Dynamics of team coaching
Wright, N. (2015), 'Dynamics of Team Coaching', Coaching Today, British Association of Counselling & Psychotherapy, Issue 14, April, pp6-10.
“The European Mentoring & Coaching Council sees team coaching as the next big frontier for coaching.” (David Clutterbuck, Team Coaching Seminar, December 2013)
I’m in the room, facilitating a group of leaders who are keen to build a new high performing team. We push the boundaries of normal ways of working to stimulate innovative ideas in all aspects of the team’s work, for example by using evocative photos and symbols instead of words to depict agenda items and physically enacting aspirations for the team by role-playing rather than discussing. This avoids falling into conventional patterns of heady, rational conversation.1
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.
Team development model
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?’
· ‘What’s my 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 solutions.
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 unresolved.
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 disengagement/withdrawal (flight).10
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 feels blocked.5,10
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 and empathy-building.
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 mutual solutions.
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 achieving results.
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.