From the archive: Teaming up for a coaching culture

One of the benefits of being a TJ subscriber is full access to our decades-long archive of content – here we look back to a piece on coaching from February 2013.

David Clutterbuck emphasises the importance of team coaching in successfully establishing a coaching culture.

Search under ‘coaching culture’ on the Internet or in a library and it very quickly becomes clear that there is a basic assumption across all the entries that coaching culture is something that happens (or is created) at an organisational level. In my own early book on this topic, with David Megginson, the same assumption predominates1.

In recent years, however, practical experience and interviews with hundreds of HR practitioners have convinced me that [pullquote]the fulcrum for achieving a coaching culture is, in reality, at the level of the team[/pullquote]. Indeed, it may well be that we have seriously underestimated the role of the work team in influencing organisational culture overall – and, hence, the wellbeing and performance of the organisation as a whole.

The first clue to this came from a review of an attempt by a small public sector body in Scotland, in which the top team had embraced the coaching ideal and become an early pioneer for creating a coaching culture. The most interesting aspects of their experience were not the successes (which were considerable) but what hadn’ t worked.

In interviews with employees, I found that they had two particular gripes:

  • they felt that coaching was something done to them, rather than with them
  • in their efforts to be non-directive, managers frequently responded to requests for help with what do you think you could do? or if you did have the answer, what would it be? While these textbook responses have their place, they become irritating if used indiscriminately and without sensitivity.

What was missing in this case was a sense of coaching being a collaborative venture. While coaching had not necessarily been imposed on the employees, it was the CEO’s dream, not necessarily theirs.

The second set of clues came through a series of ad hoc interviews and discussions with HR professionals, line managers and their team members, over several years, about what did and didn’t work in terms of coaching interventions. One thing that clearly didn’t work was the common approach of running line-manager-as-coach training events. While we didn’t attempt to gather empirical data, it was evident that the impact of these workshops rarely lasted more than a few days, no matter how enthusiastic the managers may have been on their return. It seemed that reality – the day-to-day crises and distractions of all workplaces – rapidly returned behaviours in the team to normal.

So what was happening here? From our interviews and discussions, it emerged that the problem is systemic. A team and its manager develop habitual ways of working together. These may not be the most efficient or effective behaviours, but they represent a form of stability. When the manager returns from his workshop, he may want to put into practice this new learning and set of behaviours. But only one part of the manager-team system has changed. The rest of the system automatically reacts by trying to return the whole to its previous state.

To achieve any significant change, both the manager and the team have to have been through the same learning experience. I sometimes compare it to trying to do the tango, when only one partner knows the steps!

It doesn’t help that coaching is often not a particularly comfortable experience. It forces people to think more deeply, often about issues they have been avoiding, and to confront their own assumptions and weaknesses. So when a sudden crisis stimulates the manager to revert to previous behaviours, everyone breathes a sigh of relief!

Among other conclusions from these conversations were that:

  • it takes time to acquire a coaching mindset Coaching isn’t about using a limited set of simple tools – it is about acquiring new habits of thinking and that takes months, even for people working to become professional coaches. It’s important to complete multiple cycles of practice and reflection over at least six months, to become reasonably competent as a coach. When line managers start to coach, it’s typically mechanical, hesitant and driven by trying to make best use of the limited toolkit they have. On a training course, people usually have patience with each other’s efforts and gradual learning – after all, they are in a similar position – but in the workplace, colleagues may not be as understanding or forgiving of clunky coaching, especially if they are not engaged in the same learning process. In some cases, as happened in the Scottish agency, the manager tries even harder to make his basic model work, rather than progress on to more flexible, more effective approaches, and makes things worse. (One of the first signs of maturity as a coach is the realisation that simplistic approaches, such as the GROW model, have very limited application)
  • coaching works best as a collaborative effort, in which the coachee helps the coach help him Team members are more likely to be supportive of the line manager’s efforts if they are very clear about their roles and have a reasonable understanding of how coaching works and what good coaching looks like. There is an implicit assumption in standard line-manager-as-coach training that the line manager will deliver coaching to the team members. [pullquote]Where coaching takes root most firmly, however, there is instead a prevailing assumption that everyone has the potential to coach others[/pullquote] – and that may include the team coaching the line manager
  • coaching in the team needs to be integrated with continuous organisational support Both the line manager and the team need encouragement from the organisation, especially from top management, and from other teams further along the journey to a mini coaching culture. Supervision (ideally by a qualified coach supervisor) deepens the level of reflection and helps them develop a wider portfolio of coaching responses. One-to-one supervision is time consuming and expensive, but group supervision is becoming increasingly common
  • it’s important for the team to be aware of the many potential barriers to coaching within it – and to take collective ownership for overcoming them Some of these barriers relate to the complexity of the line manager’s role, for example the difficulty of being entirely honest with the team, with respect to confidential information from their own manager, or the conflict between the need to get work out the door and team members’ need to develop their skills and careers. Other barriers relate to shared problems, such as time pressures, or to team members’ concerns about being coached
  • a sense of psychological safety within the team is essential for a coaching culture to evolve Both line managers and team members often talked about the “dishonesty” of developmental conversations. It can be very hard to be open about your real career ambitions (for example ‘I don’t see myself being with this company for more than a year or two’) or to reveal fears and mistakes to someone who has a major influence on your pay and your career progression. It’s hard, too, for employees to give their managers honest feedback – even the anonymity of 360° feedback doesn’t make them feel fully safe. It’s important for the line manager and the team to recognise and talk about this, and to contract with each other about how they will build psychological safety into the way they work
  • having a team development plan provides a focus for developmental dialogue The team development plan establishes a bridge between the business plan (insofar as it affects the team) and personal development plans. It links both individual and collective development to team performance and reinforces the recognition that everyone is responsible for each other’s development
  • externally-resourced team coaching can provide a role model and safe space to develop a coaching climate A key role of the external team coach is to help the team understand its own dynamics and to learn the skills of collective self-coaching. This kind of team coaching concentrates of necessity on issues that are team-wide and usually on issues that affect collective performance. However, it is very effective in building psychological safety and, when the behaviours and methods used become part of the team’s toolkit, makes coaching within the team much more sustainable. The major downside of using externally-resourced team coaching is that many people who label themselves as team coaches are in fact consulting or facilitating – and may intentionally or unintentionally make the team dependent on them
  • the focus of coaching needs to be on issues the team feels are truly relevant and current Coaching at the team level can be either individual (focused on a specific learning need or issue) or collective (based on an issue important to the team as a whole). It seems that the mixture of these provides the most fertile ground for the growth of a coaching culture within the team.

Sharing this data with organisations in the UK and overseas has led a number of them (for example Asda and University College, London) to develop radically different approaches. The common factor is that they provide a structure, in which the line manager and the team develop a coaching culture together, over time, with practical support from the organisation. A typical structure involves a series of modules, containing pre-reading, self-diagnostics and other materials aimed at promoting reflection and both individual and collective self-honesty. In most cases, the starting module explores the business case for coaching, in the context of the team. A critical component of the process is getting the entire team together (for example after a normal team meeting) to share their reflections and agree what they will do with their learning.

The general approach seems to work face-to-face or online (for virtual teams). It also seems to work when the sessions are facilitated (for example by a coach from outside the team) or when the manager leads the discussions (having had some training in doing so). No studies have been carried out yet to compare the effectiveness of these two approaches, however. It’s also early days for determining whether this approach works better with some types of team than others.

Among the lessons that arise from the experiences of these organisations are the following:

  • it’s important at the start to establish whether there really is a team, or just a bunch of people reporting to the same manager In one case, with which I have been directly involved, it was rapidly clear that this was a team only in name. Each of them ran a department that had little interaction with those of their colleagues. Did they want to become a team or simply develop some team-like qualities? They wanted to become a team. So what would have to change for them to achieve this? Developing the habit of co-coaching helped them see multiple ways in which they had common or shared problems and in which they could be mutually supportive
  • conflict has to be acknowledged and turned from a negative to a positive factor In essence, this involves acquiring strong, collective conflict management skills that permit the shift from relationship conflict (which is always damaging to performance) to more constructive forms of task or process conflict
  • teams that achieve a coaching culture can become infectious Because members of the team interact with other teams, they can become general change agents and champions for a broader coaching culture.

Most of the genuinely evidenced-based studies of coaching within teams have focused on the difficulties and problems of achieving a coaching culture at the team level. Yet increasing examples of where it does work suggest that, rather than investing in large-scale organisation-wide coaching initiatives, it may be more effective (and cost-effective) to support selected teams, in which the climate is conducive, in developing a localised coaching culture, and to use these to cross-fertilise other teams.

Such a step-by-step approach may be slower but it appears to be more sustainable than the alternatives.


1 Clutterbuck D, Megginson D Making Coaching Work: Creating a Coaching Culture CIPD (2005)


Learn More →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *