When I talk with people about team coaching in organizations I often am met with a number of common questions: “So what exactly is team coaching?  How is it different from team building, team training or team facilitation? Why should I care about team coaching?”   It’s interesting to ponder because most people would immediately understand what you are talking about if you mention coaching sports teams.  It’s hard to imagine a top sports team achieving high levels of performance without robust individual and team coaching.  Yet when you mention the idea of coaching business teams, you are often met with a puzzled look as if you are speaking a different language!  Recently I was talking about team coaching with a former Chief Talent and Development Officer who has now become an external coach and consultant. After we had been speaking for a while she remarked: “You know, I now realize that I’ve been doing team coaching for a long time but never knew what to call it!”  While executive coaching has become commonplace in companies, team coaching has yet to reach the same degree of prominence.  I find it interesting because a leader can’t exist without a team that brings the leader’s vision into reality.  Perhaps as team coaching becomes more prevalent we will reach a tipping point and it will become part of the organizational lexicon just as executive coaching has become common over the last decade.

In this post I’d like to try to capture in a simple and concise way what team coaching is and what a team coach does in order to make the concept more accessible. Once we have a clear definition of team coaching we can begin to see the promise that it offers.

Defining Team Coaching & Delineating What Team Coaches Do

In last week’s blog post (2015 – The Year of Team Coaching!) I shared the following general description of team coaching from Peters & Carr (2013): “Team coaching is distinct from individual coaching because in team coaching, the team as a whole is the client and collective performance is the goal, versus the individual focus of one-on-one coaching.”  This is a helpful description upon which we can expand.  In my view, what differentiates team coaching from team building, team training and team facilitation is that team coaching often happens over a period of time (e.g. 6 to 12 months) as a PROCESS rather than as an EVENT much like these other interventions.  While change may get triggered or catalyzed through such events, sustainable change often only happens over time through an iterative process (See Boyatzis, 2006, on Intentional Change for more about the conditions that foster change in individuals, groups and organizations).  Team building, team training and team facilitation may be incorporated within a team coaching process.   Yet team coaching is more about a relationship between the team and the coach that fosters an enabling environment. This environment both supports and challenges the team to take is functioning to the next level.  At the heart of team coaching is helping a team accelerate its progression along the stages of team performance from a working group –> to a pseudo team –> to a potential team –> to a real team –> to a high performing team (Katzenbach & Smith, 2006).

Hackman & Wageman’s 2005 article on “A Theory of Team Coaching” in the Academy of Management Review is one of the few references in the literature where team coaching has been explicitly defined and delineated.  They define team coaching as:

  • “Direct interaction with a team intended to help members make coordinated and task-appropriate use of their collective resources in accomplishing the team’s work.”   They further state that team coaches provide “…interventions that inhibit process losses and foster process gains for each of…three performance processes.”

The three performance processes referred to in the above definition that team coaches often target are:

  1. Motivation: In this type of coaching the team coach helps the group develop shared commitment to the team and its performance goals and to ensure that team members don’t slack off or engage in free riding or “social loafing.”
  2. Performance Strategies: In this type of coaching the team coach helps the group identify and invent performance strategies that are well aligned with the task or outcome the team is trying to achieve.
  3. Learning: In this type of coaching the team coach supports the growth and development of team members in order to increase knowledge and skill both individually as well as collectively.

Finally, these three performance processes map on roughly to a team’s performance cycle (i.e. beginnings, mid points and end points) and as such create three specific windows of opportunity when teams and their leaders may be receptive to team coaching interventions.

The Promise of Teams

So in summary, team coaches help teams leverage motivation, performance strategies and learning to accelerate their development and performance.   In my interviews with team coaches on The Team Coaching Zone Podcast (available in iTunes by clicking here) I’m consistently inspired by the kinds of impacts team coaches are having on teams in all kinds of organizations–technology startups, fast moving consumer goods companies, non-profits, universities, oil and gas companies, professional associations, Fortune 500 firms and more.  At the heart of every great team is a story of change and transformation.  And in the weekly podcast episodes you can listen to stories of success as well as failure from real-world team coaches as they try to help more teams achieve success.

Being part of a high performing team can be among life’s most enriching experiences.  And being part of a poorly performing team can, conversely, be among the most depressing.  Yet when teams work well the greatest of achievements can be made and the impossible can become possible.  The challenges that human civilization faces in 2015 and in the years to come will surely require some of our best and most innovative team work yet.  While a lot is known about teams and team effectiveness, we are still in the early stages of learning how to unleash their true potential.  Team coaching offers one promising approach to achieve that worthy end.


Boyatzis, R. (2006). An overview of intentional change from a complexity perspective. Journal of Management, 25(7), 607-623.

Hackman, J.R. & Wakeman, R. (2005). A theory of team coaching. Academy of Management Review, 30(2), 269-287.

Katzenbach, J.R. & Smith, D.K. (2006). The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High Performance Organization.

Peters, J. & Carr, C. (2013). Team effectiveness and team coaching literature review. Coaching: An International Journal of Theory Research and Practice, 6(2), 116-136.

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