What Is Coaching in the Workplace and Why Is It Important?

Coaching in the workplaceCoaching enhances performance.

It can benefit anyone, not just athletes.

As Bill Gates said:

Everyone needs a coach. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a basketball player, a tennis player, a gymnast or a bridge player. We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve.

Just like athletes, leaders are under pressure to perform every workday. And just like with athletes, coaching is the best way to ensure that leaders can perform at a high level.

Workplace coaching is a burgeoning industry with a growing body of literature to support it. In this post we break down workplace coaching, how it works, and how you can use it to help grow your organization.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free. These science-based exercises will explore fundamental aspects of positive psychology including strengths, values, and self-compassion, and will give you the tools to enhance the wellbeing of your clients, students, or employees.

Coaching in the Workplace: A Definition

Workplace coaching is a professional helping relationship, focused on the goals of the coachee (Passmore & Lai, 2019). It is based on reciprocal actions between the two parties.

Information passes two ways: the coach responds to information about the coachee’s needs, while the coachee receives help, in the form of active listening, thoughtful questioning, or concrete guidance, from the coach.

Workplace coaching unlocks the potential of the coachee. Coaching is a facilitative approach, in which the coach enables future self-directed learning and development (Passmore & Lai, 2019). In this way, coaching fits the adage:

Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.

Workplace coaching can occur internally, with managers and leaders engaging employees in either formal, “sit-down” coaching sessions or informal, “on-the-run” coaching sessions. When coaching occurs internally, it becomes a leadership style. It can also occur externally, with an outside coach brought in to work with leaders. When coaching occurs externally, it is called an intervention (Grant, 2017).

The Importance of Coaching in the Workplace

Coaching enables leaders to deal with the unknown.

The workplace is a dynamic environment, characterized by turnover and volatile market forces. The beauty of coaching is that leaders do not need to know everything in order to be effective; instead, they need to know how to empower those around them.

Coaching can be contrasted with a “command and control” leadership style (Grant, 2017). A command-and-control leader is highly directive, decides without consultation, rewards performance, and punishes failure (Wheatley, 1997).

Command and control can be effective in some situations; for instance, when the task at hand is well defined or the organization is small enough that micromanaging is possible. Another approach is needed when tasks are ambiguous and teams are too large to control.

Coaching allows the leader to elicit the strengths and knowledge of the people they are leading. This frees leaders to focus on the big picture, prevents micromanaging, and gives employees the opportunity to prove their competency.

A Brief Look at the Types and Styles

Two prominent types of workplace coaching are executive coaching and team coaching.

  • Executive coaching is a helping relationship between a consultant and a client with managerial authority and responsibility in an organization (Kilburg, 1996). Executive coaching occurs for many reasons, including integration into a new role, performance issues, or consultation on strategy. It is often performed by an external coach.
  • Team coaching is a coaching engagement with an entire team, to help team members coordinate efforts and use their resources more effectively (Traylor, Stahr, & Salas, 2020). Team coaching often occurs internally, with the team leader adopting a coaching leadership style.

Herminia Ibarra and Anne Scoular explain the different coaching styles in their 2019 article “The Leader as Coach.” They spotlight four different coaching styles:

  • Directive coaching is akin to mentoring, when a manager with years of experience tells a younger employee what to do. This style comes easily to many managers.
  • Laissez-faire coaching involves leaving employees to do their work. This style is appropriate when team members are highly effective.
  • Non-directive coaching draws wisdom, insight, and creativity out of others through listening, questioning, and withholding judgment. It does not come easily to most managers.
  • Situational coaching involves balancing directive and non-directive coaching. The authors recommend that managers first practice non-directive coaching and then alternate between leadership coaching styles depending on the context.

3 Proven Benefits of Workplace Coaching

Benefits of workplace coachingResearch has verified the importance and benefits of workplace coaching. Below are three examples of studies that have been done.

1. Leadership effectiveness

In a study measuring leader effectiveness, Thach (2002) found that executives who received six months of coaching increased their effectiveness by 55% when rated by their peers in a 360-degree feedback survey.

The coaching in this study comprised a series of one-on-one coaching sessions provided by an external coach. This type of coaching can contribute to a company coaching culture, which positively affects the entire organization.

2. Team effectiveness

Teams are at the core of how organizations get things done. A literature review investigating both internal and external team coaching found that coaching had a positive effect on team effectiveness and productivity (Traylor et al., 2020).

Coaching was found to be more effective for teams that were struggling with communication, reflection, and self-correction. Coaching was found to improve productivity through mediating factors such as psychological safety (Traylor et al., 2020).

3. Increased employee self-efficacy

Self-efficacy is an individual’s belief that they will accomplish the task at hand. It is a cognitive estimate of a person’s own ability to perform. This belief impacts both stress levels and actual performance.

In an experiment comparing a control group to an experimental group of managers who received coaching, the coached managers reported significantly higher levels of self-efficacy (Leonard-Cross, 2010).

