Peter Drucker famously quipped that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”.
If we’re not careful we can add that it also eats coaches and coaching supervisors as delicacies straight afterwards!
Like coaching, coaching supervision can take place both in a private client-centred model and in an organisational context. In the latter, coaching supervisors operate within a wider culture with coaching teams and, potentially, other supervisors.
This organisational context introduces a number of variables that inevitably have an impact, for good or bad, on the supervision that takes place.
In this article I want to consider the complex relationship between organisational culture and coaching supervision, and explore how supervisors can work within challenging organisational cultures to deliver effective supervision.
I should say that the issues I am discussing here are just as relevant for coaches and I often refer to “coaches and coaching supervisors” in this article. However, I am writing this predominantly around the practice of supervision.
Understanding Organisational Culture
Let’s start by defining organisational culture.
Enough has been written about this that there are many better qualified to do this than I. Here are just a few;
“Culture is the shared assumptions, beliefs, and values that shape the behavior of people within an organisation.” – Edgar Schein (1990) in “Organisational Culture”
“Culture is the sum of values, rituals, symbols, beliefs, and habits that shape how people behave in organisations. Gretchen Spreitzer (2008) in “Creating a Positive Organisational Culture”
“Culture is the invisible hand that shapes employee behavior, decision-making, and relationships.” – Denise Lee Yohn (2014) in “What Great Brands Do”
“Culture is not something that an organisation has, it’s something that an organisation is.” – Daniel Coyle (2018) in “The Culture Code”
Organisational culture then is complex and multifaceted, encompassing the shared values, beliefs, norms, and practices that shape the way employees interact with each other and approach their work.
These factors are almost invisible to those in it, rather like the oft-told tale of the two fish who question what the word “water” means.
Yet, to outsiders, these cultural aspects of an organisation can seem very clear indeed. As we will explore shortly, external coaches and coaching supervisors often have a uniquely privileged insight into the culture in being both in and outside of it.
Factors such as leadership style, communication patterns, and company history influence organisational culture, contributing to a unique environment that affects coaching, supervision and people development in general.
Key Thinkers on Organisational Culture
The term “organisational culture” was first used by Elliott Jacques in his 1951 book, The Changing Culture of a Factory.
Since then, a number of thinkers have contributed to our understanding of organisational culture and developed frameworks and models to analyse and interpret its components.
- Edgar Schein
- Charles Handy
- Geert Hofstede
- Jay Lorsch and Paul Lawrence
Schein, a prominent social psychologist, developed a widely recognised model of organisational culture, dividing it into three levels:
Visible and tangible aspects of the culture, such as dress code, office layout, and company policies.
Stated beliefs and values that guide employee behaviour and decision-making.
Basic Underlying Assumptions
Unconscious, taken-for-granted beliefs that form the foundation of the culture and are often difficult to identify or change.
Handy, an influential management thinker, proposed four main types of organisational culture, which he illustrated using Greek gods as metaphors:
Power Culture (Zeus)
Centralised authority, with decision-making concentrated at the top and a focus on control and influence.
Role Culture (Apollo)
Emphasis on clearly defined roles, rules, and procedures, with a hierarchical structure and a focus on efficiency and stability.
Task Culture (Athena)
Team-oriented and project-focused, with flexible structures and a focus on problem-solving, innovation, and adaptability.
Person Culture (Dionysus)
Centred on individual autonomy and self-expression, with minimal hierarchy and a focus on creativity, personal growth, and self-actualisation.
Hofstede, a Dutch social psychologist, conducted a comprehensive study of national and organisational cultures, developing the following six dimensions to compare and contrast cultures across organisations and countries:
The degree to which less powerful members accept and expect unequal power distribution.
Individualism vs. Collectivism
The extent to which people prioritise individual goals and autonomy over group interests and cohesion.
Masculinity vs. Femininity
The preference for assertiveness, competitiveness, and material success (masculinity) versus cooperation, care, and quality of life (femininity).
The level of tolerance for ambiguity and preference for structured environments and clear rules.
Long-term Orientation vs. Short-term Orientation
The emphasis on future planning and perseverance (long-term) versus tradition, stability, and immediate results (short-term).
Indulgence vs. Restraint
The degree to which people allow themselves to enjoy leisure, fun, and gratification, compared to a focus on restraint, self-discipline, and strict social norms.
Jay Lorsch and Paul Lawrence
Jay Lorsch and Paul Lawrence proposed that organisational culture can be classified as either strong or weak, based on the level of consistency in values and behaviour across the organisation.
A strong culture is one where the organisation’s values are widely shared and strongly held, resulting in a high degree of consistency in behaviour and decision-making. In a strong culture, employees are more likely to understand and adhere to the organisation’s values, leading to greater employee engagement, loyalty, and commitment.
On the other hand, a weak culture is one where the organisation’s values are not well-defined or consistently applied, leading to inconsistency in behaviour and decision-making.
Weak cultures may result in lower employee engagement and a lack of shared identity, which can lead to a less cohesive organisation.
Together, these thinkers and their frameworks provide useful ways to think about organisational culture enabling coaches and coaching supervisors to form ideas of how a culture is operating and how they need to adapt to this.
Challenging Organisational Cultures
When we don’t like what we see in an organisation, it can be tempting to refer to a negative organisational culture.
I have refrained from using this term as it seems too all-encompassing and limits the potential for ways of seeing.
Instead, I have referred to challenging organisational cultures. This is more accurate – it might challenge us, or the coaches we work with, or the employees.
Such a culture can take many forms and the specific characteristics may vary depending on the organisation.
However, here are some common signs that we are working within a challenging organisational culture.
Lack of Trust and Transparency
A challenging culture often involves a lack of trust and transparency, where employees feel they cannot express their opinions or ideas without fear of retaliation. This can lead to a lack of collaboration and a sense of isolation among employees.
High Turnover and Low Employee Engagement
A challenging culture can result in high turnover rates and low employee engagement. This may be due to a lack of support, poor communication, or a lack of opportunity for growth and development.
Resistance to Change
A challenging culture often involves resistance to change, where employees are not receptive to new ideas or initiatives. This can make it difficult for the organisation to adapt to changing market conditions or to implement new strategies.
A challenging culture may involve toxic behaviours such as bullying, harassment or discrimination. This can create a hostile work environment and lead to low morale, high levels of stress, and increased absenteeism.
Lack of Accountability
In a challenging culture, there may be a lack of accountability, where employees are not held responsible for their actions or decisions. This can create a culture of blame-shifting and can lead to a lack of ownership and responsibility.
These are just a few examples of what a challenging organisational culture can look like. It can have a significant impact on the success and well-being of an organisation and its employees, as well as the coach and coaching supervisor..
The Influence of Organisational Culture on Coaching Supervision
No doubt, you’re already beginning to think about how all this affects coaching and coaching supervision. And maybe you have already experienced this many times already.
The culture they work within can significantly influence the coaching process, the coach-supervisor relationship, and the overall effectiveness of coaching and supervision interventions.
The prevailing organisational culture can impact the way coaches and supervisors approach their work, shaping their methodologies, communication styles, and the level of support they receive.
For a coaching supervisor, this is doubly challenging and potentially problematic since they will need to consider not only the impact of the culture on their own work and their place in the organisation, but how it is affecting the coaching relationship.
This is, of course, the very essence of coaching supervision in which the systemic lens asks us to look beyond the immediate issue and instead see the interconnecting forces that are at play through the organisation from the supervisor, to the coach, to their client and to the organisation.
A well-aligned, positive organisational culture can facilitate open dialogue, trust, and collaboration between coaches and supervisors, fostering an environment where professional development and growth can thrive.
Conversely, a misaligned culture may create barriers to effective coaching supervision, such as resistance to change, lack of support, fear of judgement and assessment, concerns of confidentiality, and limited opportunities for reflective practice.
“The culture of any organisation is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate.” – Gruenter and Whitaker (2012) in “The Patient Will See You Now”
Coaching supervisors who understand the organisational culture can better navigate its complexities, tailoring their approach to fit the specific context and addressing potential challenges more effectively.
This awareness enables supervisors to offer relevant guidance and support, helping coaches enhance their skills, self-awareness, and the quality of coaching outcomes.
Strategies for Enhancing Coaching Supervision within Organisational Culture
Identifying and addressing organisational culture barriers, such as resistance to change or lack of support, is crucial for fostering effective coaching supervision practices.
Implementing best practices for integrating coaching supervision within the organisational culture, such as encouraging open communication and collaboration, can lead to a more supportive environment for coaching supervision.
But how does a coaching supervisor do this when they cannot directly influence the culture? It is one thing to talk about open communication and another to enable it in a culture of fear and intimidation, for example.
Many coaches and coaching supervisors will have had experiences just like this, working in organisations that, far from supporting openness and growth are, in fact, suffused with suspicion, power, politics, fear and resistance to change.
Whilst the supervisor can’t directly change this, they can potentially have some influence.
A coaching supervisor may employ various strategies to address these challenges including:
Building trust one conversation at a time
In a culture in which trust is hard won, coaching supervisors may need to focus on trust at the micro level. That is to say, building trust with this one person, in this one conversation, around this one thing and then doing that again and again. We can’t take trust and openness for granted but we can determine to build it one small step at a time. Far too often, coaches and coaching supervisors bemoan the culture and capitulate to it rather than taking smaller steps.
Encouraging coaches and organisational leaders to reflect on their behaviours, attitudes, and beliefs related to power and resistance can help them become more aware of their impact on others. Self-awareness can lead to more adaptive behaviours and a willingness to embrace change. Again, this can be done in small steps in which, as Tesco says, every little helps!
Facilitating open dialogue
A coaching supervisor can initiate and facilitate open discussions within the organisation, helping individuals explore their fears and concerns around change, and addressing the power dynamics at play. Such conversations can create a shared understanding and foster a sense of ownership over the change process.
Coaching supervisors can support coaches and leaders in building resilience, empowering them to navigate the challenges associated with change, fear, and power. Techniques may include stress management, emotional regulation, and problem-solving skills.
Leveraging coaching alliances
By fostering strong coaching alliances within the organisation, coaching supervisors can create a supportive network that can collectively influence the organisational culture. These alliances can become catalysts for positive change, helping to break down barriers and shift power dynamics.
Encouraging small wins
Focusing on incremental changes and celebrating small successes can help build momentum for larger transformations within the organisational culture. Small wins can generate a sense of achievement, reduce fear, and increase confidence in embracing change.
A coaching supervisor can influence organisational culture by modelling adaptive behaviours, open communication, and a willingness to address power dynamics. This demonstration can inspire others within the organisation to adopt similar attitudes and actions.
By employing these strategies, a coaching supervisor can potentially influence and change an organisational culture where resistance to change, fear, and power dynamics are holding back progress, fostering a more supportive environment for coaching and professional development. Of course, the larger the organisation, the more challenging such change is, and the risk is that the supervisor is simply sucked into the culture.
The Qualities Needed by the Coaching Supervisor in a Challenging Organisational Culture
To effectively employ the strategies mentioned above, a coaching supervisor must possess a range of qualities that enable them to navigate complex organisational dynamics, facilitate change, and support the professional development of coaches. Most of these will be familiar, yet the carry an extra significance when navigating the stormy waters of a challenging organisational culture.:
Demonstrating a genuine understanding of others’ feelings, perspectives, and experiences helps build trust and rapport, facilitating open communication and collaboration. In particular, empathising without colluding is critical. I have supervised several coaches who have found themselves colluding with their clients against the organisation. Without care, the coaching supervisor can be pulled into this dynamic alongside the coach.
Objectivity and Non-Attachment
Building off the last point, it is critical for a coaching supervisor to remain objective and non-attached when emotions are running high. This is not to say that the supervisor can’t empathise with the experience their coach is having but it is important in such a challenging setting that the supervisor avoid reinforcing a narrative that limits options.
Understanding and managing one’s own emotions, as well as being sensitive to others’ emotional states, helps in navigating power dynamics, addressing resistance, and developing resilience. Again, to continue the previous point, in an environment where there is blame, anger, resentment, suspicion and more, it is not helpful for the supervisor to lose control of their own emotional state.
