What Are The Differences Between Individual & Team Coaching?

By Phillip Sandahl


Based on the interest we’ve seen worldwide in HR and coaching conference topics, social media references and the questions we’re asked on a more frequent basis, curiosity about team coaching is popping up all over. One of the most common questions we’re asked is this:

“What are the differences between individual and team coaching and what do those distinctions mean in practical terms?”

Team coaching may be the fastest growing segment of the coaching profession. Because it’s been our business to train coaches in team coaching competencies and skills for the last dozen years, we often receive questions from coaches and team development practitioners about what team coaching actually involves.

Coaching is Coaching. Yes, and No.

In fact, individual and team coaching share a great deal of common ground. Let’s start with the International Coach Federation’s definition of coaching:

“Partnering with coachees in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.”

This definition certainly applies to both individual and team coaching.

The phrase to highlight would be “maximizing their personal and professional potential” because that’s just as true for the work coaches do in a team setting as it is the work coaches do with individuals.

Based on our data from more than 12 years and thousands of team assessments it’s abundantly clear that the vast majority of teams are not achieving their potential.

Coaching is an ideal means to help teams and team members achieve their full potential.

From that ICF definition, we would also highlight, “coaching is a process.” It’s a process that takes place over time because as coaches we understand that real change takes practice with new choices and behavior, and practice takes time.

It’s true for individuals in pursuit of a goal and it’s very true for teams learning to operate together in new ways.

A one-time intervention, like a team building session, can have a great temporary impact on a team.

Without follow-up to integrate that learning into new behavior, however, the impact begins to fade as people get back to work and old habits return.

Fundamental coaching competencies and skills will be familiar for those making a transition to coaching teams.

That glossary of individual coaching skills still applies, but there will be variations and adjustments to make in a team setting because of the shift from one-on-one to many.

The Importance of Listening

individual and team coaching

Listening, for example, is one of the core coaching skills in an individual coaching environment.

Listening on multiple levels: listening to the words, the intonation, the body language, the energy in the conversation.

All of that also applies just as appropriately to working with teams, and it is a much more complex listening environment by a factor of 8 to 10 or more.

Obviously, teams are complex and it’s also true that individuals can be complex too in their own way.

One of the hazards of individual coaching is the assumption that the voice that the coach is listening to is the true voice of the coachee.

But that perspective doesn’t take into account all the voices that are inside my coachee—sometimes surprisingly.

It doesn’t take long for a coach to learn that sometimes it’s not my empowered, goal-focused coachee who’s showing up on the individual coaching call.

Quite often it’s the sabotaging voice that coachees learned when they were 10 years old, or the voice of fear, or confusion.

Some days it feels like there’s a whole room full of voices taking sides, presenting arguments, all talking on behalf of the coachee. Not just one voice.

The same phenomenon happens with teams—it’s just multiplied by the number of team members, all dealing with their own inner voices.

Not just a room of voices—a whole convention. So yes, individuals can be complex and the scale of working in a team setting makes it even more complex.

Where We Start

individual and team coaching

One of the fundamental differences between individual and team coaching starts with where the coachee is from the very beginning.

When we pose the obvious question, “Why coaching?” to teams and individuals, we get very different answers.

For individuals, the answer is, “Coaching is for me”. The value of coaching is apparent. The coachee, in fact, has crossed a particular threshold; there’s a change the coachee wants to make or a goal a coachee wants to achieve, so the coachee has engaged a coach to help make that happen.

There is a high level of commitment from the start when we’re working one-on-one (even if it falters, later).

For teams, the answer to “Why coaching?” is typically a question in response: “What’s in it for me?”

Especially at the start, working with a team, there is likely to be quite a mix of attitudes and reactions to the prospect of team coaching.

There will be some enthusiastic team members ready to get started, there will be some who are indifferent, some who are skeptical, some who are in the mode of, “Let’s wait and see how this unfolds.”

There may be questions about the reasons for the team coaching; some team members may be suspicious of the motives.

There may be questions about the process. Team coaching is a new idea for most teams.

Team members may have questions about, “What’s expected from me?” There may be an underlying feeling of judgment that triggers defensiveness.

As a team coach, you’re starting with a team that’s often all over the map. You may have some level of compliance, but not likely wholehearted commitment from the team as a whole.

What this means in practical terms for the coach is that the discovery process for working with teams is different than it is when you start with an individual coachee.

As coaches, when we ask the initial discovery questions of a coachee, we’re asking, “What do you want from coaching, or what will success look like from coaching?” With individuals, we have a clarity of answers.

Identifying The Mission

individual and team coaching

With teams, it’s not so clear. The discovery process with teams is designed to uncover and find alignment around, “What’s in it for the team?”

The coaching focus is also different. With individuals, the focus is on a future vision, something the coachee wants to accomplish.

It’s out there in front, just over the horizon. The coachee likely has a handful of goals in mind and is looking for stepping stones to reach those goals. And it’s personal.

This is a fulfilling vision that is pulling individual coachees forward into their lives.

In a team setting, there is a stronger focus on the current state. It’s a concern that takes the general form of, “We’re not getting the results we want or the results we need.”

It has a present orientation. From the organization’s point of view, there’s something going on that needs fixing.

The timeframe feels urgent. The context of the coaching has a different, “this is business” energy to it, compared to the more life-creating energy we often experience with individuals.

What this points to in team coaching is the need for a shared purpose. We enroll team members in a process where they start to see the “we” or the “us.”

They are able to clarify and identify with the team mission, versus simply protecting their individual role.

That threshold for team commitment may be elusive at the start of the work with teams, but the process of coaching creates an environment where that team identity can be found—without losing the individual’s sense of personal position and importance.

Note that as team coach in a business context, it’s easy to get triggered by that sense of urgency and start to feel pressure to deliver quick results and become overly responsible for fixing problems.

This is a reminder that the work of coaching, whether it’s an individual or a team, is still primarily about providing the structure, support and empowerment for our coachee, whether our coachee is a team or the individual, to become more resourceful in achieving their own results.

The Coaching Environment

Part of our role as coaches, in order to be effective in our work, is to create an environment that supports change.

We often talk about the need to create safety as part of our imperative as coaches: create a safe environment for team members or individuals to disclose themselves or their personal points of view, and to speak up.

We create a safe and courageous environment for individuals or for team members to become vulnerable in ways that promote engagement and deeper conversation. That’s true whether it’s an individual coachee or a team.

With individual coachees, we have a single relationship. It means we are able to design a working relationship one-on-one; we’re able to design the support the coachee needs, one-on-one.

We can create expectations, clarify roles, unfold assumptions that might be present. There is simplicity and clarity when we design our coaching alliance with an individual coachee.

With teams, we have relationships on multiple levels. We have the obvious relationship between the coach and the team and the need to set expectations, uncover assumptions, and clarify roles.

The coaching environment also includes the relationships between team members. In order to create a safe and courageous environment for doing the work with the team, there needs to be safety within the team to have that courageous conversation.

On a practical level, this means having team agreements that support that safe environment with practices that keep those agreements fresh and relevant.

There’s also, at some level, a special relationship between the coach and the team leader.

Very often it’s the team leader concerned with professional development who initiates the inquiry for team coaching and provides the initial background.

As team coach, there is an accountability relationship to the team leader and by extension, to the organization that is different than the relationship with the team as a whole.

The design of those relationships is crucial so that the team coach can honor the relationship with a team leader and still be a 100% advocate and coach for the team.

If the team begins to feel that the coach is merely pressing the team leader’s agenda, credibility will be lost.

You may also have a co-coach relationship to consider if the team size gets up around 12 or more.

In that case, you have yet another alliance to design and that means, not only the relationship between you and your co-coach, but the relationship between the co-coaches and the team.

Clearly, the relationship environment with teams has many layers of complexity. And those relationships are not static.

There is a need to constantly monitor these relationships and re-address as needed in order to continue to have the strongest possible environment for the coaching to be effective.

The Structure of the Conversation

individual and team coaching

With individuals, coachees speak to the coach directly, one-on-one, whether it’s a phone call, or a Skype call, or an in-person session. It’s private and completely confidential.

With teams, the coachee, in this case, the team, speaks to the coach only indirectly through the voices of individual team members and through the coach’s ability to listen below the surface of the conversation that’s taking place.

In team coaching, the coachee is the team and the team is a system. As we listen to the team members and observe how they interact, we’re accumulating an awareness of the system and speaking to or asking questions of the system that is the team.

One of the core team coaching competencies is the ability to see, hear and work with the team as a system.

It requires an ability to listen in new ways, to develop an ear for the team voice, the personality, the desires of the team, the pain of the team, what the behavioral norms or rules are on this team, what rewards the team, what’s taboo on this team.

All of that is there, tucked in-between the team members’ conversation, and the way that conversation happens, uniquely, on this team.

We learn about the system that is the team indirectly by watching and listening; by listening to what’s being said and just as importantly, what’s not being said.

The skill of hearing the voice of the team, separate from the voices of team members requires tuning in on a new frequency.

One way to do that is to shift your listening attention from individual voices and take on more of a soft focus.

What’s familiar and automatic, is to pay attention to the content of the conversation the team is having.

We are trained to listen that way, to follow the linear trail of the conversation. Yes, it’s important to follow the team conversation, and it can be a trap, listening to understand the issue in order to help fix the problem.

It can create a shift from being curious to being analytical. Taking a step back and creating a soft focus for the team is one way to get closer to hearing or seeing the system that is the team.

Along the same lines, as team coaches, our best results often come from listening beneath the surface of the conversation and observing the tide and currents, the dynamics of the team in action.

The team has its focus on the issue at hand and the different positions team members have on that issue. As the team is having that conversation, as coaches we are also listening to how they solve problems, how they listen to each other or not listen to each other.

Do they talk over each other? What are the dynamics that are happening below the surface? Because that’s the system speaking.

As a coach, you are still asking powerful, open-ended questions.
The difference is you are asking the team, not polling individual team members.

We’re resisting the temptation to turn this work with the team into one-on-one coaching with 10 individuals simultaneously.

Scan the Team

Here’s another tip that may take a little practice to get comfortable with. As you interact with the team, shift your eye contact, scanning the team rather than focusing on one individual.

If you shift your eye contact from individuals to the team as a whole, there’s a way that you’re embracing or including the whole team in your question, and the team in their responses is less likely to engage with you directly and more likely to engage with each other.

If they don’t have eye contact with you they will find eye contact with another team member. That’s really the core of the work—creating conditions for team members to engage with each other.

Wait Your Turn

The other tip is to wait. “W-A-I-T” An acronym for “Why am I talking?” As long as the team is having a productive, rich, valuable conversation, it would be wrong to interrupt that conversation.

Working with teams, there is a way that our job is more about facilitating the conversation and then pulling back to observe and let the team carry on. There’s a waiting and watching aspect of team coaching that’s unique.

To be clear, listening for the voice of the team is not the same as working toward homogenous consensus.

Sometimes the metaphorical music the team is creating is made up of diverse, sometimes clashing notes.

Our job as team coaches is not to make the music more harmonious; that would be the team’s job if that is important to the team.

Our job is to highlight the diversity of tones that make up this unique team harmony. A team is more than the sum of the parts, and it is the parts.

Working with an individual coachee, we listen for and attempt to interact with that singular, authentic voice of the individual coachee.

When we work with teams, our common goal is to reveal all of the voices, even the unpopular voices, the marginalized voices.

We want to hear the silent voices speaking, not necessarily asking the silent ones to speak up, but we want to make sure that there is a way that that silence gets included in the whole system picture.

With teams, we’re finding allies for those different points of view. We’re encouraging different voices and highlighting that diversity.

We are absolutely not trying to resolve or find one right way of thinking on the team. For a coach, this is an opportunity to be curious on behalf of the team: what’s it like on this team when you have two really strong and apparently contrary ways of addressing this issue?

After years of coaching teams here’s what we’ve learned: a team is not a smoothie. A team is like a really great salad.

Creating a Deeper Conversation

individual and team coaching

The transformative power of coaching is found in the ability of coach and coachee to explore new, often challenging conversational depths.

With individuals, that deeper conversation is the result of a private conversation—a confidential, one-on-one dialogue.

That private one-on-one conversation makes it easier to have a more vulnerable and eventually, a more intimate, more trusted relationship and creates the safety necessary for that deeper conversation.

With teams, the conversation is public, and that can be edgy and vulnerable. Even so, in our experience it is absolutely possible to have a deeper conversation within the team; it may take time to build sufficient trust but that is one of the advantages of a coaching approach: the practice of stretching, exploring, engaging with successful outcomes builds safety and trust over time.

