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Small Development Projects 2014 - Heriot-Watt University - Development and evaluation of an effectiveness coaching intervention for new academic leaders in Scottish universities

This project is currently work in progress and there is no outcome available at this time.

Original Proposal

Project Leader: Dr Dasha Grajfoner, Department of Psychology, Centre for Business and Coaching Psychology, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, EH14 4AS

Steering group:

  • Prof Catriona Morrison, Head of Department of Psychology at Heriot-Watt University
  • Dr Almuth McDowall, Lecturer and MSc Occupational and Organisational Psychology Programme Director at University of Surrey
  • Jacqueline Campbell, Executive Education Projects Planner at University of Edinburgh Business School and Coach

Project Team:

  • Dr Dasha Grajfoner
  • Dr Céline Rojon, University of Edinburgh Business School

Project’s Administrative Home: Heriot-Watt University, Centre for Business and Coaching Psychology

Background, aims and objectives
This bid brings together colleagues from two Scottish universities to examine how a leadership coaching application for smartphones can influence the effectiveness of scholars who have recently been appointed to managerial/leadership academic roles, such as leading a study programme or being head of group/department (Rowley, 1997), for the first time.

While we know that effective academic leadership is a key contributor to attaining academic excellence (eg Rowley, 1997), most leadership vacancies in academia are filled with scholars who may be specialists in their subject area, but typically have not previously acquired the necessary skills to provide effective leadership (eg Hoppe, 2003; Raines & Alberg, 2003). Not only is this lack of required leadership skills, such as communicating a vision, inspiring trust or providing recognition (Ramsden, 1998), likely to negatively impact on individuals’ effectiveness as such, survey findings also suggest that today’s leaders are often stressed and worried (CIPD, 2013). This in turn can result in mental and physical health and wellbeing problems for the individual leader; moreover, leaders’ high stress levels have also been found to affect the level of support they are able to provide to their teams (Faragher, 2013). Thus, to assist new academic leaders in being effective in their roles and avoid experiencing the aforementioned problems, it is important their initial stage in the new role is supported by adequate personal/professional development provision. This is where our study contributes: Aiming to help academic leaders in becoming more effective in their new roles by targeting skills that are important for this group of individuals, we will design an easy-to-use intervention based on simple coaching techniques such as goal-setting (Locke & Latham, 2002) or strengths’ identification (positive psychology coaching; e.g., Biswas-Diener, 2010), whose development will be grounded in the extant evidence on leadership development. This will at the same time help them to sustain/increase their productivity and wellbeing. To make the intervention easily accessible and thus accommodate today’s scholars’ busy schedules, it will be made available via a smartphone application. The effect of using the application on new leaders’ effectiveness will be examined via measures of individual wellbeing, performance and self-efficacy (ie individuals’ perceived capabilities to perform effectively across various different situations). Our overarching research question is: To what extent does coaching using a smartphone application as the intervention platform enhance new academic leaders’ effectiveness compared to a control group that does not receive the intervention?

At this stage, we propose to conduct our study with participants from Scottish universities to test the coaching intervention’s effectiveness. Subsequently, the intervention can be further tested in other universities in the UK and EU.

Our aims and objectives meet the Leadership Foundation’s (LF) objectives of improving leadership by developing, supporting, and challenging individual Higher Education leaders, this being achieved in an innovative way, drawing on new technologies.

Participants recruited for this study will be academic leaders for who this is a new responsibility or who will be taking on a leadership role in the near future – regardless of individuals’ age or tenure. In the style of a quasi-experiment, they will be randomly assigned to two groups of 27 participants each (ie Ntotal = 54) (this being the number required to achieve sufficient statistical power); the intervention group will be asked to use the leadership coaching smartphone application over a given period of time, whilst the control group will not receive such instructions (they will, however, be able to access the application once the study is terminated).

Participants’ leadership effectiveness will be operationalised using subjective measures of well-being, namely the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Well-Being Scale (WEMWBS) (Tennant et al, 2007), workplace performance (Rojon, 2013) and self-efficacy (eg Chen, Gully & Eden); these will be made available online. Self-reported levels of well-being, performance and self-efficacy will be examined for both groups at several points in time, namely i) at baseline, in other words prior to receiving the intervention; ii) shortly after having received the intervention and iii) at follow-up points (4 weeks and 6 months after the intervention). This being a 2x2 mixed factorial design, changes in well-being and performance will be measured within each group across baseline and follow-up, as well as between both groups. To analyse the data gathered, we will conduct appropriate group wise comparisons or analysis of variance (ANOVAs) depending on the normality of the data generated.

Proposed outputs and outcomes (including dissemination strategy)

  • An accessible project report outlining key issues, methodology, findings and recommendations to be published on the LF website as appropriate
  • A short report highlighting main findings and recommendations for attention of collaborating Scottish universities’ Human Resources departments
  • Dissemination of project findings via a seminar held at the Centre for Business and Coaching Psychology (CBCP) Heriot Watt University) and subsequent publication of seminar outputs on the CBCP’s webpages
  • Invited presentation at a symposium led by the LF
  • Presentation at relevant conferences (e.g., Society for Research into Higher Education annual conference, Special Group of Coaching Psychology annual conference, British Academy of Management annual conference)
  • Two academic articles will be submitted to relevant outlets (e.g., Studies in Higher Education, Management Learning, Advances in Developing Human Resources)

The outputs will provide development for a very important, but oftentimes overlooked group of academic staff, namely new academic leaders, and will assist them in meeting the many challenges they face in their new leadership roles.


  • Enhanced engagement of staff benefitting from the leadership development intervention that will be developed and tested in this project
  • The academic leadership development smartphone application could be made available across the UK and other countries upon completion of the project and further research, thus improving leadership skills of a much wider group of academic staff
  • Such staff will be able to develop their ability to confidently and effectively lead in their new roles
  • Enhanced collaboration and networking between Scottish universities involved in the project

Milestones (quarterly)
Project stage Planned activities
Quarter 1

  • Detailed project plan
  • Obtain ethics approval
  • Review of literature (including extended scoping study of coaching smartphone applications)
  • Communication with universities collaborating in data collection

Quarter 2

  • Develop coaching smartphone application
  • Focus groups to discuss utility and effectiveness of new coaching smartphone application
  • Subsequent improvement of coaching smartphone application

Quarter 3

  • Main data collection and analysis

Quarter 4

  • Dissemination via workshop(s) for new academic leaders
  • Dissemination at conference(s)
  • Report preparation and submission
  • Preparation of articles for publication
  • Planning for making coaching smartphone application available more widely