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Formal and Informal Coaching

Table, chairs, blue sky

The Business Coaching series is now available to download as a free ebook Creative Management for Creative Teams.

The term ‘business coaching’ conjures up an image of a one-to-one session scheduled in the diary, focusing exclusively on the coachee’s goals and how s/he can work towards them. And a lot of coaching does take place in this format, particularly when delivered by an external business coach.

For a manager-coach however, the picture is not quite so clear. Formal business coaching sessions should never be undervalued – yet she can also coach people informally, in her everyday conversations with her team, so that it becomes part of her basic approach to management. In their book Solution-focused Coaching, Jane Green and Anthony Grant talk of a formal-informal continuum:

In-house workplace coaching lies on a continuum from the formal structured workplace coaching at one end to the informal, on-the-run workplace coaching at the other – what you might call corridor coaching: the few minutes snatched in the corridor in the midst of a busy project.

The two types of business coaching are not mutually exclusive – many managers use both styles in complementary ways.

Formal coaching Informal coaching
Used explicitly Used explicitly or implicitly
Scheduled appointments Everyday workplace conversations
Programme with beginning and end Ongoing process, a style of management
Most of the conversation in 'coaching mode' Manager can switch from coaching mode to other management styles

Formal coaching

The most obvious characteristic of formal business coaching is that it is being used explicitly – during the session both parties are clear that they are engaged in ‘coaching’ and are committed to this process as well as the outcome.

Formal coaching usually takes place during scheduled appointments. This sends a powerful signal to individual team members that their development and success is important, and that the manager is there to provide support.

When a series of appointments are scheduled, coaching becomes a beginning and end. This can have a motivating effect, with the well-known phenomenon of ‘deadline magic’ coming into play towards the end of the process, when both business coach and coachee focus their efforts on achieving the goal(s) within the allotted time.

The clear parameters of formal coaching mean that both coach and coachee tend to spend most sessions in coaching mode – i.e. with the coachee doing most of the talking, and the business coach primarily engaged in listening, asking questions and giving feedback, as described in the post on Key Coaching Skills.

Informal Coaching

Informal business coaching is a bit of a grey area – when the approach is used implicitly, as part of the everyday conversation between the manager and her team, it may be that neither party would describe the conversation as ‘coaching’.

Some team members are uncomfortable with the word ‘coaching’ or the idea of being coached – but respond well to a manager who takes the time to listen carefully to them and ask questions that empower them to find their own way of meeting a challenge or solving a problem, without being told what to do.

Or a manager may be so familiar with this approach (or it may be so similar to her natural communication style) that she may not consciously decide to ‘coach’ someone but instinctively listen and ask rather than ‘tell and sell’.

Informal coaching does not take place in scheduled appointments but in everyday workplace conversations. These conversations may be short or long, one-to-one or within a group, task-focused or people-focused – what qualifies them as coaching is not a formal model or structure, but a style of conversation.

The coaching style of management is one in which the manager typically takes a ‘step back’ in order to empower team members and elicit their commitment and creativity, helping them to both get the job done and learn something new in the process. So instead of giving orders or dispensing knowledge, the manager asks questions and listens to see what team members come up with.

For a manager-coach, coaching is not something that begins and ends with a session or programme – asking questions, listening, empathising and giving observational (rather than judgmental) feedback are elements of her personal communication style. For a coaching organisation, this leadership style is simply ‘the way we do things round here’.

Because informal coaching is a way of doing things rather than a clearly defined programme, there is no overall beginning and end, but an ongoing process. The conversation becomes open-ended, with markers such as goal-setting and review occurring along the way, not as book-ends but part of a larger process of learning.

As informal coaching is not confined to formal sessions, this leadership style is not used exclusively but according to the demands of the situation, as part of a range of management styles. During a given conversation a manager may switch in and out of coaching mode, as well as using other management styles, as described in the post on Coaching and Leadership.

Which style should I use?

Neither style is better or worse than the other, and many managers use both. Which one you use will depend on a range of factors:

The manager’s preference
Some managers are comfortable with scheduling formal sessions and having a clearly structured coaching programme – others’ toes curl up at the very thought. When working with people, it’s vitally important to be yourself and use an approach you feel comfortable with. So make sure you are honest with yourself and your team about your own preferences and work with, not against them.

On the other hand there’s nothing wrong with a bit of creative experiment – I’ve seen some managers achieve great results by starting the first session by saying “Well this is a new approach for me and to be honest I’m not sure whether it’s my style, but let’s try it out and see how it goes…”.

The coachee’s preference
It goes without saying that this is at least as important as the manager’s preference. Some coachees love the idea of having dedicated time for their own development, as well as clearly defined goals and a structure for achieving them. Others are deeply suspicious of a formal structure for this kind of work, and much prefer to do things in a more informal, casual way. Ignore this at your peril!

Company culture
Just as individuals have preferences, so do organisations. Approaches that are well-received in a large broadcaster or newspaper may be unworkable or inflammatory in a small agency or studio. This doesn’t mean you can’t try something new, but you may have to be creative about how you sell it to people within the company.

