Dr Judie Gannon and Sue Fontannaz from the International Centre for Coaching & Mentoring Studies at Oxford Brookes University reflect on the academic and practitioner debates around team coaching
While team coaching continues to receive more attention in the practitioner media, the empirical evidence for this area of coaching remains relatively thin.
Team coaching is seen to mirror many of the challenges faced, decades earlier, by individual coaching. Opportunities to research team coaching are rare, ways of investigating (through appropriate research methodologies) team coaching are challenging and the diversity of existing studies means clear comparisons between them, to comment effectively on the field, are sporadic (Peters & Carr, 2013).
For practitioners it is also a challenging prospect to move from the comfort zone of dyadic work to the team context. Whereas group coaching appears to offer a more acceptable and less perplexing chance to work simultaneously with more than one client, the complexity of team coaching surfaces concerns about managing the structure and process of coaching systemically.
Much of the trepidation for practitioners is also connected with the trials of defining team coaching and clearly differentiating it from the activities associated with team facilitation, team training, team building and process facilitation.
Further blurring occurs where team coaching studies conflate coaching for, and by, team leaders with team coaching by external coaches, rendering newcomers bemused by the roles they and other participants might play.
These issues occur amid evidence that team coaching is on the rise and more organisations are seeking coaches who can work with their teams at various organisational levels (Ridler Report, 2016). These developments reinforce the importance of teams for organisations’ ability to compete effectively amid dynamic economic and social influences.
For those keen to make a foray into team coaching there are a helpful array of established sources offering valuable perspectives on team coaching and how teams themselves operate. Drawing on a range of approaches from psychodynamic, systemic and more functional orientations, the key contributions currently available include those from Peter Hawkins (2017, a third edition) and David Clutterbuck (2007), while Christine Thornton (2016, a second edition) and Jennifer Britton (2013) offer insights balanced between group and team coaching practice.
Across these contributions there remains a consistent message about the paucity of empirical evidence and the need to undertake more in-depth research to further bolster the field.
Opportunities abound for practitioners to engage in developing their practice as case studies, demonstrating evidence-based approaches to team coaching and sharing these across the various networks and coaching publications.
Recent postgraduate studies as part of our MA programme at Oxford Brookes University have identified interesting developments in team coaching and constructive learning for practitioners. For example, by challenging the structural and procedural approaches to team coaching Wotruba (2015) explored the centrality of the coaching relationship in the team coaching context. She investigated leadership team coaching practitioners’ views and experiences of the coaching relationship and identified the central importance of an effective relational connection.
The themes that emerged among practitioners included trust, confidence, managing tensions and the complexity that is part of team coaching relationship and finally, the evolving nature of the team coaching relationship over time.
Where a strong relational aspect is evident coaches could challenge team behaviours and current ways of thinking and working, as well as providing a supportive environment in which teams can explore new ideas and innovate.
In an earlier study by Woodhead (2011) based on team coaching across clinical groups in the NHS, the findings showed that coaching supports team working by creating opportunities for dialogue, facilitating communication, enhancing the focus and clarity of shared goals and building trust.
These enhancements in team cooperation encourage members to connect beyond their professional image, and develop a systemic understanding leading to better focus on collective outcomes, problem solving and decision-making.
In a recent doctoral study by Fontannaz (2017), which explored the role of coaching in team leader development and team performance, it was found that both leadership and team coaching were used to support the development of professional skippers as they transitioned into team leadership roles during a global sailing race. Team leadership emerged as a shared construct across a temporal dimension and coaching supported the team leaders in developing across multiple levels, including coaching skills. The study also highlighted the risk of alienating the team leader during team coaching, and identified the complexity of coaching teams, where hidden agendas were evident within the team coaching sessions.
Within this study, the sports’ coaching field was compared and contrasted to organisational coaching, offering important insights into team leadership development. Such research appears evermore germane where the leading global HR challenge is the shift to team-based organisational design, reinforcing the relevance of team coaching in achieving successful addressing team-based organisational structures (Malley, 2017).
Peters and Carr’s (2013) invaluable appraisal of team effectiveness and the team coaching literature provided a bulwark for the field by corralling the evidence of the factors associated with team effectiveness, key team coaching models and elements of guidelines for team coaches.
An update of their analyses is also planned for a new handbook of team coaching, currently in development for publication in 2018, with David Clutterbuck and international colleagues. The hope is that this addition to the existing team coaching resources will provide the much-needed bolster to those practising as team coaches and researching this important area of coaching, whetting the appetite for new empirical studies.
About the authors
- Sue Fontannaz is a researching professional currently completing her professional doctorate at Oxford Brookes University
- Dr Judie Gannon is a senior lecturer in HRM, (Coaching and Mentoring), Business School, Oxford Brookes University