), which found that men viewed counseling services described as “workshops, learning seminars, and classes” in a more favorable manner than when described as “personal counseling,” we suspect that coaching, particularly in its executive version, will have a similar, positive effect. In other words, gender will not be a significant correlate to predict an individual’s willingness to engage in coaching because it exudes a more masculine vibe than therapy treatments. Coaching is positioned as results-oriented, emphasizes performance, nd tends to look to the future rather than the past (Coutu and Kauffman, 2009). It can be argued that each of these characteristics carries a “masculine” undertone, which could offset the “feminine” qualities of sharing emotions and discussing behaviors, which are also part of the coaching process:

H2A. Women will have significantly higher acceptance of therapy as a useful tool to improve psychosocial well-being than men.

H2B. There will not be statistically significant gender differences in willingness to engage in coaching.

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Discussion and implications of results

Limitations and opportunities for further research


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