Review: Visioning in the brain: an fMRI study of inspirational coaching and mentoring

Positive Coaching in the Workplace:  a review of “Visioning in the brain: an fMRI study of inspirational coaching and mentoring” by Jack et. al. 2013. (review by Melissa McIntosh)

The aim of this study was to determine whether Positive Emotional Attractor (PEA) coaching would be associated with increased global visual processing in conjunction with the engagement of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). In contrast, coaching to the Negative Emotional Attractor (NEA) by focussing on externally defined criteria for success, and the individual’s weakness in relation to them would show no sustained change and would instead involve a greater engagement of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). An fMRI was to be used to monitor the variances in brain activity.


There are two common approaches to mentoring and coaching. One focuses on performance targets and individual weaknesses, while the other inspires performance by focusing on the individual’s strengths, aspirations, and personal development.  Over the last 15 years, coaching has gradually shifted to focus on the latter, strength-based approach. Research has demonstrated that such an approach leads to more behavioural changes in comparison. A series of longitudinal studies have shown that coaching on the basis of PEA coaching in intentional change theory results in a significant improvement in social and emotional competencies in MBA students, which then in turn resulted in more effective management performance. Additionally, a number of patients being treated for Type II diabetes demonstrated an increased level of treatment adherence when they had a positive relationship with their doctor, in comparison to when they were dispassionately told what to do. Both of the aforementioned studies cited the perception of a shared, desirable vision for the future as the statistically strongest factor in predicting an effective outcome on the dependant variable.


To investigate the neurobiological underpinnings of these known results, fMRI was used to analyse the brain activity of twenty-three full time undergraduate students, twenty of which produced usable fMRI data. The patterns of brain activation as captured by the fMRI were consistent with the predicted outcomes, and there was a significant increase in activity in regions of the brain involved in perceptual imagery in those individuals who had received PEA coaching rather than NEA.


The observed results support theoretical predictions that the PEA is associated with visioning, engagement of the PNS and approach motivation, whereas the NEA is associated with the engagement of the SNS and avoidance motivation.


In the workplace, this means that employing a Positive Emotional Attractor technique towards mentoring and coaching is statistically more likely to result in more motivated, engaged employees, while Negative Emotional Attractor skills has a greater chance of resulting in employees with a greater tendency towards disengagement and avoidance. Despite the small sample size, the results gathered are consistent with NEURO-M studies of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and the behavioural schemas of approach or avoidance.