Being able to adjust and respond to changing circumstances and organisational contexts is crucial for facilitating change and implementing strategies that are relevant and effective.
Articulating ideas clearly and persuasively, as well as employing various communication techniques (e.g., questioning, summarising, reflecting), enables coaching supervisors to engage with multiple stakeholders effectively and is a core skill of a coaching supervisor. However, in a challenging environment, we are often called upon to be more courageous – holding firm to boundaries, challenging behaviours, stepping into our professional authority.
Demonstrating effective leadership qualities, such as integrity, vision, and role modelling, inspires confidence in others and encourages them to embrace change and challenge power dynamics. Whilst as a coaching supervisor, we are unlikely to be a part of the leadership, we can nonetheless demonstrate these qualities in our area of work. As Gandhi said, we can “be the change we want to see”.
Being aware of and sensitive to cultural differences within the organisation, as well as understanding the impact of organisational culture on coaching supervision, enables a coaching supervisor to tailor their approach and strategies accordingly. I hope that this article opens the door to diving further into this.
Maintaining a positive attitude and persevering in the face of challenges, setbacks, or resistance is essential for achieving desired outcomes and influencing organisational culture. Resilience is little-needed in a positive environment. It is when the chips are down that we need to develop and call up resilience, both for ourselves and for the coaches we work with.
Valuing and actively seeking collaboration with coaches, leaders, and other stakeholders helps foster a sense of shared ownership over the change process and builds a supportive network within the organisation.
Reflective practice and supervision
Engaging in regular self-reflection and seeking feedback from others enables coaching supervisors to continually learn, grow, and enhance their skills and effectiveness in implementing the seven strategies. It is also extremely useful to ensure that you are also in supervision for your work. It is all too easy to miss the blindspots that develop as we become immersed in a culture.
By cultivating these qualities, a coaching supervisor can successfully employ the seven strategies to influence and change organisational culture, addressing resistance to change, fear, and power dynamics, and creating a more supportive environment for coaching and professional development.
It is clear that understanding the relationship between organisational culture, people development, coaching and coaching supervision is essential for creating a supportive environment that promotes growth.
Yet understanding it, and developing effective strategies for navigating it, are very different things. I believe all coaching supervisors who work in organisations need to be thinking carefully about this and developing their strategies for adapting to different kinds of culture.
I also believe that it is incumbent upon coaching supervisors to maintain the principles and practices of coaching and coaching supervision rather than relying on catch-all phrases such as “toxic” workplace which do little to open up room for change but rather reinforce ways of being in relation to that culture.
Understanding and responding to the impact of organisational culture on coaching supervision leads to numerous benefits, including improved coaching outcomes, enhanced professional development, and a stronger, more resilient coaching function with all the positive consequences this brings.
This article has only scratched the surface of this vast territory and below I have listed some useful books.
Coaching People through Organizational Change: Practical Tools to Support Employees through Business Transformation – Sue Noble and Amy Tarrant, Sept 2022
Humble Inquiry, Second Edition: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling – Edgar H. Schein and Peter A. Schein, 12 Sept 2022
“Organizational Culture and Leadership” by Edgar H. Schein – This book is a classic in the field and provides a comprehensive overview of the role of culture in shaping organizational behavior and performance.
“The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups” by Daniel Coyle – This book draws on research from neuroscience and organizational behavior to explore the key factors that drive success in high-performing organizations.
“Corporate Culture and Performance” by John P. Kotter and James L. Heskett – This book presents a framework for understanding and managing organizational culture, based on research into the link between culture and performance.
“The Power of Corporate Culture” by Richard T. Perrin – This book offers a practical guide to understanding and shaping corporate culture, with case studies and examples from a range of industries.
“Building a Culture of Innovation: A Practical Framework for Placing Innovation at the Core of Your Business” by Cris Beswick, Derek Bishop, and Jo Geraghty – This book offers insights and practical tools for leaders looking to build a culture of innovation within their organizations.