Coaching is a well-known phenomena in the public sector, but although organisations claim to have a coaching culture it does not often have the anticipated outcomes. This article by Tricia Palmer considers why and provides some discussion on what factors are needed to make a coaching culture stick.

What is coaching and why is it important?

A coaching culture is one where the organisation recognises that it is important to provide an environment which encourages employees to grow and develop, and provides a safe place to give and receive feedback. A useful definition of this culture is given by Clutterbuck, Megginson and Bajer 2016.

A coaching culture is one where the principles, beliefs and mindsets driving people’s behaviours in the workplace are deeply rooted in the discipline of coaching . It is a culture where people coach each other all the time as a natural part of meetings, reviews and one-to-one discussions of all kinds.

Where a coaching culture is embedded, managers will see coaching as a normal part of their day-to-day management, and not as an additional duty to be carried out as part of an appraisal process, for example. Often coaching is seen as needed when something goes wrong and this creates the wrong type of culture where coaching is almost seen as a punishment. It should be a natural process used as part of general performance management, and the encouragement of development. It was noted in the 2013 Ridler Report on Coaching, that over the years executive coaching, for example, had changed from being perceived as “distinctly covert” and only for those who were struggling to invest in high-performing and talented executives and leaders. However, in some environments coaching has a way to go to gain this reputation.

It is possible to recognise a coaching culture through evidence of the following behaviours in an organisation.

  • Less of employees being told what and how to do their job — instead being given room to come up with their own solutions, ideas and ways of achieving their goals.

  • Because employees have been part of the decision-making process, they will feel more empowered and committed to action.

  • Problems and issues are more likely to be explored openly and non-judgmentally and satisfactory solutions found.

  • Less blame by managers and staff.

  • Employees are allowed to grow and develop to their full potential.

  • Employees will recognise their own responsibility in their personal development.

The benefits of coaching are numerous and mostly self-evident, but it is worth exploring them here. Emerson and Loehr (2008) describe coaching as:

…helping another person reach higher levels of effectiveness by creating a dialogue that leads to awareness and action…When an employee has the skills and ability to complete the task at hand, but for some reason is struggling with the confidence, focus, motivation, drive, or bandwidth to be at their best, coaching can help.

In Coaching for Performance (2009), John Whitmore described numerous benefits of coaching. Included in the list below are benefits to the recipient (ie the client/coachee) as well as benefits to the team and the larger organisation:

  • improved performance and productivity

  • staff development

  • improved learning

  • improved relationships

  • improved quality of life for individuals

  • more time for the manager

  • more creative ideas

  • better use of people, skills and resources

  • faster and more effective emergency response

  • greater flexibility and adaptability to change

  • more motivated staff

  • culture change

  • a life skill.

These ideas were reinforced in the book, Coaching People (McManus, 2006); benefits to the person being coached are:

  • maximising their individual strengths

  • overcoming personal challenges/obstacles

  • achieving new skills and competencies to become more effective

  • preparing for new work/job roles or responsibilities

  • improvement in managing themselves (eg better time management)

  • clarifying and working toward goals (eg learning about and setting SMART goals)

  • increasing their job satisfaction and motivation.

Benefits to the team and organisation include (McManus, 2006):

  • improving the working relationships between manager and direct reports (ie employees)

  • developing and fostering more productive teams

  • using organisational resources more effectively.

Given these overwhelming benefits it would seem nonsensical for any organisation not to introduce coaching. However, in my experience this is somewhat harder than may first appear, unless there is a significant buy-in at senior levels and a commitment to developing appropriate policies and support. It must be recognised that coaching does not come naturally to everyone, either coach or coachee, and therefore organisations will need to actively work at creating a culture which visibly supports and develops a sympathetic environment. The next section explores the factors needed to encourage this.

Important factors in creating sustaining a coaching culture

Clutterbuck, Megginson and Bajer (2016) identified a number of key principles which were necessary to be present to create and sustain a coaching culture.

Visible Manifestations

Core Principles

Beliefs and Mindsets


Unwritten rules of behaviour

Unconscious beliefs


Role modelling

Assumptions from coaching principles


Interactions that reflect a coaching philosophy



To add some detail as to what these elements may look like, let us consider what would be underneath these elements. Clutterbuck et al provide some very useful examples of some key indicators.

