How to Shape a High-Performing Culture with Coaching


Most leaders know that culture matters.  But, did you know that the narrower the culture gap (the difference between current and preferred cultures) the more likely it is that high potential employees will stay?

According to recent research by The Catalyst Center for Career Pathways, the narrower the culture gap, the more satisfied high potentials are with their work and advancement, pay, managers, and organizational commitment to work-life quality and diversity.  “A narrower culture gap and greater employee satisfaction combine to predict high potentials’ intention to stay,” according to Catalyst.  The report continues, “Women and men high potentials agree on workplace culture: Both would prefer to work in cultures that are more constructive and less aggressive.  Both agree that the biggest gap in their workplace cultures is that they are not constructive enough.”

Related research from Human Synergistics International (HSI), a pioneer in the field of workplace culture, shows that constructive cultural norms correlate positively with financial performance, teamwork, motivation, adaptability, and reduced stress.

How do you build a constructive culture?  One often-overlooked way is through Coaching.

Progressive organizations regularly use coaching with high potential leaders and teams.  Coaches help clients optimize their leadership by clarifying expectations, supporting introspection, planning for development, and holding clients accountable.  Because of their unique perspectives, coaches can help enhance leaders’ abilities to model new behaviors and enable them to see their teams and organizations in new ways.

Coaches can also help clients understand culture fundamentals and, where appropriate, connect specific behavior change to enhancing the culture of their organization.  Tim Kuppler, Director of Culture and Organization Development for Human Synergistics, described it this way in an ECC Discover Blog post this month, “It’s critical to understand the ‘culture fundamentals.’”  This includes the importance of connecting culture to a top challenge, goal or problem.

When culture is connected to enablement of business strategy, the questions become: What do we want people to think, feel, or do differently?  What’s important to us?  What are our new behavioral norms?

Four cultural norms support constructive cultures:  Achievement, Self-Actualizing, Humanistic-Encouraging, and Affiliative.  Here’s how coaching enhances each and a few thought-starters to encourage these norms in your organization:

Human Synergistics defines the Achievement norm as:Members are expected to set challenging goals, establish plans to reach those goals, and pursue them with enthusiasm.”

Coaching naturally aligns with Achievement-related norms, because of its focus on helping leaders set SMART goals.  By enhancing their own ability to set and achieve goals, leaders become stronger role models for their teams and the broader organization.  Coaches can be instrumental in helping clients connect specific development actions with organizational goals.

To encourage the Achievement norm, consider:

  • How involved are team members in setting their own goals?
  • Are all goals supported by clear strategies and actions?
  • How closely are individual development goals tied back to organizational goals and priorities?  How much ‘stretch’ is built in? 
  • How regularly is feedback given on progress toward achieving goals?

HSI describes the Self-Actualizing norm as:  “Members are expected to enjoy their work, develop themselves, and take on new and interesting activities.”

Development is a central part of coaching, and a ‘development plan’ is often a key deliverable of any coaching engagement.  Here’s where the ‘rubber meets the road,’ in terms of a leader’s ability to integrate what they’ve learned from introspection into day-to-day constructive leadership practices.

To enhance the Self-Actualizing norm, encourage team members to think about:

  • What do you enjoy most about your current work?
  • What new project are you working on? What do you find interesting about it?
  • What is your top development goal? How will achieving this goal enable you to contribute differently to the organization?
  • What could help you accomplish this goal more quickly?   

The Humanistic-Encouraging norm is described by HSI as:  “Members are expected to be supportive, constructive, and open to influence in their dealings with one another.”

Coaching can help leaders understand the influence of their mental models.  Mental models are the underlying patterns of perceptions, thoughts and emotions that guide our behaviors and actions.  Mental models can serve, drive, and support us, but, they can also get in our way and cause missed opportunities.  By helping leaders understand, examine, challenge, and re-frame their mental models, coaches empower clients to gain new insights into how their underlying views may be influencing their behaviors and affecting the culture of their organization.

To support others in developing the Humanistic-Encouraging norm, ask:

  • How supported do you feel in your role?
  • How comfortable do you feel in expressing your ideas and suggestions?
  • What would make you feel more open to express your ideas and suggestions?
  • What small change could potentially make a big impact in improving openness on the team?

According to HSI, the Affiliative norm is described as:  “Members are expected to be friendly, cooperative, and sensitive to the satisfaction of their work group.”

