The coaching process is full of paradoxes that have a tendency to act as a divide between camps. But what if we harness the energy of the paradox to better understand tension? Sue Fontannaz and Elaine Cox identify seven team coaching paradoxes


Coaching is a complex, multi-faceted process which, although widely used, is often perceived with scepticism.

This could be due to the seeming tensions or paradoxes in the process of coaching, including, for example, the developmental/performance tension, the individual/team focus and the support/challenge dilemma.

Barnson (2014) claims a theory of coaching paradoxes might offer a unifying framework for the diversity of seemingly contradictory coaching approaches and theories, without which the field of coaching “may well become a hodge-podge of theoretical camps that only foster the divide between researchers” (2014, p381). He claims coaches could use the energy of paradox, for example, past/future, inner/outer, beliefs/action, to encourage reflection and behaviour change.

This potential is also highlighted by Palmer (2007, p65): “[…] truth is found not by splitting the world into either-ors but by embracing it as both-and”.

Other scholars (eg, Lewis, 2000; Garvey, 2011) have similarly suggested paradox theory as a powerful lens for understanding tensions in coaching.

However, despite an increase in research in domains such as learning (Jarvis, 2012) or organisational management (Griswell & Jennings, 2009; Smith & Lewis, 2011), researchers frequently neglect to explore coaching from a paradox perspective.

Coaches and researchers could ask what tensions are embedded in coaching and how/why these are experienced and managed. Doctoral research (Fontannaz, 2017) identified seven coaching paradoxes in teams competing in a global sailing race.


  1. Problem opportunities

Coaching provides protected time with a professional to reframe problems and experiences into opportunities to develop adaptive leadership competencies for team performance. Barnson (2014) also recognised the potential to reframe past experiences or challenges into growth opportunities.


  1. Supportive challenge

Coaching offers supportive challenge by enabling clients to step out of their comfort zone in order to gain perspective. This creates opportunities for growth, which can be experienced as challenging since the learning process involves assimilation and accommodation of new insights that challenge self-concepts. Coaching also balances the tension between task accomplishment and a relational, people perspective, to support clients in aligning team well-being with task performance (Fontannaz, 2017).


  1. Expecting experience

Coaching offers the chance to draw on past experience to prepare for future challenges. It addresses the potential anxiety associated with developing leadership agility and offers powerful role-playing activities to help manage expectations and prepare for future experiences. This process is particularly relevant in addressing the high failure rate for transitioning team leaders (Riddle, 2016) and preparing for shifts to team-based organisational structures (Malley, 2017).


  1. Reflective action

Coaching also supports the development of learning agility by encouraging reflection and subsequent future action. By creating protected time for clients to make sense of experience through reflection, they can examine past experience and learn from it. The role of experience is influential in development, both in terms of prior experience as a foundation and as a source of learning during coaching (Cox, 2013).


  1. Developing performance

Grant (2017) warned a myopic focus on performance, without taking account of developmental needs or well-being, runs the risk of pushing people from a distressed but functional zone into states of “distress, dysfunctionality and burn out” (Grant, 2017, p44). Alignment of development and performance can help bolster perceptions of coaching value, especially where a gap exists between individual development needs and team or organisational performance goals.


  1. Team leadership

Coaching is considered a key leadership responsibility (Grant & Hartley, 2016) but plays a role in encouraging collective capability for leadership. Team coaching, in particular, supports the emergence of leadership as a team process and supports leaders to push authority to the team. The team/leadership paradox reflects tensions that exist between individual leaders, relationships within the team and the collective capability for team leadership.


  1. Competitive collaboration

The seventh paradox concerns the need for deeper understanding of the role of collaboration in competitive environments. Coaching can encourage both leaders and teams to focus on collaboration in order to empower teams, balance competition and performance and encourage creativity (McDermott & Hall, 2016).

In this article we’ve argued a paradox perspective is useful for reframing problems into learning opportunities for clients and supporting their experiential learning. By exploring the paradoxes and tensions inherent in coaching, researchers and coaches
can also encourage a broader understanding of what makes coaching such a powerful tool.


  • About the authors
    Sue Fontannaz is a researching professional completing her professional doctorate at Oxford Brookes University
  • Dr Elaine Cox is a senior lecturer at Oxford Brookes University, where she coordinates the Doctor of Coaching and Mentoring Programme and supervises doctoral students. She is founding editor of The International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching & Mentoring



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