Processes and structures

  • Pool of coaches and coaching policy and guidelines.

  • Competency framework which includes coaching and supervision.

  • Task group or steering committee.

  • Peer coaching to encourage collaboration.

Skills and behaviours

  • Listening effectively, and appropriate questioning.

  • Establishing trust and relationships.

  • Identifying outcomes and clarifying goals.

  • Giving insight and learning and use of coaching techniques.

  • Supporting, but challenging.

  • Engaging when people find things difficult and helping them to find solutions.

  • Providing and seeking feedback.

  • Non-judgmental.

  • Openly asking for help.

  • Learning from mistakes and taking time to reflect.

Core principles (evidence of unwritten rules — examples)

  • Collaboration — agreement on collective goals, working with others, sharing ideas and mutual support.

  • Attentiveness — giving people undivided attention, demonstrating uninterrupted listening, effective communications.

  • Curiosity — engaging in dialogue and problem-solving with an open mind.

  • Ethics and respect — decisions governed by principles of right and wrong. Positive feelings of respect regardless of the position in the hierarchy.

  • Growth and reflection—people take responsibility for their own growth and development, and take time to reflect on their experiences.

  • Openness and honesty — people share their views honestly and these are respected.

Beliefs and mindsets — examples (these are the most difficult change)

  • Human potential is unlimited and everyone should have the opportunity to grow.

  • People are not naturally lazy — they are shaped by their environment.

  • People perform best when they are challenged in a generous way and supported.

  • The first answer is not always the best answer.

  • You do not get the best out of people if you micro-manage them.

  • Working together is more effective and sustainable than ploughing your own farrow.

  • Heroic leadership doesn’t work long term.

The processes and structures will be relatively simple to put in place and may well drive some of the behaviours if consistently applied. However, it is the softer elements within the core principles and beliefs and values which are more difficult to influence, as we will discover in the following example.

An example of implementing a coaching culture

While it is vital that appropriate policies and procedures are designed to support a coaching environment, it is the softer elements that create the difficulties in embedding a coaching culture. Many individuals think that coaching is an expensive luxury for senior executives, and it is not seen as a way of managing and encouraging employees to grow and learn. The need for senior role modelling is imperative, as are continued communications and an embedding of “this is the way we manage around here”.

The following observations are taken from a practical example of introducing a coaching culture using internal and external coaches, but the lessons could be applied any organisation, as the issues are not unique. In this example the coaching scheme was well considered, an organisational policy agreed and implemented with significant emphasis on the training of coaches, matching coaches and coachees, providing supervision and feedback to coaches, and helping them to resolve difficult issues. The system of registering for a coach was simple — it was automated through a well-established learning and development system and there was clear guidance both for coaches and coachees. Significant effort was put into developing external coaching and partnering arrangements with other organisations. However, there were a number of factors which mitigated against the culture becoming embedded.

  • While senior management supported the scheme, agreeing whole-heartedly with the policy and its intentions, they did not always “walk-the-talk”.

  • There were no consequences for managers who opted out and continued to manage in a “command and control way” — comments such as “Oh, that’s how Joe has always managed, it’s a bit late for him to change now”, were common place.

  • Due to austerity, the learning and development budget was cut and employees felt that even when development needs were properly identified they weren’t always meet.

  • Coaching was used in a relatively gentle way and mainly for development — managers found it harder to use it for performance and often reverted to more autocratic ways on managing when the going got tough.

  • There wasn’t a sufficient link between coaching, development and talent management.

  • The stated values of the organisation were not always matched by the behaviours, and these were not “called out” often enough.

  • There was a disconnect between the leadership style of coaching managers and their political masters (who were often “old school” in their interactions).

  • There wasn’t enough emphasis on team coaching and collaboration, and the system of performance-related pay encouraged individual performance — sometimes at the cost of team objectives.

The consequence of this tension between the processes/structures and core principles made the scheme appear perfunctory and autonomous; the result being that it did not come to life. Where the relationship between the coach and coachee was good there were some startling results. There was evidence of employees who worked for managers with a coaching style doing better in their career, and improved performance indicators were also observed. This was particularly noticeable when “coaching” managers moved to another service (there was significant internal churn at the time due to restructures). Examples were — the customer contact centre PI’s improved by 5% in the first six months of a change of manager, and a further 7% by the end of the year. A failing service was rated as good 18 months later after a “coaching” manager was allocated to the service to improve performance. In addition, the staff survey demonstrated some improvements. A surprising result was on the question we asked about used of skills. We asked people how many of their skills they used at work and the initial result was a depressing 40%; two years after implementing the coaching scheme this rose to 60%. It is often difficult to prove a causal effect, particularly when the organisation isn’t remaining static. Nevertheless, it is clear that there had been some shift in the utilisation of skills and encouragement of potential.

