Observing the unobservable in coaching culture by Yvonne Thackray


We are different - observing the unobserved in coaching cultureCoaching culture is like a layer of film that has been rapidly spread over an uneven surface, and as soon as there is a slight change in temperature the film starts to crease, rapidly folding into itself until it has shrunk and lands on a spot that definitely wasn’t where it started. It is a word, trendy some might even say, that has been bolted on with only light consideration of the existing coaching knowledge. And importantly how can anyone (everyone not just the experts) observe that this really exists and is not simply this organisational cycle’s catch phrase, especially as it’s a hot topic amongst organisations to attract and retain the right employees, and people believe it has a direct impact on financial performance[1].

[Read more about this in Charlotte Rydlund's The Power of Culture and how influential this is for motivation.]

Why observe?

Time to break it down.

First what is culture?

Culture is a word that can mean everything and nothing at the same time because it is used in many different contexts, situations, and disciplines. It’s a bit like ‘creativity’! You would think that after completing a Masters in Anthropology I would know better! Happy to say that some of my learning has paid off, and I came away with a better understanding and description. Culture is the study of human society and how society works i.e. relationships among social roles (e.g. husband and wife, parent and child) and social institutions (e.g. religion, economy, politics) and how people express a view of themselves and their world through symbols and values. And so culture is about what people say, what people do, the social environment, and its impact on their feelings, attitudes, behaviours, etc. Now we can see what cross-cultural means in this context, the comparison of cultures that is typically international in scope.

When did culture become part of the business lexicon?

Four best seller books publicised and popularised the concept of corporate culture because organisations, like a small-scale society, exist under certain rules and policies established by the government or industries. Moreover, they can be observed:

  1. William Ouchi (1981) Theory Z

  2. Richard Pascale and Anthony Athos (1981) The Art of Japanese Management

  3. Terence Deal and Allan Kennedy (1982) Corporate Cultures

  4. Thomas Peters and Robert Walterman (1982) In Search of Excellence

Culture was now something that could be shared via words to describe the complexities of what’s happening inside an organisation… and not long after the term knowledge management became popular in business.

“…starting from a fact that we can know more that we can tell.” Polanyi[2]

So, what is coaching culture?

A quick google search shows that the term was first mentioned in 1994 by Barry in “How to be a good coach” without describing what it is.

The second time it was used was in 1999 by King and Eaton “Coaching for results”: “A good coach can also be instrumental in spreading a `coaching culture’ throughout the organisation. That is, having coached the individual manager to hone their skills in a more effective way, that same manager can be coached in how to coach others.” (pg 147)

Today we have a few more interpretations:

“An organizational setting in which not only formal coaching occurs, but also, most or a large segment of individuals in the organization practice coaching behaviors as a means of relating to, supporting and influencing each other.”

E. Wayne Hart, Ph. D.

[See Jeremy Ridge's post: Freeing up Our Use of Coaching!... Contrasting the Simple model of coaching with a more 'open' model for coaching]

"A coaching culture exists in an organization when a coaching approach is a key aspect of how the leaders, managers, and staff engage and develop all their people and engage their stakeholders, in ways that create increased individual, team, and organizational performance and shared value for all stakeholders.”

Peter Hawkins

Coaching is a predominant style of managing and working together, and where a commitment to grow the organisation is embedded in a parallel commitment to grow the people in the organisation.”

Clutterback and Megginson

I’ve highlighted what I’ve considered to be the key facets describing a coaching culture. From the descriptions it’s also clearly a numbers game! Time is another important factor, and a coaching culture is not something that happens in isolation, there are also other influences (related and non-related) at play.

However, even with these early attempts of imagining what is a coaching culture, I’m no closer to understanding what it is because the manifestations of coaching behaviours, approach or style, will always vary depending on the individual’s state, the situation, the content, the location, the time and that’s just for starters. I think what is being broadly hypothesized is the possibilities of the impacts of coaching when it’s scaled up from an individual to the whole organisation. Everything else that falls in between is less obvious which raises the question, and something not yet answered in agreement amongst the coaching community, if coaching is a means to an end or an end to a means?

For most cultures to be called a culture implies that it’s typically something that exists for many people and can be readily observed (because it happens naturally). For now, coaching culture is a more nebulous term that needs time to develop, and advancements in team coaching and internal coaching may provide us with those case studies to observe and decipher what this could really mean. So whilst coaching culture is a hot topic, be careful it doesn’t just evaporate into hot air!

What do you think?


Barry, Tom. "How to be a good coach." Management development review 7.4 (1994): 24-26.

Clutterbuck, D. et al. (2006) Making Coaching Work: Creating a coaching culture

King, Paul, and John Eaton. "Coaching for results." Industrial and commercial training 31.4 (1999): 145-151.

Tian et al (2013) General Business Anthropology, North American Business Press, 2 edition

Hart, E.W. (NA) Developing a Coaching Culture, CCL


Hawkins, P. (2012) Creating a Coaching Culture

[1]Bersin, J, (2015) Culture, why it’s the hottest topic in business today


[2] Polanyi, (1966) The Tacit Dimension