The kind of task
It’s difficult to generalise about this, as I’ve seen both formal and informal coaching used successfully with a wide range of tasks and goals. However for ‘big picture’ goals such as a large new project, a person’s career or annual goals, a formal session can be a powerful way of setting the scene and getting people focused. There are also many instances in which a smaller or ongoing issue may not merit a formal meeting, but a brief chat by the proverbial water cooler is just the job to tease out a problem and get things moving again.


  1. what I dislike on the formal coaching are the immediate high expectations

  2. Hi mihaï. Do you mean the high expectations of the manager/coach or of the person being coached? Either way, I would agree that ‘immediate high expectations’ are not very helpful. But such expectations are down to the attitudes of the individuals involved – they are not a characteristic of formal coaching itself.

  3. Mark, thank you for the answer; it clarifies me.

  4. My pleasure!

  5. Dominick J. Fontana says:


    I was reading the article on coaching, and I have a suggestion for your general writing style. I found the constant use of s/he to be very annoying and unnecessary. In the English language, which lacks a gender-neutral pronoun for a person, we were taught that when the gender is unknown, the use of the masculine gender is used and it also represents the feminine gender. As such, it’s perfectly acceptable and correct to use “he” or “him” generically referring to both genders.

    The NY Times and Mensa do not use the s/he abomination or, worse yet, use “she” to refer to both genders, so I think your writings would read better if you ceased this practice.

    Just a suggestion.

    Thank you.

    Dominick J. Fontana

  6. ‘we were taught that when the gender is unknown, the use of the masculine gender is used and it also represents the feminine gender. As such, it’s perfectly acceptable and correct to use “he” or “him” generically referring to both genders.’

    I would find another teacher if I were you.

  7. E. Lavedrine says:

    Hi Mark, I’ve been reading your articles on coaching for my work and I must say that they’ve been really helpful, informative and clear. Many thanks for taking the time to share your experience and knowledge.

  8. My pleasure, glad you found the articles helpful.

  9. Interesting…I guess it doesn’t really matter what style you use, formal or informal, as long as you achieve your objectives and see the resulting improvements of coaching in your daily life.

    And also remember that success is not by chance, it’s by choice so better choose to be a success!

  10. “I guess it doesn’t really matter what style you use, formal or informal” – yep, the results are what count!

  11. Dominick J. Fontana says:

    You wrote: “I would find another teacher if I were you. ”

    I don’t know; maybe you’re not American, but it’s basically common knowledge in America that everyone was taught that way from grammar school on. When the gender is unknown, the masculine pronoun is used to refer to both genders. So using “he” refers to both he and she. There’s no need to awkwardly write them both out, beacuse it’s inferred.

    If you’re doing it to be politically incorrect, that’s another matter, but it’s grammatically unnecessary.

    Thank you.

    Dominick J. Fontana

  12. Dominick J. Fontana says:

    Oops; Freudian slip. In the last sentence of my prior message, I meant to write “politically correct.” Sorry.

  13. My point was that it used to be acceptable to use the masculine prononoun indiscriminately for both genders, but it isn’t any more. Language changes with society.

    “the English language… lacks a gender-neutral pronoun for a person” – no, it doesn’t. The gender-neutral pronoun is ‘one’, but it’s fallen out of use and now sounds old-fashioned (like the use of ‘he’ for both genders).

    I agree that there isn’t an elegant solution to the problem. ‘One’ was pretty good, but one can’t use it these days without sounding like Prince Charles.

    No, I’m not American, but I’ve checked with some American friends who tell me the situation is basically the same in their part of the States. Maybe not in yours.

  14. Dominick J. Fontana says:

    Hi, Mark.

    >>> I agree that there isn’t an elegant solution to the problem. ‘One’ was pretty good, but one can’t use it these days without sounding like Prince Charles. <<<

    Haha. That's funny. 🙂

    I never thought of it, but using the term "One" was never really popular in America, but I could see how it would be in England. The only reason I left my initial comment was that I enjoyed your article and love your writing style. but found the "s/he" term to be awkward.

    Yes, some people do that here in America too, but mot everyone does and I don't like to do it. It's a pet peeve of mine. You are right that language changes with society, but I have resisted this change.

    By the way, I'm in New York.

    Happy writing.

    Dominick J. Fontana

  15. Thanks Dominic. I appreciate your intention. I’m not a big fan of s/he, nor alternating ‘he’ and ‘she’, nor using ‘he’ for both genders. It’s one of those cases where you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

    And I can’t really imagine Americans saying ‘one’ either. 🙂

  16. Dominick J. Fontana says:

    Hi, Mark.

    It’s funny, I’m an attorney and in all the legal documents, we use “he” and “him.”

    Then, at the end of the document, we have a standard clause that reads, “Use of the masculine gender herein shall be deemed to include the feminine gender and use of the singular shall also include the plural, whenever the context herein so requires.”

    Haha. Reading that now, it sounds funny, but that’s how we do it. So we use “he” and then qualify it, but I understand you can’t do that in “normal” writing. 😉

    I will check out more of your articles here. I enjoy this site.


  17. Dominick J. Fontana says:

    In case you didn’t notice, that picture is not really me. It’s a picture of Raymond Burr in his Perry Mason role. 😉

  18. Heh, you’ve probably guessed by now that my writing is not legally watertight. 🙂

    Look forward to seeing you around the site in future.