Why you need all the elements for a coaching culture to be successful

It is clear from all the research and the practical example above that coaching can be the vital ingredient that makes the difference on performance, and we have seen that it is not sufficient to simply put in place processes. All the elements from communications, current management style, mood and maturity of the workforce, and the overall culture need to be considered. The diagram below shows the initial brainstorming from the previous example when reviewing what needs to be considered in ensuring that a coaching culture is embedded.

On reviewing this, in hindsight it is clear that there wasn’t sufficient attention given to the significance of prevalent leadership style and beliefs, or involvement of employees in the design of the scheme. This could have been reviewed using Scholes and Johnson (1986) analytical tool of the cultural web, which helps articulate the paradigm within which the organisation works. It encourages a review of whether these factors are barriers or enablers. Below is a consideration of these factors when considering implementing a new approach to managing and developing employees. Readers may find this a useful tool in any review of organisational change, where there is an expectation there will be a change of culture.




Issues (Examples)

Rituals and routines

The way we do things around here, including interactions

We treat customers and employees alike with respect and dignity.

We recognise team performance and encourage employees to work across services.

Practice is patchy and not challenged.

Pay scheme does not allow for rewarding team performance.


Myths of the organisation — including villains and heroes

Good stories included the council being a good employer with a flexible approach to work/life balance.

Unhelpful stories of a blame culture abounded with no real evidence behind this.

The myths (good and bad) were very strong, and related to perceived historical incidents and anecdotes. Little was done to rectify the myths and they were sometimes encouraged by managers.


Titles, office space and hierarchy, terminology

Job titles were important and a lot of effort was made to regularise them. Senior managers and politicians were on the “top floor” and allocated dedicated parking spaces giving a sense of us and them.

However, communications were generally informal and pleasant.

Car parking and office space were the biggest bone of contention, outstripping pay freezes! It is likely that this was because the former was within the power of senior management, while people understood the financial position. It gave a view of how people felt “management” perceived the “workers”.

Power structures

Location of power

Where power is invested in the organisation, is it in the hierarchy or in some more informal sense where individuals had influence due to knowledge, relationships or perceived levels of control?

Some individuals used this power to achieve their own ends. As many councillors were “old style” they often gravitated towards managers who were more like them.

Control systems

Measurements to monitor performance

Performance indicators (PIs) were reported to senior management and members, so there was a clear emphasis on performance.

PIs were often based on quantity and timeliness rather than quality. Team measures were difficult to implement, therefore team performance was rarely recognised.

Organisational structure

Shows important relationships and reflects internal power structures

In some departments the hierarchy was very important, with communication routes and authority clearly defined. Others were more informal and authority was situated in the best place to get things done.

Lack of consistency was confusing, and sometimes power struggles among managers were evident.

The more informal team arrangements with matrix management appeared to be more effective.

Examples of good practice

Despite a number of issues with the coaching culture, there were clearly a number of significant successes relating to this example. It was well-supported by policy and procedure, and the HR/OD team continued to champion it at every opportunity. There was a very sophisticated IT system, which housed the L&D booking system, but was also about development and communications. It enabled individuals to find appropriate coaches, to find and rate training opportunities, to communicate with colleagues on projects and advertise if they were seeking secondments or projects. It was well used and linked to a significant number of partners, including NHS, other councils, care homes, charities and other public bodies. This facilitated good opportunities to have and be external coaches, as well as enabling networking and sharing of good practice across other public organisations. Employees were encouraged to use assessment tools to support development, including Myers-Briggs Personality Types, Saville and Holdsworth Psychometric Test, Belbin Team Types, Honey and Mumford Learning Styles Questionnaire, Buckleys Facet 5, Power of Personality as well as more specific measurements of their technical abilities. This reinforced the importance of behaviours in addition to their technical competence — ie it is not just what you do but how you do it.

Communications on the scheme were regular and clear, and it was given a high-profile launch. However, it is possible that the briefings sent through managers did not always reach the intended recipients. If we consider Julie Starr’s Coaching Framework (2010), it is apparent that the good managers were following this approach. They were encouraged through the training to understand the context (many usually already did as their coaches were members of their teams), and work with the employee to frame their goals in a positive sense, making them specific and getting them to describe what it would feel like once they had achieved their goal. 360-degree feedback was implemented corporately for all managers, and they were encouraged to cascade this to their teams. Continuous learning and review were supported by online learning logs.

In another organisation I have observed reverse coaching where more junior staff are supporting senior managers with technology and providing feedback on leadership style. This appeared to be particularly effective in matters relating to diversity, where managers were given the opportunity to receive feedback from very different perspectives. This approach is reinforced by an article in Business Mentoring on Reverse Mentoring in the Workplace (2012).

Types of coaching

There is a lot of debate about the difference between coaching and mentoring, and some professionals are very concerned to maintain the demarcation between the two. It is, however, often difficult to keep these models pure, and if it works for the individual and coach then this is what matters. The important point here for anyone who is coaching will be to understand what motivates their coachee and how they learn. Malcolm Knowles in his model of adult learning (andragogy) argued that adult learners are autonomous and want to be in control of their own learning. He maintained that adult learners, compared to children, are more driven by inner desire (intrinsic motivators) than external stimuli (extrinsic motivators). He identified four basic assumptions that underpin adult learning.

  1. Motivation to learn — they have particular views on their needs and their goals are orientated to meet those needs.

  2. Experience and knowledge — they have a vast array of life experience and knowledge which is a valuable resource for learning.

  3. Problem resolution — they are practical and interested in learning to solve tasks and not just for the sake of learning.

  4. Need to be valued — they want to have their contributions respected and valued.

These elements are important for a successful coach to understand to get the best out of a coaching relationship, individuals desire a sense of equality between them and their coach and are particularly swayed by the style of the coach. This reinforces the need to be very careful when matching coach and coachee, and, when this is not possible (say in a line management relationship), it is incumbent on the coach to amend their style accordingly.

Many of you will be familiar with the auditory, visual and kinesthetic learning styles as developed by Neil Fleming (2001). We will all have a predominant learning style based on hearing, seeing or doing, although this does not mean we cannot learn if presented with information in any of these ways. Successful coaches will identify the predominant style, but will also have the ability to engage the individual on any or all three of these approaches depending on the situation.

More recently there has been interest in an evolutionary approach to coaching, which has been well-developed by Richard Barrett in his book Evolutionary Approach to Coaching — A Values-Based Approach to Unleashing Human Potential. Barrett argues that there are many stages to human development and that we are all on a journey through these stages throughout our lives. We can only reach Maslow’s level of self-actualisation, and live fulfilling and meaningful lives if we have been through all the stages. He is concerned with healthy psychological growth and development, without which our fears prevent us from learning and moving forward. His work makes distinctions between the following four areas, which helps us understand how people move forward.

  1. Growth — this relates to progression particularly in the ability to demonstrate higher levels of maturity.

  2. Development — is about staged learning where each level of learning is maintained and built upon.

  3. Emergence — this is used to describe “breakthroughs”, where individuals gain access to insights which support new ways of learning and their growth and development.

  4. Self-realisation — fully expressing who you are at the deepest level of your being.

Barrett describes seven levels of psychological development; surviving, conforming, differentiating, individuating, self-actualising, integrating and serving.

This way of viewing coaching provides a number of challenging paradigms for coaches. First, it is argued that to be effective the coach must be aware of where they are on their journey of development, and should have experienced what it is like to be at that level to be able to support their coachee. Second, as individuals grow and develop, they may find that their place in their community (work, family, social, religious) becomes uncomfortable as they develop to stages beyond those of their peers. There will come a point where an individual will need to decide what to do: accept their situation and remain out of alignment with their environment, which leads to dissonance and compromising on values and beliefs, or seek out a new working environment or community. These ideas are really important to individual coaches and organisations, who are considering a coaching approach. There are decisions to be made on the type of coaching to be offered, and the development of coaches, which will be fundamental to how far coaching takes an individual and, consequently, the organisation.

