Revealing the complexities of team coaching: techniques for managers

4 October 2023 | By: Newcastle University | 4 min read

In the world of organisational life, teams are everywhere.

When truly high-performing teams are disappointingly rare, it's no wonder that organisations are increasingly turning to coaching to provide support when teams fail to deliver or thrive.

Dr Joanne James of Newcastle University Business School speaks to us on the complexities and importance behind team coaching, and how to refine team coaching techniques in the workplace.



  1. Team coaching for modern leadership

  2. Team coaching is complex

  3. A team coaching model: modes of awareness

  4. Bringing the modes of awareness together

  5. In conclusion


Team coaching for modern leadership

Coaching - a popular learning approach that supports individual development and performance - is now recognised as a valuable tool for team members working collectively with a coach to focus on team performance and the achievement of common goals. However, team coaching is less well-defined compared to one-on-one coaching, leaving team leaders and people professionals with a confusing array of potential solutions when seeking a team coaching approach.


Team coaching is complex

All coaching is a learning process, but learning in a team coaching context occurs at multiple levels. There may be a need for individual shifts in thinking, changes in collective approaches to action, or adjustments in how the team engages with stakeholders and responds to external challenges.

As a team coach, entering the world of an organisational team can often feel like following the White Rabbit into Wonderland. The priorities team members share with the coach may differ from those articulated by the commissioning client. The team may communicate through a private language of acronyms and expressions which are challenging to decipher, and underlying tensions or ambivalence may simmer beneath the surface. Unless it's a brand-new team, the team is usually in the midst of a complex situation with various challenges, aspirations, and a history of successes and failures.

How does one begin to unpack all of that?




A team coaching model: modes of awareness

Learning in team coaching can happen in multiple places, from different perspectives, often simultaneously. A successful team coach needs to hold multiple perspectives in mind while enabling the team members to focus.

Let's explore how a metaphorical 'modes of awareness framework'[1] can aid in this process:


  1. Down the rabbit hole to Wonderland: curiosity

    Just like Alice's curious journey through Wonderland, the first mode of awareness involves curiosity. The coach adopts a childlike and playful curiosity when working with a team, asking, "What is going on here? Tell me your story." Listening is crucial in this mode, as it sets the stage for understanding. Working with individuals first allows their voices to be heard before embarking on a collective inquiry.

    Wonderland - as an organisational metaphor - represents the absurd, contradictions, humour, and the unexpected, reminding us that organisational life is not always logical or predictable. Being open, curious, and actively listening is central to this mode.


  1. Exploring the ecosystem

    The second mode of awareness is the ecosystem in which the team operates. Organisational teams don't exist in isolation; they are integral parts of a vast, interconnected whole. This ecosystem encompasses a multitude of players, from regulators and clients to shareholders, all influenced by changing needs and creative opportunities.

    Imagine it as a constantly shifting landscape, teeming with complexity. To empower your team to thrive within this dynamic ecosystem, it's imperative to grasp their role within it. This is where coaching steps in, helping teams visualise this intricate world and their position within it. This can involve activities like stakeholder mapping, boundary clarification, horizon scanning, or even a redefinition of the team's mission and vision to adapt to the evolving landscape.

    But it doesn't stop there. To truly thrive, teams need to reconnect with their environment regularly. This means seeking external analysis and collecting feedback from key customers and stakeholders. It also means exploring the team’s emotional and motivational responses to this environment. Are they struggling through a long phase of stormy weather or excited about the challenges of an undulating yet fertile terrain?

    These insights can build awareness and guide action, supporting the team on how best to not only survive but flourish. Exploration, creativity, and big-picture thinking are characteristic of team coaching techniques in this mode.


  1. We are family

    The third mode of awareness views the team as a family. This perspective focuses on understanding how team members interact with each other. Like families, teams can have assumed hierarchies, characters who are singled out for praise or blame, and competitive rivalries. Teams can be fiercely loyal towards each other, become wary of outsiders, and may overlook blind spots to keep relationships sweet.

    In this mode team coaching homes in on building trust, encouraging listening, appreciating each team member's contributions, and promoting the sharing of different perspectives to ensure an effective balance of challenge and support. Creating psychological safety within the team is crucial for open communication, where team members can speak up without fear of ridicule. Creating a climate of trust and safety is often the coach’s first step.


  1. A well-oiled machine

    The fourth mode of awareness imagines the team as a machine, focusing on its function, performance indicators, clarity of purpose and direction, and the team's ability to coordinate action effectively. High-performance teams operate seamlessly, like a well-oiled machine.

    In this mode, the coach asks questions that explore the team's functional awareness, processes, and procedures. Team effectiveness diagnostics can be helpful in self-assessment and creating an action plan for development. This behavioural and action-oriented approach to coaching may be the place where teams want to start. Objective performance data is tangible and describing operating procedures, or agreeing core behaviours can be a practical way to demonstrate and measure quick progress. However, the coach remains open to exploring other modes to add richness to the process as we describe below.




Bringing the modes of awareness together

Maintaining awareness of these four modes helps coaches make sense of what they observe and provides a range of perspectives to explore the team's dynamics. Team coaching is complex, and team coaches often work in pairs to keep an eye on the multiple perspectives involved.

When reading about team coaching or implementing a team coaching approach, putting on these "mode of awareness glasses" can help you understand which perspective the approach addresses. Developing your meta-awareness of this complex practice will enhance your team coaching toolkit.


In conclusion

Team coaching is a multifaceted practice that requires coaches to navigate the needs of individual team members, team dynamics, and the team’s relationships with its wider environment, with a meta-perspective of curiosity and acceptance of uncertainty. By embracing different modes of awareness, coaches can better support teams toward high performance and collective success.

Whether you're a seasoned coach or just entering the world of team coaching, these awareness modes offer a different way of looking at a complex and emerging picture.


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[1] James, J., Mavin, S., & Corlett, S. (2020). A framework of modes of awareness for team coaching practice. International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring.