Formal and Informal Coaching

Businesses can really benefit from formal and informal coaching

Who is this article for?

  • Leaders who coach, to implement informal coaching as part of their coaching skills development
  • HR and L&D professionals looking at how coaching can achieve business goals

Coaching is a type of conversation intended to develop an individual’s (or team’s) capacity to be more effective and perform better. While it can be delivered formally, by internal or external coaches or leaders, informal coaching is a crucial part of building an effective coaching culture.

Your coaching might be focused on one or two circumstances, issues, or goals but the process also allows the individual/s being coached to learn more in general about their own capabilities, what they might achieve and how. They may then apply this new learning and sense of capability to other situations – in effect, becoming more effective and capable in general, and not just for the purposes of the original coaching.

This self-discovery and release of personal potential is the benefit that coaching can have in organisations, raising personal engagement, increasing discretionary effort and improving results.

But what is the most effective coaching approach to take in any specific situation?

Does a formal approach to coaching sit comfortably with an informal approach?

Sometimes the circumstances might call for a period of extended coaching over time, typically 6-9 months.

Alternatively, a one-off ten-minute coaching conversation next to the water cooler or at the desk might be all that is required for an individual to be able to move forward, resolve a problem and feel more confident.

Many successful organisations are now introducing coaching as a formalised process, using trained internal coaches to coach individuals over a period of months, and involving two or three way contracting (with the line manager) to align on agreed outcomes, confidentiality etc. This can be a very effective approach to business coaching, particularly when the coaching requires a more specialised coaching skill set than the line manager has themselves, and where circumstances allow more formalised, longer term coaching interventions. Typically, coaching in this case would consist of 4-6 formal 1:1 sessions of at least an hour each, over a period of a few months.

On the other hand, it is essential that line managers do not abdicate their own responsibility for coaching staff. Managers coaching daily in the line, even if it is just for a few minutes at a time, can have an enormous, positive impact on the morale, motivation and performance of their staff. Typically, coaching in this case would consist of brief 5-15 minute conversations on the shop floor, at a desk, walking a corridor etc and would be light touch and informal.

Informal coaching, as typically undertaken by the line manager, will tend towards having some directive elements such as suggestions or advice, which essentially is less effective than the non-directive approach of just asking questions and challenging the thinking of the individual. However, most line managers are not sufficiently trained in coaching skills to make the subtler (and more effective) non-directive approaches work, particularly in the 5-15-minute time frame available for informal coaching by managers. However, that shouldn’t prevent them from trying!

There will also be opportunities for the line manager to coach staff more formally in monthly 1:1 meetings and appraisal/review meetings, for instance. Often such meetings are typified by the manager speaking for the majority of the time, giving their own opinion and directing the conversation. This is usually less effective than if the manager agrees the agenda, and then coaches the individual to steer their own course towards outcomes that they take responsibility for and as such are more inclined to action themselves.

The what, when, who and how of formal and informal coaching

Informal coaching

  • Usually one-off, short sessions of 5-15 minutes
  • Very frequent, possibly 5-10 with different individuals in any one day
  • Usually the line manager acting as coach, but could be any colleague in principle
  • No formal contract as this is implicit in the line manager/colleague relationship with the coachee
  • Light structure, sometimes with elements of direction from the coach/more directive
  • Not a lot of challenge, tends to be quite superficial and relating to immediate workplace issues/results
  • Relating to one-off issues or problems/small picture
  • Often takes place in public work arena e.g. office/shop floor

Examples: giving impromptu feedback (positive in public, negative in private) / support to resolve small problems / helping with queries / challenging decision-making / raising awareness of implication of actions

watercooler informal coaching

Formal coaching

  • Usually agreed series of 4-6 one hour plus sessions
  • Infrequent with any specific individual, perhaps 1-2 a month
  • Coach is either the line manager (for appraisals and 1:1s) or an internal coach from the coaching pool (and less often, the coach may also be external)
  • Some formal contracting between coach and coachee, becoming more explicit and specific if the coach is from an internal coaching pool or external
  • More rigorous structure, with little direction from the coach/less directive
  • More challenging, can be quite deep and relates to longer term workplace or developmental goals
  • Relating to groups of related problems or issues/bigger picture
  • As a rule, takes place in private, often away from work arena

Examples: setting and coaching towards stretch targets / personal development and role effectiveness / meeting success criteria in time-bound projects or targets / formal 1:1 and appraisal or review meetings

Coaching is good – regardless of the approach

Formal or informal, some coaching is better than no coaching at all.

Every effort that a line manager makes towards genuinely coaching their staff is a step towards enabling potential, engaging discretionary effort and improving performance. Effective organisations are typically those where managers both listen to and ask searching questions of their staff in order to raise awareness and generate a sense of personal responsibility to act.

It doesn’t necessarily take very long to coach informally – even a few minutes of genuine listening and inquiry can make a huge difference. Managers who do persevere with coaching, both formally and informally, are likely to benefit from more engaged and responsible staff, less reliance on them as managers to always provide answers, and a higher level of discretionary effort from staff to perform.

Need more information on coaching skills development, or to read up on our tips?

Take a look at our Coaching Skills Programmes

Read A Guide to Coaching Skills Development


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