Manager as coach characteristics for dealing with team challenge

H.A. Smith (Department of People and Performance, Manchester Metropolitan University, Manchester, UK)

Journal of Work-Applied Management

ISSN: 2205-2062

Article publication date: 20 September 2019

Issue publication date: 14 November 2019




The purpose of this paper is to reference academic publications and semi-structured interviews with management experts employing a coaching style within their teams to create a platform for evaluating specific coaching mechanisms, evolving insights to the characteristics required of a manager applying coaching to deal with team challenge. A practical perspective led by managers using critical incidents to explore and highlight areas of experience and expertise in dealing with team challenge.


This qualitative assessment was derived from 30 semi-structured interviews which were recorded, transcribed and thematically analysed to assist in added insight for work-based management of dealing with team challenge. Data from 30 interviews were collected via Skype, FaceTime or Zoom to create the necessary rapport and capture the experience of dealing with team challenge. An audio record of each interview was captured to create a synchronised, fully indexed transcript from which characteristics and mechanisms could be identified.


Findings illustrated that the characteristics of the work-based manager themselves is an essential part of the mix when dealing with team challenge, the application of a coaching style accentuated the competencies and characteristics required of the manager to successfully address team challenge, demanding a specific coaching mindset. The starting point is the manager themselves knowing all the details before they intervene by utilising the traditional competencies of a professional coach.

Research limitations/implications

Only one sample of 30 interviewees contributed to this research, a wider sample would be advisable, including a wider cultural base to assess characteristics in a variety of contexts. There was a wide sector representation in this research (public, private and third sector), but specific sector analysis would also be interesting to assess validity of results more rigorously.

Practical implications

The practical outputs from this research of the manager’s self-assessment can be used by managers as a check list when dealing with team challenge or by HR managers as an assessment tool to decide which managers to invest in coaching training. The characteristics may be a means of deciphering the skills of the managers. Finally the self-assessment could be used as a training tool to support work-based learning or coach training on how to address team challenge and offer a discussion prompt around these elements as being essential.

Social implications

Coaching dialogue is a social interaction and this research contributes to enhancing the quality and purpose of social interactions in the workplace. By employing a coaching style of listening, questioning and reflecting managers can utliise a standard framework for solving issues in the workplace.


Dealing with challenge in teams through the analysis of the coaching style applied by 30 managers is unique, the value added through this research has been an enhanced appreciation of the manager as coach role and an appreciation to the established team models of Fleishman, Katzenbach and Smith, Hackman and Edmondson. This added layer enabling managers to deal with team challenge associated with our ever changing work environment.



Smith, H.A. (2019), "Manager as coach characteristics for dealing with team challenge", Journal of Work-Applied Management, Vol. 11 No. 2, pp. 165-173.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2019, H.A. Smith


Published in Journal of Work-Applied Management. Published by Emerald Publishing Limited. This article is published under the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY 4.0) licence. Anyone may reproduce, distribute, translate and create derivative works of this article (for both commercial and non-commercial purposes), subject to full attribution to the original publication and authors. The full terms of this licence may be seen at


Organisations strive to be successful and productive in a competitive market (Engelbrecht et al., 2014) with work engagement being acknowledged as key to that success (Lin, 2015) adding to the increased demands being made of managers and the teams they lead. Because of an ever-demanding work environment, organisations are focussing on front-line managers to deliver organisational goals and training managers in coaching skills to support this requirement. Teams are recognised as being more dynamic in nature thus intensifying the managerial requirement; an entity Bushe and Chu (2011) described as fluid. With the increased reliance of organisations upon teams with internal and external collaboration (Edmondson, 2012). Fairhurst and Connaughton (2014) noted that teams are increasing in complexity and irrationality with continuous change as the norm. Similarly, Norreklit (2011) observed that managers have to be careful not to disempower staff, something Grint (2012) previously hinted towards, remarking that managers need to consider methods that bind individuals closer to the communities they lead without impeding individualism. This individual approach to team management was endorsed by Ellinger (2013) when citing Paustian-Underdahl et al. (2013) who acknowledge the importance of individual team members as a critical source of competitive advantage to promote business success. The awareness of the importance of individual employees as team members reinforces the growing requirement for front-line managers to be well versed in the application of coaching as a management aid with an expectation to enable individuals within their teams. There is a notion that successful teams result in successful organisations (Erkutlu, 2012) heightening the manager responsibility and personal challenge to deliver the required outcome. Another example from Maruping et al. (2015) reiterates the importance of managing interdependence which is critical to achieving the success of individuals within the team and of team tasks.