Coached managers also reported feeling more aware of their strengths and weaknesses after the engagement (Leonard-Cross, 2010). With a more accurate view of themselves, these managers felt more prepared to take on challenges.

Coaching vs Counseling in Work

To distinguish between coaching and counseling, it is important to look at the root of these approaches.

Coaching is usually done to bolster an existing skillset. In the above studies, coaching was provided to executives who were already performing at a high level. In short, coaching is usually done to help people excel at something that they are already doing well.

Counseling, on the other hand, is remedial. It may be recommended for an employee who has just received a disappointing performance review. Here, counseling would involve more fundamental work, listening to the employee, figuring out the problem, and then addressing the situation using a similar set of tasks to coaching.

Although similar skills are required for each, what the work is called is very important. Top performers are unlikely to engage in workplace counseling but may engage in coaching, which has gained a reputation of prestige (Grant, 2017).

Identifying Your Workplace’s Coaching Needs

Identifying coaching needsIf you are interested in bringing a coach on board, there are several ways to identify the coaching needs of your workplace.

First, you can bring in a consultant with expertise in gathering information in organizations through surveys, assessments, and interviews.

There is no better way to identify needs than by talking to the people involved in your organization. It is unnecessary to bring in a consultant if the culture of your organization allows employees to give honest feedback. In this case, you can select a sampling of your staff to interview, asking them about the skills and resources that they feel they need to do their job effectively.

If you feel that employees are not giving honest feedback or you are stuck, it may be time to bring in a consultant.

Building a Coaching Culture: Methods and Strategies

In order to build a coaching culture, it is important to first teach managers how to be coaches themselves. Many coaches and consultants teach the managers they work with how to use coaching skills such as active listening, asking the right coaching questions, and setting actionable goals.

Teaching managers coaching skills helps maximize the value of each conversation. Much of the coaching that takes place in the workplace is done informally, in corridor conversations or when lingering after a meeting (Grant, 2017).

A coaching culture results from managers who are trained as coaches and can capitalize on brief exchanges to provide timely, in-the-moment coaching.

Another way to create a coaching culture is to use coaching as an incentive for those at the top. Providing coaching to top-level employees can be a way to bolster leadership and offer a desirable reward for hard work.

Challenges and How to Overcome Them

Workplace coaching for teamsCoaching as a leadership style is foreign to many leaders and employees.

To overcome resistance, organizations need to minimize the anxiety and uncertainty that surrounds this fresh approach (Grant, 2017).

When working with resistance, pay attention to two factors: employee wellbeing and the congruity of the coaching intervention.

Wellbeing at work is a mix of life satisfaction, work–life balance, and positive affect while working. It is a delicate balance that can only be achieved when the person has sufficient resources to do their work (Grant, 2017). Introducing coaching into an organization where workers are already stretched thin may ignite resistance. Coaching should be simple to adopt and easy to use.

Next, think about how well the intervention fits the existing culture. Coaching needs to be deeply personalized (Grant, 2017). Personalization is an important aspect of the consultant’s work. Good coaches create interventions based on the needs of their clients, rather than delivering cookie-cutter interventions that are the same for each client.

2 Real-Life Examples

Two practical examples of how workplace coaching has made a difference.

Atul Gawande and medical coaching

Dr. Atul Gawande hired a coach to observe him in the operating room, after he noticed a plateau in his growth as a surgeon. After restarting his own growth through coaching, he created a program to provide coaching for doctors in Uttar Pradesh, India.

Coaches helped doctors execute the steps of child delivery, and as a result, they were able to save many lives. For the full story, check out this TED Talk.

Saba Imru Mathieu and workplace coaching

Saba Imru Mathieu is a coach whose job is to create coaching cultures within her clients’ workplaces.

Her focus is on three essential needs:

  • Autonomy
  • Competence
  • Relatedness

Her theory is that when these three needs are met, people will work in a way that is both satisfactory to them and productive for their employer. Check out this TED Talk for more info on Saba’s approach.

4 Effective Techniques, Tools, and Activities

Good coaches have several tools in their toolbox to help their clients. What follows are general techniques and specific coaching tools to kick off a successful coaching intervention.

1. Socratic questioning

Socratic questioning is a type of focused, open-ended questioning that encourages reflection. It forms the bedrock of coaching skills.

People rarely think of questioning as a skill, but the better you become at asking the right questions, the more success you will have as a coach.

2. Active listening

Coaching is primarily about asking, not telling. Being an excellent coach requires excellent listening skills. Active listening is a way to learn what your employees and clients need in order to be successful. It is also key for building and sustaining relationships.

3. Motivational interviewing

Motivational interviewing is a way to have conversations that help others generate their internal motivations for change. If you are coaching a group of leaders who are struggling to elevate their work, motivational interviewing may be the right tool for you.

4. Soliciting and giving feedback

Giving and receiving feedback are vital parts of a coaching culture. Learning how to give constructive feedback and receive it effectively will help you and those around you work more effectively together.

Ethical Considerations

Ethical considerations of coachingEthics are the consideration of what is right and wrong.

There are many organizations that oversee coaches, such as the International Coaching Federation and the International Association of Coaching; however, membership in these organizations is voluntary, meaning that coaches do not need to be members in order to call themselves coaches.

These organizations have come up with different ethics codes. What follows are a few ethical considerations that all coaches should follow (International Coaching Federation, n.d.; International Association of Coaching, n.d.).

  • Competence
    This has to do with the skills of the coach taking the engagement. Does the coach have relevant experience to draw upon to help the client? Are they qualified to come up with a plan or put forth an intervention that can meet the client’s needs?
  • Fit
    Coaches should not choose their clients based solely on prestige or money, but should consider whether they can form an effective helping relationship with the client.
  • Boundaries
    Coaches should be mindful of boundaries during the engagement, both personal and professional. This is especially apparent when it comes to the line between coaching and therapy. Coaches need to have mental health training to recognize when the client’s problems are due to clinical issues and to be able to refer out to a therapist when these situations arise.
  • Confidentiality
    Working within organizations, coaches must be very clear about what information will be shared with whom. Clear communication in this area is vital for creating trust with the client.

A Look at Training Opportunities

Training opportunities for coaches are plentiful. Many of these opportunities are available online and can be accessed at any time.

The International Coaching Federation (ICF) is one of the largest credentialing organizations for coaches in the world. It is known for both credentialing coaches with a high quality of training and helping coaches to find quality training. For the latter, the ICF has developed a database of recommended training programs.

The Society for Consulting Psychology is a division of the American Psychological Organization that serves coaches and consultants with a psychological background. It is a supportive community for coaches at all stages of their careers. The organization provides many opportunities for online learning, including a variety of webinar series and conferences.

The Center for Creative Leadership offers a Coaching Conversations Training Program, which helps those already holding leadership positions learn how to have the kinds of conversations discussed in this post.

An ideal course for leaders is the Emotional Intelligence Coaching Masterclass©, offered by our very own Dr. Hugo Alberts. This course will help you improve your coaching skills through building your emotional intelligence skills. By understanding the emotions of those around you, you’ll be in a better position to coach them and maximize their strengths.

Teams are at the core of how organizations get things done. To improve the efficacy of teams, the Positive Relationships Coaching Masterclass© is a valuable resource for helping you understand the nuances of relationship building. The different aspects of this course will help you create cohesive and coherent teams.

A Take-Home Message

To lay the foundation for positive culture change, your organization needs workplace coaching.

Coaching has many benefits and can improve the company ethos, revitalize energy in the workplace, reduce friction, and even boost sales.

Coaching is a way to have conversations, with either your clients or your employees, in which you can maximize their potential and empower them to generate solutions to problems.

Coaching has grown in popularity as business has become more unpredictable. Leaders are hired for their ability to elicit creativity and innovation from employees, rather than their expertise in a specific field.

If you are a coach looking for a career opportunity or an executive looking for a tool to improve your business, workplace coaching may be right for you.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free.


  • Grant, A. M. (2017). The third generation of workplace coaching: Creating a culture of quality conversations. Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research and Practice, 10(1), 37–53.
  • Ibarra, H., & Scoular, A. (2019). The leader as coach. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved December 29, 2020, from https://hbr.org/2019/11/the-leader-as-coach
  • International Association of Coaching (n.d.). Ethical principles. Retrieved January 6, 2021, from https://certifiedcoach.org/about/ethics/
  • International Coaching Federation (n.d.). Code of ethics. Retrieved from https://coachfederation.org/code-of-ethics
  • Kilburg, R. R. (1996). Toward a conceptual understanding and definition of executive coaching. Consulting Psychology Journal, 48, 134–144.
  • Leonard-Cross, E. (2010). Developmental coaching: Business benefit–fact or fad? An evaluative study to explore the impact of coaching in the workplace. International Coaching Psychology Review, 5(1), 36–47.
  • Passmore, J., & Lai, Y. (2019). Coaching psychology: Exploring definitions and research contribution to practice? International Coaching Psychology Review, 14(2), 69–83.
  • Thach, E. C. (2002). The impact of executive coaching and 360 feedback on leadership effectiveness. Leadership and Organization Development Journal, 23(4), 205–214.
  • Traylor, A. M., Stahr, E., & Salas, E. (2020). Team coaching: Three questions and a look ahead: A systematic literature review. International Coaching Psychology Review, 15(2), 54–68.
  • Wheatley, M. (1997). Goodbye, command and control. Leader to Leader, 1997(5), 21–28.


What our readers think

  1. Amarendran Chodavaram

    Very nice article with lucid and crisp understanding of the coaching concept.


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