The Coaching Triangle System


By Debbie Payne and Erna Hagge

The coaching phenomenon has created numerous certified, professional and semi-professional coaches for life skills and business. Coaches generally work one on one with a client, or they coach work groups and teams such as an action learning team. The Coaching Triangle System is a new self-directed peer-learning framework that uses a coach approach.  Sustainable, breakthrough and innovative the Coaching Triangle System can expand coaching and consulting businesses and provide another option for organizations to optimize their intellectual capital.

The first application of Coaching Triangles began at Terasen Gas Inc. in 2002 as a response to a request by Daryle Britton, General Manager of Distribution Operations at the time for something that would help employees be better coaches; develop their leadership skills; and help them apply, practice and integrate the learning they received in workshops and courses.

The Coaching Triangle concept created and developed by Debbie Payne is rooted in many of today’s management, education, communication, learning and leadership theories and principles.  Imagine an organization where people have a safe place to belong, to learn, to practice, to coach. A haven or special environment that they create themselves that allows for reflection, for real meaningful dialogue, for supportive growth and development to occur and mostly where leadership is shared and encouraged.  It was also a place devoid of hierarchy, of silos, of bureaucracy, of politics, of games. In fact this could change the way we work, the way we learn, and it could lead to new organizational culture.

The elements of the Coaching Triangles are not new, nor are the principles. What is new is the framework, the approach, the incredible simplicity, and the power it has to be self-sustainable.

Coaching Triangles is a decidedly simple concept born from noticing the patterns and behavior of individuals in organizations and observing the informal learning that occurs. The necessity to create a self-sustainable framework provided a drive to create something innovative and self-directed.

What is a Coaching Triangle?
It is simply a group of three individuals that agree to form a Coaching Triangle. The three form a self-selected learning partnership and they:

1)  Self-orient using Tri-namics the Coaching Triangle System™ supported by a licensed Coaching Triangle Consultant (CTC)
2)  Self-manage and self-lead by choosing:

  • When, where and how to learn
  • What to learn and practice
  • What is so new about this?

As one begins to fully comprehend the impact, the complexity, the uniqueness, and the simplicity it becomes clear that Coaching Triangles can become a new way of learning, practicing and working together that can be used in any organization or community. Ultimately Coaching Triangles can create new culture and are not dependent on or restricted by organizational structure. Imagine the power of an interconnected group of Coaching Triangles, the strength of the problem solving and the relationships, and the ability of an organization to learn from itself.

“In my own Coaching Triangle we explored and clarified in a candid manner, our leadership strengths and weaknesses. The dialogue allowed each of us to look into the mirror and see the reflection more clearly of how others see us as leaders. The greatest value of Coaching Triangles is that they create the opportunity to practice leadership skills in a non-threatening environment.”
Daryle Britton, Vice President Human Resources, Terasen Gas Inc.

Three people meeting together does not seem unusual. What is different is how they come together, why they come together, what they actually focus on, and the approach that is taken to form and sustain their Coaching Triangle. The Coaching Triangle System works best when it is designed and recognized as a formal learning group system; self-selected by individuals trusted to work on business or organizational issues and supported by a CTC. Accountability for learning occurs within each Coaching Triangle.

From the field of adult education to systems theory to Open Space Technology to Appreciative Inquiry, Coaching Triangles are a framework that draws on, explores, and uses many of these techniques, theories and tools. The richness of the learning is only bound by the limits of thinking and is easily expanded with additional input and a little facilitation.

Why a triangle?
Peter Senge provides a simple quote that helps illustrate the power and purpose. “When you are focused on the triangle, you are mindful of the circle.”  The quality of what occurs in the center of the triangle is dependent on the legs of the triangle. That is the quality of conversation, of relationship, of thought, of creation comes from the three people. It comes from their commitment to each other, from their values, from their trust, hopes, dreams, desires, needs.

Three people hold each other accountable and provide space for a small, intense group of focus. When the triangle is functioning at its highest level it simply is a right place to be for those three people. It also provides an anchor to the organization that fundamentally at its core makes it a better place to be.  As Senge also reminds us, the triangle is the most stable geometric structure in the world.

“Both my Coaching Triangle partners had much more experience in coaching than I did and held more senior positions.  I thought this would be a challenge for me…instead it was a wonderful equalizing experience.  Although I have the privilege of having great supportive people in my career, this triangle provided an environment like no other in building my successes.”
Linda Kompauer, HR Manager, Department of Medicine, University of British Columbia

At their best, Coaching Triangles add another layer of complexity to organizational life, yet they also create new space, and are easily added without changing structure, function or process. What they do require is an open mind, great trust, empowerment, and a desire to integrate work and learning more closely. They require organizational leaders to model and take a little risk with a new approach that more closely aligns learning and work.

How does an individual start a Coaching Triangle?