There are multiple demands upon team managers such as dealing with constant change (Fairhurst and Connaughton, 2014), managing diversity (Agrawal, 2012), managing team dynamics, integrating different sources and types of expertise (Maruping et al., 2015), aligning team cultures and behaviours (Cheng et al., 2012), setting the correct context (Dexter, 2010) and influencing a desired course of action (Amos and Klimoski, 2014) to achieve corporate goals. It is no surprise that organisational leaders have been seeking an appropriate solution when dealing with these added demands as well as technological challenge (Budworth, 2011) with an expectation to deliver more with less resource (Nuffield Trust Report, 2012). According to authors such as Beattie et al. (2014) and Ellinger (2013), front-line managers are responsible for the personal and team development of their employees whilst keeping them engaged (Lin, 2015), achieving agreement upon team decisions and fostering continued proactivity (Chughtai and Buckley, 2011). Exploring selected items from this list of dynamic context and diversity within teams highlights the challenge for managers to create a more flexible and malleable means of addressing the needs of individual team members, irrespective of sector. The availability of a more consistent and pragmatic approach to team challenge is therefore welcomed arising from individual experience and collective analysis of the approach of managers interviewed.

According to Suiryan (2013) coaching represents a shift in managerial philosophy, challenging the leader-centric model in favour of greater reciprocity. This shift can create an internal challenge and lack of focus for some managers. Dealing with challenge within a team (from team member to manager) is identified as the primary provoker of conflict (Hentschel et al., 2013). Additionally, Santos and Passos (2013) further heightened the link between conflict and dysfunctional performance. In this context, the style and characteristics of the manager have the potential to impact team functionality.

Interpersonal conflict is proposed by Chen et al. (2012) as one of the greatest challenges to be addressed in teams with a significant impact upon staff relationships. Conflict is reported within a recent NHS review as being an ever-present force in the workplace. In 2008, 85 per cent of employees across Europe dealt with some form of conflict on a daily basis with an average employee engagement of 2.1 h a week. This represents 370m days lost each year as a direct result of conflict (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, 2008). Furthermore, Bradley et al. (2012) noted that if the manager does not intervene, competition for dominance from extrovert team members may counteract the ability of teams to resolve task conflict in a productive manner. This trend was supported from direct responses from the interviewed managers within this study, with over half of the challenges referring directly to individual behaviour within the team relating to conflict issues and negative attitude. While some managers reported challenge as a negative influence, others considered challenge as motivational, inspirational and positive. The main challenges confronting teams are highlighted in Table I as represented by the numerical response from the transcripts of the interviewees.

Managerial shift

In a competitive environment, productivity is under constant scrutiny with teams increasing in complexity, irrationality and continuous change (Fairhurst and Connaughton, 2014). Managers are expected to facilitate maximum engagement from their teams (Lin, 2015). According to Edmondson (2012), being part of a team demands active participation, which Amos and Klimoski (2014) describe as team members needing to; to step up, to contribute, to understand the task in hand, to possess a willingness to work with colleagues with an ability to align and focus upon the desired output. Alignment phenomenon was further investigated by Zoltan (2015) from a psychological and group dynamics perspective, concluding that the team leader needs to influence individual team members to be attracted towards working together, whatever the output purpose of the team. Evidenced further when Zoltan (2015) reinforced this concept through analysis of the elements that contribute to effective team functioning, namely; aligned attitudes, opinions and aspirations, each of which may represent a challenge for a manager to engineer. An individual approach is therefore required to engage and align, which could be achieved through an individually focussed coaching style of management.

Manager as coach characteristics

Focus upon the manager is valid according to Ellinger (2013) maintaining that, managers are ideally placed to engineer the best team output through generating behaviours that promote and develop employee learning, work-related skills and ability. Similarly, Kim (2014) focussed on the ability of the manager to influence change within the team by utilising their relationship with team members. These observations are reinforced by Lawrence (2015) who noted that managers can deliver long-term sustained performance at an organisational level provided they cultivate a constructive performance behaviour. Additionally, Fairhurst and Connaughton (2014) cited as critical how the manager communicates messages, agreeing with Conway and Coyle-Shapiro (2012) that articulation is a key skill that affects the leader–follower relationship. This requires the manager acting as a conduit for work-based learning through carefully transmitting meaning and expected behavioural outcomes to their team members by congruent role modelling and the sustained performance eluded to earlier.