Final observations

It is clear from this analysis that it is possible to implement a coaching scheme, without having a full coaching culture within the organisation. However, it will only provide very limited benefits to individuals who are fortunate enough to have access to effective coaches, who want to help them develop and succeed. Organisations will benefit from having a clear idea of what a coaching culture would achieve and what organisational outcomes they are particularly aiming for. These need to be stated at the beginning to enable any effective evaluation to take place.

The 2013 Ridler Report gives a useful insight into the trends in coaching and makes the following observations about how coaching is changing and what is valued. There has been an increase over the years in the ability of coaches to provide challenging feedback (now at 83% in the survey) and insightfully raise a coachee’s awareness of ingrained behaviour patterns (83%). It argues in the report that sponsors have become more demanding over recent years. John Blakely in an article on the Ridler Report also observes that this is due to wider societal shifts, where the arrogance of “old school”, mainly male, leaders and their heroic styles of management are no longer tolerated.

The report also observes a steady growth in team coaching at a senior level, along with growth in the use of internal coaches, which is driven by cost. The report concludes that coaching is on the increase and gaining ground — this momentum has, in my view continued over the years.

The 2016 Ridler Report gives more detail on the type of coaching, with 81% being 1:1, and all coaching being split between internal coaches (39% ) and external coaches (42%). Team coaching only accounts for 9% (the other 10% being identified as group coaching or other), but 76% of organisations surveyed stated they would be increasing their team coaching over their two years. Seventy-five per cent also reported that they would increase their internal coaching over the next two years, with 73% saying they would increase their spending on coaching.

The conundrum is, given the overwhelming evidence that coaching works (we see it in all walks of life from sports coaches, to musicians, teachers and in the workplace) why do we not all embrace it whole-heartedly? I would contend that this is due to our inability to change, as beautifully described in Kegan and Lahey’s book — Immunity to Change, How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization (2009). The theory is based on the assumption that, as we evolve, we develop beliefs and ways of operating that even when we are faced with very significant issues we are unable to change. They quote a study of heart patients, where individuals were told they needed to change their lifestyle or they would die — only one in seven were able to do so! Even if we mature to the highest level, which Kegan asserts is the ability to hold conflicting thoughts in one’s head it is extremely difficult to change.

Given this stubborn resistance to doing things differently it is not surprising that leaders and managers find it problematic to shift from the comfort of say “command and control” to the more fluid style of coaching, when the former style has served them well over the years. My belief is that this will take time, but there will be pressure from millennials who expect a much more coaching approach to the workplace. In an article called Attract, Retain and Motivate Millennials ( it is argued that millennials are driven by different values and say they want their manager to act more as a coach than a boss. Given they are the “bosses” of the future things will inevitably have to change.

Further reading

  1. David Clutterbuck and David Megginson (2005) — Making a Coaching Culture Work, CIPD

  2. Cluterbuck, Megginson, Bajer (2016) — Building and Sustaining a Coaching Culture, CIPD

  3. Emerson, B, & Loehr, A (2008). A Manager’s Guide to Coaching: Simple and Effective Ways to Get the Best Out of Your Employees. New York: AMACOM

  4. McManus, P, (2006). Coaching People: Expert Solutions to Everyday Challenges. Boston: Harvard Business Press.

  5. Whitmore, J, (2009). Coaching for Performance (4th ed.), London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing

  6. Johnson, G, (1992). Managing Strategic Change — Strategy, Culture and Action, Long range planning, 25(1), 28–36.

  7. Julie Starr, (2010) The Coaching Manual: The Definitive Guide to The Process, Principles and Skills of Personal Coaching

  8. Business Mentoring Matters (2010) Reverse Mentoring & Managing Generational Diversity in the Workplace

  9. Knowles, M, (1988) — The Modern Practice of Adult Education: Pedagogy to Andragogy

  10. Fleming, N.D, (2001) — Teaching and Learning Styles

  11. Richard Barrett, (2014) — Evolutionary Coaching — A Values-Based Approach to Unleashing Human Potential

  12. Robert Kegan, Lisa Lahey, (2009) Immunity to Change — How to Overcome it and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization. Published by Harvard Business Review Press

  13., article titled Attract, Retain and Motivate Millennials

  14. The Ridler Report (2013). Ridler and Co Ltd

  15. David Blakely — The Ridler Report — 7 Trends in Executive Coaching,

Last reviewed 4 April 2019