Wright, N. (2015), 'Dynamics of Team Coaching', Coaching Today, British Association of Counselling & Psychotherapy, Issue 14, April, pp6-10.
Mentoring & Coaching Council sees team coaching as the next big frontier for
coaching.” (David Clutterbuck, Team Coaching Seminar, December 2013)
It feels very different to meeting ‘because that’s what we
do’. There is a different dynamic, energy and momentum. Participants lean
actively into the conversation, not leaning back in passivity or boredom. Yet
it can be a real challenge to break free from tradition, from norms that trap a
team in ways of doing things that feel familiar and safe but, deep down, lack
inspiration or effectiveness.
In this article, I will share some of my own experiences of
moving from individual to team coaching and offer a model I have developed and
used that can be modified and adapted to different contexts.I will also share an approach I’ve developed
to helping teams move forward when they feel stuck. I will draw on insights and
principles from various psychological fields throughout.
In our meetings, how often do we pause before diving into
the agenda to ask, ‘What’s the most important thing we should be focusing on?’,
‘How are we feeling about this?’, ‘What is distracting us or holding our
attention?’, ‘What could be the most creative and inspiring way to approach
this?’, ‘What do we each need, here and now, to bring our best to this?’, ‘What
would be a great result?’
So, as coach, I present teams with a simple model: vision
(why) content (what), method (how) and people (/relationships) (who) – Figure 1. I vary the words used
depending on the culture and focus of the team. These seem to be important
factors that, if we get them right, make a positive impact. They lead to people
feeling energised, more alive, more motivated and engaged. Conversely, if we get them wrong, they leave people frustrated, drained of
energy, bored or disengaged.
We can use a simple appreciative inquiry to reflect on this.
‘Think back to your best experience of working with a team. How did you feel at
the time?’, ‘Think back to a specific example of when you felt like that with
the team. Where were you at the time? What were you focusing on? What were you
doing? What were others doing? What made the biggest positive difference for
you?’, ‘What would a truly inspiring and effective team look and feel like?’
One of the things we notice when asking such questions is
that different things motivate and energise different people. That is, of
course, one of the tricky parts of leading any team. So a next question could
be something like, ‘What would it take for this team to feel more like that,
more of the time for you?’ and to see what the wider team is willing to
accommodate or negotiate.
Working as team coach
I see my role as team coach as helping team members grow in
awareness of what they are thinking and feeling, what they are doing, how they
are behaving and how they are impacting on one-another and on the team’s
effectiveness. This enables the team to make different choices, or to choose
the same things with a different degree of awareness, intention and commitment.2,3,4
In order to do this, I often write provocative questions on
a screen or flipchart in the room, e.g.
·‘What am I noticing (or not noticing)?’
·‘What do I need to contribute my best?’
contribution to what I’m experiencing?’
·‘What would it take to change..?’
These questions draw on Gestalt principles of enabling
individuals and teams to stay in here-and-now awareness, pay attention to their
needs and act upon them to reach a desired goal. Often this involves creating
deliberate pauses at the start and end and at various points during a meeting
to allow people to reflect, observe, speak up and hear each other. ‘What is
really going on here?’1, 5
This is one of the great advantages of working as coach with
a whole team or ‘system’ in the room. It provides ideal opportunity to work on
actual interactions, actual dynamics that arise in the team as it engages in
its work. It also provides opportunity to enable to the team to understand and
improve them. This feels quite different to my experiences of working with
individual coachees alone.2,3,4
I will share one such experience to show what I mean. I’m
sitting in the room with Louise, the CEO, and she’s describing her relationship
with Jason, a member of her executive team. The account she shares is
convincing and compelling. I can imagine them in the room together and can
picture their behaviour vividly. The following week, I meet with Jason and hear
an entirely different account.
How can this be? Is one of them being truthful and the other
not, is neither of them being completely honest, or is something else going on
here? This type of situation will feel familiar to those involved in coaching
individuals, especially if they have opportunity to meet with different
individuals in the same system, e.g. a team or other working relationships.
In social psychological terms, people create narratives that
explain and provide a degree of coherence to their own experience. Narratives
are subjective and selective and are value-laden as well as descriptive,
revealing something of what matters most to a person.6 In
psychodynamic terms, they can provide a subconscious defence that blinds a
person to alternative perspectives.5,7
People may also present different accounts because, for
instance, they have a vested interest in one version over another or because
one version is considered more acceptable or reward-able within their team,
organisation or culture. Louise and Jason could each present one another’s
behaviour in favourable or less favourable terms, depending on what outcome
they hoped for.
This way in which people perceive and present the same
situations differently led me to my initial foray into coaching in dyads and from
there into coaching in teams. I invited Louise and Jason to meet together for a
conversation, to raise and work through the issues they were struggling with,
and proposed that I join them as an independent third party to act as
facilitator and coach.
After setting out basic ground rules (e.g. structure and
duration of the session, their respective desired outcomes, my role as
facilitator, coach and timekeeper), Louise and Jason each shared their perspectives
on the situation and how it was impacting on them. Although uncomfortable at
first, they began to build a broader narrative together and to find new win-win
In Gestalt terms, the challenge for each was to notice what
they were focusing their attention on in this relationship and then,
paradoxically, to notice what they weren’t
noticing.1,5 As they listened, Louise and Jason grew in awareness of
what they had ignored, filtered out or simply been unaware of. The conversation
created empathy and a broader perspective and, thereby, fresh possibilities.
Steve, the CEO of another organisation, invited me to work
as coach with his executive team. His sense was that they were working
reasonably well together but wanted to move towards a high performing team. The
team felt stuck at times, as if its members weren’t quite meshing together and
tensions were sometimes arising in its meetings unexpectedly, as yet
The first thing I noticed was how the team used language
that reinforced a particular view of the organisation and how different
functions/departments were positioned in relation to each other. It also
conveyed a sense of relative value of those departments. In social construct
terms, they had created a subconscious mental model of the organisation which
was, to them, real and ‘obvious’.8,9
I reflected this observation back and, at first, they looked
bemused. When they explored it further, however, they noticed how their mental
model and its implicit assumptions was impacting on the organisation’s
effectiveness, on different departments within the organisation and on
relationships within the executive team itself. This awareness enabled them to
explore alternative models.
As I worked with subsequent leadership teams in that and
other organisations, I noticed recurring themes and patterns emerging that I
have crystallised into the simple model I introduced above (Figure 1). I now introduce this model to
groups I work with as a starting point to reflect critically on their own
behaviour/practice and as a means to building inspiring and effective teams.
The model has four dimensions, is flexible and can be
adapted to different teams and organisational cultures. I will
describe them below with examples of questions that could be posed against
each. Over time, I encourage team members to pose these or similar questions to
themselves and each other before, during and after meetings to enhance their
personal and team performance.
1st dimension: the Why of what we are doing. ‘What is our vision?’, ‘What is important
to us that we are trying to achieve?’, ‘Why this, why now?’, ‘What would make a
great outcome for you?’, ‘What would be the benefits of achieving it or the
costs of not achieving it?’, ‘Where would you like to get to by the end of this
conversation?’, ‘An hour from now, what would have made this worthwhile?’
2nd dimension: the What of what we are doing. ‘What is the most important thing we
should be focusing our attention on?’, ‘What is the issue from your
perspective?’, ‘How clear are you about what this issue entails?’, ‘What
feelings is this issue evoking for you?’, ‘What do we need to take into account
as we work on this together?’, ‘Do we have the right information and expertise
to do this?’
3rd dimension: the How of what we are doing. ‘What ways of doing this will deliver the
best results?’, ‘How would you like to do this?’, ‘What method would you find
most inspiring?’, ‘What might be the best way to approach this given the time
available?’, ‘Which aspects to we need to address first before moving onto
others?’, ‘What would really lift our energy levels as we do this?’
4th dimension: the Who of what we are doing. ‘What do we need to contribute our best
and bring the best out in each other?’, ‘How can we build trust?’, ‘What’s
important to you in this?’, ‘What underlying values does this touch on for
you?’, ‘How are you impacted?’, ‘How are you feeling?’, ‘What is creating
tension?’, ‘How could we resolve conflicting differences?’