Coaching enhances Affiliative behaviors by helping leaders assess work group satisfaction.  As leaders become more aware of the impact of their own behavior on others (through introspection, feedback, and targeted coaching), they also enhance their awareness of the needs of others.

To enhance development of the Affiliative norm, consider:

  • How well do team members cooperate with one another?
  • How satisfied do team members feel with being a part of the team?
  • What would encourage greater cooperation on the team?
  • If you could change one thing about the team, what would it be?

In addition to optimizing high performance in leaders and teams, coaching can help organizations shape constructive cultures that retain high-potential talent.

We’re interested in your ideas.  Where else, or how else, have you seen coaching used to reinforce constructive norms and shape culture?  What other connections do you see between culture and coaching? 

This post is co-authored by Kathy Green and Susan Camberis.

Co-Author Kathy Green

Kathy Green is an organization effectiveness consultant. She is a founding partner and the Managing Partner of Executive Coaching Connections, LLC. She has more than 25 years of experience in leadership, team and organizational effectiveness. She spent many of those years leading human resources and organization development efforts at Baxter, Kraft Foods and Ameritech where she worked both domestically and internationally. Having performed as an officer in these Fortune 500 companies, Kathy is quite familiar with the challenges that executives face.

Kathy is most widely known for her expertise in coaching senior executives and their teams. Her client list is comprised of leading companies across multiple industries including; Charter Manufacturing; ConAgra Foods; Forsythe Technology; BMO Harris; Information Resources, Inc.; ITW; Kraft Foods, Inc.; Lancaster Health Group; PepsiCo; and US Foodservice.


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VP of Learning and Organizational Development | Executive Coaching Connections

Susan Camberis, MSHR, SPHR, is a learning and organizational development leader and is recognized for her passion for developing talent and creating sustainable value. From 1999 to 2013, Susan held various HR and talent management leadership roles with Baxter Healthcare. Susan is the Editor of Training Today, the online training magazine for the Association for Talent Development (ATD), Chicagoland Chapter. An active blogger, her work has appeared in, PBS Next,, and CSRwire. Susan holds a MSHR from Loyola University Chicago and a BS in Psychology from the University of Evansville.


Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • susanmrushworth

    I’m a big fan of Culture University and I find the posts useful in my teaching of postgraduate students. I don’t disagree with anything in this post, but I feel that it assumes a starting point where the organisation is functioning reasonably well.
    If I look around my workplace (a tertiary education institution), I predominantly see people who are worn out just trying to keep up. In these circumstances to be asked to set stretch goals and think about self-actualisation feels a little insulting. There isn’t even enough time to cooperate or be humanistic-encouraging, however much that might be part of individual workers’ value system – just getting a team together in the same place once a week is a challenge.
    Talking to friends in other workplaces, I hear similar stories (although getting the team together is probably less of a challenge in the corporate world). I don’t believe this experience is unusual.
    From what you write, in this environment, the high performers should be leaving. My observation is that the ‘takers’ are jumping ship, but the ‘givers’ (Adam Grant “Give and Take”) are staying through loyalty to colleagues and students and the knowledge that it’s no better anywhere else in the industry.
    How do you go about developing a high performance culture in that sort of environment?

    • Tim Kuppler

      Thank You for the feedback on CultureU. I believe you are completely correct about how coaching in this type of environment is not enough to build the momentum to truly shift the culture. Education and other mission driven organizations have members that are high performers and stick it out due to their commitment to the mission and/or, as you mention, they know it’s not better in other organizations they could potentially join. If top leaders or leaders in a sub-group don’t band together to commit to solving some of the problems you referenced then coaching will make little difference. On the other hand, if key team members do commit to start the change journey, learn culture fundamentals ( and apply them in a focused way on a particular problem or challenge….progress can be made. Often it takes some type of “aha” from a top leader to understand how the current culture is impacting people on the front lines and how it’s undermining the potential of the organization. In some cases, leaders know the pain exists and want to change but lack the knowledge on how to start the journey. If that’s the case then they may need to obtain some outside support for help. If they will not acknowledge the issues and will do nothing to change, then either they may need to change or it may be better off going somewhere else.

  • Dr. Talaat Refaat

    Lot of thanks for your effort in this article.

    But you have stated that: “the narrower the culture gap the more likely it is that high potential employees will stay?”.

    If you agree with me that: “The wider the culture gap the more problem we are facing”!

    Then your statment implies that no high potentail employees will be available for sofisticaded problem!!

    I know many potential employees are willing to face big problems to add that to their great record. They refuse to work within an easy stable environoment.