We just need to remember to be patient; that kind of deeper, open, revealing conversation is a more challenging road for a team to travel than it is for the individual because of the nature of the exposure.

With individuals it’s simple. Your coaching question elicits an answer. It’s very efficient. You ask a question and you get a response. You have one data point to respond to with individuals.

With teams, your question starts a conversation, which is, in fact, the point. Most of your role as a team coach is creating interactive conversation among team members.

That’s where the action for change will happen. Be alert to times when the team is talking mostly to you as a coach, explaining, or venting, rather than talking to each other.

It could be time to redirect the flow and it can be as simple as saying, “Tell your team members what you want them to know.”

Worth noting: sometimes it’s easier and more comfortable for team members to have a conversation with you as a team coach than it is to have a possibly more challenging conversation with other team members.

For the coach there is much more value in watching and listening to the team engage; that’s where we get to see the system alive and the dynamics at play.

Monitoring Many Screens

individual and team coaching

Another key difference between individual coaching and team coaching is the sheer complexity of everything that’s going on in front of you.

Metaphorically, working with individuals is like watching one visible screen. The channel might change but you are monitoring a single screen.

You might be paying attention to the report your coachee is giving, or you might be paying attention to how your coachee’s values are showing up.

You might be noticing how this conversation compares to other conversations you’ve had with this coachee in the past on this same topic. All playing on one screen at a time.

With a team of say, 10 team members, you now have 10 different points of view, 10 different agendas, 10 different personalities, 10 different expectations, 10 different priorities.

At the same time you need at least some part of you tracking the content of the issue under discussion while you are simultaneously aware of where you are in your timeline for the day, the action items the team is accountable for, the stagnant or resistant energy in the room, and the exercise you want the team to experience before the break.

In team coaching, you have a multitude of data points in front of you and you need to choose where to put your attention—and choose instantly—because this moment is passing.

We’re always dancing in the moment. That’s the nature of coaching individuals or teams. With teams, we’re dancing to the team’s music, often multiple, sometimes conflicting tunes and the music is constantly changing.

There’s a strong likelihood that there’ll be bumping into each other on the dance floor and toes will get stepped on. That’s the nature of the work with teams and why working with teams is a dance that requires exceptional agility.

Conflict on Teams. A Special Case.

individual and team coaching

Yes, conflict as a topic sometimes comes up in individual coaching sessions. Coachees deal with conflict and disagreement in their lives. It’s also true that coachees sometimes bring their anger or frustration to their coaching session.

Coachees have conflicts with other people in their lives. All of that becomes part of the coaching conversation.

The difference is, with one-on-one coaching, as a coach you are getting a report about the conflict. With teams, it can be blowing up right in front of you.

Those people that team members are having conflicts with, they are actually in the room. It’s not just part of the conversation; that conflict is the conversation and it’s happening right now.

How to handle conflict in teams, especially in the team coaching session, is a major topic for another time. For now, the message is, this is a potential occupational hazard, or opportunity if you prefer, and team coaches need to be prepared.

Conflict, disagreement and strong debate are normal on teams. Our job is not to quash it but to handle the dynamics so there is learning for the team and the team becomes more effective at handling their conflict.

Toxic cultures are poisonous to team performance and this area of team interaction is the least skilled area for the vast majority of teams.

We do teams a great service by creating the conditions for teams to become more skillful. The ability to handle conflict builds trust and respect on teams.

Teams that have learned how to disagree and work through even strong disagreement and where the focus continues to be on issues, not personalities, research shows that those teams make better decisions, faster, because they are willing to take a stand and work things out.

Making a Difference

individual and team coaching

To make a difference is fundamentally at the heart of coaching and both individual and team coaching share this intention.

Each has its unique and important place in the lives of individuals and teams. Individual coaching creates an extraordinary relationship, intimacy, and fulfillment for coachees and for coaches.

There’s a level of connection that is deeply personal and meaningful for an individual or business coach.

Coaching teams is also enormously fulfilling work. It provides the opportunity to work with people who might never hire a coach.

As a result they can experience the awakening power of coaching as they explore new behaviors, new understandings of how we communicate, how we trust and respect each other, how we create an environment of belonging and diversity. All within the context of a team. Team coaching is also enormously fulfilling and inspiring work.

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