These expectations suggest that a level of competence and leadership ability is required to best leverage the benefits of coaching when dealing with challenge with methods, such as reflection, thus creating an optimal environment for the team to learn and work effectively (Al-Nasser and Mohamed, 2015), promoting social sharing within the team (Yang, 2015), building relationships (Batson and Yoder, 2012; Ewen et al., 2013; Fairhurst and Connaughton, 2014), facilitating knowledge exchange and work-based learning from each other. Interview data derived from this study (Smith, 2018) supported Engelbrecht et al. (2014), who recognised that managers who self-regulate their own behaviour are better able to motivate the desired behaviour of team members. Self-assessment is the likely first step in self-regulation along with self and team awareness to support the managers’ ability to deal with conflict at source. When responding to team challenge, the role of work-based learners and manager as coach potentially utilise additional skills and a different approach to the role of managing a team. Analysis of interview data (Smith, 2018) captured specific requirements that do not appear within some established team effectiveness models Fleishman (1992); Katzenbach and Smith (1999); Hackman (2002) and Edmondson (2003) with a strong emphasis towards an understanding of the team situation prior to any coaching intervention. The relevance of a precursor self-assessment by team managers, based upon the work-based knowledge of a coaching style of team management reported by the interviewees, is therefore considered appropriate as a foundational step to meeting the challenges of the modern team.

Data analysis

To provide a workable bridge with academic literature and practitioner-led publications (Wall et al., 2018); data from 30 interviews were collected via Skype, FaceTime or Zoom to create the necessary rapport and capture the experience of dealing with team challenge. An audio record of each interview was captured to create a synchronised, fully indexed transcript from which characteristics and mechanisms could be identified, with a degree of commonality and compliance with published literature. In reality, the noting and subsequent highlighting of these characteristics originated the nomothetic level of analysis (Crozier and Cassell, 2015) developing codes, categories, unique trends and potential mechanisms from each transcript; commonly known as detected patterns (Adams et al., 2014). Some of the detected patterns, e.g., listening, questioning and reflecting back mirror some of the listed competencies of the professional bodies such as EMCC, ICF and AC for professional coaches. The findings of the interview data were taken from the narrative and represented a pragmatic approach towards team challenge with potential for creating a practical framework for practitioner application. Since the sample of interviewees represented a broad sector base, age range, gender orientation and coaching skill level; their responses to the questions: what creates challenge in your team and how do you deal with it, provides a valuable work-based learning view.

The data illustrated the different areas of required understanding with direct narrative references to; observe, listen and reflect, soak-up what is going on, asking questions to facilitate clarity and really knowing your staff. Gaining an understanding is pivotal to teamwork (Kim et al., 2016) and falls within the remit of the manager to facilitate understanding by using metaphors or stories, asking questions to seek clarification, avoid acting on a whim and being sure to deal with facts. The interview data (Smith, 2018) expanded upon four primary areas; namely, knowing (to foster confidence), appreciating (to foster humility), assessing (to foster learning) and intervening (to foster exchange) thus evolving a self-assessment document to address each of the required actions by the manager as coach in addressing team challenge, as in Table II.

This approach is a balance of academic appraisal (gleaned from the recommendations of the various authors listed) and pragmatic assessment (from interviewee data analysis) of team challenge and acts as an aide-memoire for the practitioner or manager as coach, to assess whether specific aspects relating to a practical scenario have been addressed prior to any formal intervention. The list is not meant to be exhaustive but covers the essential areas which likely provide confidence, learning experience and assurance to the manager of the essential areas to be considered. The implementation of such an approach on a wider scale will assist compliance to these procedural measures which can be followed as a ready checklist for the manager when dealing with a variety of scenarios and act as a common base (denominator) for managers of differing competence level and confidence. The aim is to promote managers as exemplary role models and provide the manager employing a coaching style with the necessary information and consideration when dealing with team challenge.

To aid the preparation of the scenario assessment and the competence development of the manager as coach, two essential themes evolved from the analysis of data (Smith, 2018) highlighting the need for a focussed mindset (being coach minded) and acting with a sense of timely intervention in meeting team challenge (time to act). The specific characteristics are shown in Table III, which supplement the need for a wider prescription for the manager as coach and supports the above self-assessment by the provision of a more expansive perspective of the required competencies.


The insight gained from this exploration is derived from an understanding that individual team members within the organisation require the manager to possess a global mindset (Petrie, 2014) to capture all potential factors that impact the well-being and functionality of their team. From a practitioner perspective, having a coach mindset and operating with a degree of urgency reflects favourably upon the efficiency and success of a coaching intervention and the overall performance of the manager. This requirement adds further insight to operational success when addressing challenging behaviour since being coach minded requires an active contribution of team members and an intrinsic level of competence of the manager.

The development of a personal self-assessment provides a necessary precursor in dealing with aspects of team challenge and as a generic guideline for practitioners, work-based learners, human resource managers and professional coaches to assess, evaluate, refine and develop a robust tool-kit for practical application.

Reported team challenges

Challenge Interviewee responses
Conflict 51
Attitudes (bad/negative) 38
Change 23
Time 9
Ownership 8
Trust 4
Miscellaneous 15

A practical self-assessment guide for dealing with team challenge

Characteristics of being coach minded


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Corresponding author

H.A. Smith can be contacted at:

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