It is a simple approach. Find one other person that you would like to learn with. The two of you decide on a third person and invite them to join you. Then the three of you attend a two-hour guided self-directed orientation. After that, the Coaching Triangle meets as they determine and as they continue to receive value, supported by a licensed CTC.

Is it really that simple?
The creation of the Coaching Triangle is logistically easy. The hard work comes while exploring the depth of the orientation and Tri-namics resources, the depth of relationships, using a coach approach with each other, learning and self-discovery.

How has Terasen Gas implemented these Coaching Triangles?
The first Coaching Triangle formed in April 2002.   Today we have had Coaching Triangles come and go and always have some existing in the organization. Of note is that senior management supports and participates in this initiative and encourages people to document their participation in their development plans.  Three vice-presidents have participated in Coaching Triangles at various times.  We also held a Coaching Triangle Workshop that brought together all the Coaching Triangles to explore the topic of emotional intelligence.

Who else is offering the Coaching Triangle development opportunity?

In 2003 Erna Hagge introduced Coaching Triangles to the University of British Columbia with an intention to use them as an extension to workshop learning. A qualitative evaluation study identified overall value and success of Coaching Triangles. Some thoughts from a few participants:

  • “Great support group, trust each other, can bring issues forward, group generates great ideas to apply to issues in the workplace”
  • “Allowed me to consciously build on my coach approach to communication; allowed me to interact with others at UBC outside of my immediate workplace; offered me support and new perspectives in looking at and handling challenges at work”
  • “Learning takes place from people sharing what they know – you learn from others in the group”
  • “It’s hands on, experiential and applied learning, not theoretical, helps to solve practical and real issues, you achieve tangible results”

What is in the orientation?
The self-directed orientation begins with a guided session, and then moves into a fully self-directed orientation.  The CTC explains, supports, coaches, and reassures the group. Tri-namics spark the dialogue, the inquiry, and force process to be visible. The group subsequently meets independently of the CTC.

What kind of Coaching Triangles have formed?

Cross-functional, cross-level, same-level, similar education, same gender, mixed gender, diverse ones and comfort ones. Each Coaching Triangle is unique, each one has defined purpose and commitment, each one is learning and practicing, each one has different needs.  One Coaching Triangle had a Human Resources Leader for Labour Relations, a Vice-President of Development, and a General Manager of Operations. Three executive assistants formed a Coaching Triangle. There was also one that formed from three people who wanted to add a learning and development focus to their social relationship.

What is the cost?
Direct costs are the cost of a Tri-namics book for each member and the cost of a CTC to orient and be a resource.  These costs are kept low deliberately so organizations can afford for a number of people to participate. Labor costs for release time are the significant investment an organization will make.

“While working on a Master’s in Health Care Leadership at Royal Roads University I was part of a Coaching Triangle. We believe this unique relationship was foundational in supporting consistent high achievement for each of us…in fact I now offer a workshop in my own organization to introduce other staff to this way of learning together. ”
Dammy Damstrom Albach, MAL, MSW

Ultimately, the Coaching Triangle concept will mature so that it is used effectively for mergers and acquisition integration; for culture transformation and team building; for change initiatives; for sustained learning from workshops; for leadership development and self-knowledge; and community building.

As Coaching Triangles continue to form and evolve it is expected that we will be solving problems better and more locally; we will be better able to work in teams and cross-functionally; engagement and morale will improve; leadership and initiative will be more visible; coaching cultures will be more common; and employees who expect value from building business relationships in different ways will choose workplaces with Coaching Triangles.

Finding a couple of people in your organization to peer coach you to solve problems; to bounce ideas around with; to share your learning experiences and figure out how to apply them; and simply to talk with about organizational communication and issues can help sustain and enrich you in a sea of continuous organizational change. As Coaching Triangles slowly evolve and grow they help to shape organizational culture. An open-minded leader, the Tri-namics resource and a licensed Coaching Triangle Consultant are all you need to get started today.

Debbie Payne, MA, RODP, CDA is currently the Learning and Development Manager for Terasen Gas Inc. and has over 25 years experience as an organizational development specialist, adult educator, facilitator, manager, and leadership consultant, including Coordinator of the award-winning Certified Dental Assisting Program and Projects at the Open Learning Agency.

Co-owner of Deberna Coaching International and owner of DP Leadership Associates, Debbie works authentically with clients to achieve excellence. Debbie is the registered copyright holder of the Coaching Triangle™ concept and now co-author of Tri-namics – The Coaching Triangle System. Debbie has a variety of undergraduate work in the areas of science, adult education, management and dental assisting and completed the Royal Roads Master of Arts in Leadership and Training in 2000.

Erna Hagge CEC, EM, HRM, is the visionary and leader of the University of British Columbia (UBC) Coaching Services Program. She has over 25 years in human resource management in three major organizations with focuses on coaching, organizational and personal development, employee relations, recruitment, training, facilitation, and business development.

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