Group Coaching: The 'X-Factor' Explained - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #234

Group Coaching: The ‘X-Factor’ Explained

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Group coaching can be a catalyst for both individual and organizational change. Its ‘active ingredients’, however, are not commonly understood. Greater awareness of why and when group coaching works can help maximise its benefits. Anecdotal evidence and research suggest effective sessions share a number of key characteristics.


Group coaching is known to help break down barriers to communication, build trust and solve specific and practical problems in organizations. An interpersonal learning process, it can create the impetus for change. Its effects can be explained by psychology and psychodynamics.

Good coaches use the ‘clinical paradigm’ as a conceptual framework for group sessions. They recognise that people are products, not just of their genetic inheritance, but also of their experiences, and will often re-activate in current relationships and situations behaviours and attitudes ‘learned’ from relationships and situations in the past. Through careful facilitation, they identify negative or destructive thoughts, feelings and behaviours and outdated perceptions of the self.

Much like group therapy, group coaching helps people examine and reflect on their own behaviour, the behaviour of others and the inter-relationship between the two. It holds up a mirror that lets people see things more clearly and helps provides the motivation for change.

This is the general context. What are the specific processes that underly group coaching? What is the X-factor it provides? And how do its effects differ from those of one-to-one coaching?

Research and experience suggest successful interventions have certain characteristics in common. These can be summarised as ten points:

  1. Coaches construct a safe, ‘transitional space’ for participants, where they have permission to talk about issues they never had the opportunity to confront before and can explore their feelings and challenges without the fear of judgment or rejection.
  2. Coaches are sensitive to ‘cloud’ issues — those matters of ‘unfinished business’ that drift or float between participants and, potentially, create hostility and antipathy.
  3. Coaches and group members encourage emotional catharsis but they also ‘contain’ it by helping an individual understand better why certain ‘psychological wounds’ have been so troublesome. (The catharsis, in other words, does not take place for its own sake but is a means to an end.)
  4. Participants listen to others and begin to feel that they are not alone in experiencing problems. This brings a great sense of relief, opening up the possibility of discussing new ways of dealing with things.
  5. Coaches use the clinical paradigm to allow participants to reflect in ways that lead to a willingness to experiment with new approaches and create new hope for the future. Is that the only way? Is that behaviour still effective now?
  6. Participants make presentations to the group that offer the opportunity for vicarious learning, the possibility for  retaining and replicating effective behaviours observed in others.
  7. Certain members of the group become role models for certain types of effective behaviours and therefore a force for change.
  8. Participants become a real community, members of a tribe that has gone through the same emotional experience. (Bound together socially, they become emotionally and psychologically motivated to change.)
  9. The coach knows when to ‘hang back’ and when to intervene to reduce anxiety by offering advice.
  10. Members don’t simply point out others’ dysfunctional character patterns; they offer to help them and suggest alternative approaches to problems. (A kind of virtuous circle of enlightened self-interest develops in which members work on their own and each others’ problems.)

These psychodynamic processes create tipping points for change.


Group coaching can help companies address specific problems — ranging from how to integrate a newly acquired business or a new IT system to how to make meetings more productive.

More generally, it can foster the trust needed for effective collaboration and lay the foundations for real information exchange in organizations, creating networks, cutting across silos and breaking down barriers to communication.

It should not, however, be seen as a ‘quick win’. It will need to be preceded by ‘ground work’ and followed by further intervention from the coach and further investment from group members.

Assessments of participants by organizations for leadership competencies, and feedback from colleagues and family and friends, will help ‘jump-start’ the process. Post-session conference calls with coaches, follow-up sessions to re-examine action plans, and peer coaching from another member of the group will help keep people on track and maintain momentum.



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Idea conceived

May 1, 2012

Idea posted

Oct 2013
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