Exploring these four dimensions often surfaces interesting
and important underlying questions concerning the leadership team’s role. ‘What
is our role as a leadership team? What do we aspire to? What are others
expecting from us? What kind of leadership does this situation call for at this
time?’ How can we add optimal value to this organisation?’2,3
I also flag up warning signs, the ‘4 Ds’, against thee 4 dimensions:
things to look out for in practice:
1st dimension: Dulled. ‘Are we losing our sense of vision?’
2nd dimension: Distracted. ‘Are we allowing ourselves to get distracted?’
3rd dimension: Disengaged. ‘Are we starting to feel disengaged?’
4th dimension: Dismissed. ‘Are we dismissing others who are different to us?’
When things get stuck
The most common challenge I’ve noticed with teams is how to enable
participants to speak up (which often entails courage) on the one hand, and to
hear each other (which entails humility) on the other. Team conversations are
also frequently dominated by individuals with resulting passivity from others,
or by an exchange of viewpoints without really listening to each other.
The most obvious signs or stuck-ness are conversations that
feel deadlocked, ping pong back and forth without making progress or go round
and round in circles. Both parties involved may state and restate their views
or positions, wishing the other would really hear. If unresolved, responses may
include anger/frustration (fight), paralysis (freeze) or
Arianne was leading a team of enthusiastic individuals who
were keen to contribute their best but often found themselves at loggerheads
when they met. The pattern usually involved 2 people locked in polite but
sustained argument - with the rest of the team left either confused or
gradually disengaging. As coach, I introduced a 4-step process to help the team
work through this.
The process below acknowledges that when teams are under pressure,
e.g. dealing with critical issues, sensitive topics or working to tight
deadlines, tensions can emerge that lead to conversations getting stuck.
Stuck-ness between two or more people most commonly occurs when at least one
party’s underlying needs are not being met, or a goal that is important to them
1. Observation. (‘What’s going on?’). This stage involves
metaphorically (or literally) enabling participants to pause and step back from
the interaction to notice and comment non-judgementally on what’s happening.
E.g. ‘We’re both stating our positions but seem a bit stuck’. ‘We seem to be
talking at cross purposes.’ This shifts the focus from content to relationship.
2. Awareness. (‘What’s
going on for me?’). This stage involves enabling participants to tune into their
own experience, owning and articulating it, without projecting onto the other
person. E.g. ‘I feel frustrated’. ‘I’m starting to feel defensive.’ ‘I’m
struggling to understand where you are coming from.’ ‘I’m feeling unheard.’
This deepens self-awareness and focus on the relationship.
3. Inquiry. (‘What’s going on for you?’). This stage
involves enabling participants to inquire of the other person in an open
spirit, with a genuine, empathetic, desire to hear. E.g. ‘How are you feeling?’
‘What are you wanting that you are not receiving?’ ‘What’s important to you in
this?’ ‘What do you want me to hear?’ This shifts the focus to other-awareness
4. Action. ('What will move us forward?’) This stage
involves enabling participants to make requests or suggestions that will help
move the conversation or issue forward together. E.g. ‘This is where I would
like to get to…’ ‘It would help me if you would be willing to…’. ‘What do you
need from me?’ ‘How about if we try…’ This moves the focus towards finding
Shifting the focus of a conversation from content to address
underlying dynamics in this way can create opportunity to surface different
felt priorities, perspectives or experiences that otherwise remain hidden. It
can allow a breathing space, an opportunity to re-establish contact with each
other. It can build understanding, develop trust and accelerate the process of
The role of the team coach throughout is to enable the team to
grow in its awareness, understand its own dynamics, make increasingly conscious
choices, develop new skills and ways of working and behave in ways that engender
inspiration and effectiveness.2,3,4
The model I have suggested provides a framework for a
conversation, not a straitjacket to be constrained by. It enables a starting
point and reference point for moving a team forward through skilful coaching. In
my experience, team coaching is a challenging and rewarding task but the
results can be transformational.
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