Team coaching - a new frontier
Wright, N. (2017) 'Team Coaching - A New Frontier', International Coaching News, Issue 19, December, pp27-29.
Team coaching is emerging fast as a new area of interest and experience for coaches who work with people in organisations. There are a number of reasons for this, most notably perhaps a growing recognition that:
- Potential: The performance of a great team can often outstrip the performance of individuals or teams who work in isolation from each other.
- Influence: People and teams can affect each other significantly in terms of e.g. their thoughts, feelings, engagement, behaviour and performance.
This raises interesting and important questions about how team coaching can add value and how to do it in practice. I believe a primary goal of team coaching is and should be to enable a team to develop critical reflective practice. This will typically include raising team awareness and insight, enhancing team vision and resourcefulness and increasing the range of options available for action. Most coaches are trained and used to coaching individuals so a shift to coaching teams can open up fresh opportunities and challenges.
In my experience, the greatest advantage of team coaching over individual coaching is the possibility to see, experience and work with the people and dynamics of a team system in the room, even if the ‘room’ is a virtual one for those teams that are geographically dispersed. This here-and-now immediacy provides the team (and coach) with critical opportunities to observe, reflect on and, where needed, take actions to address focus, assumptions, feelings, behaviours, ways of working, impacts etc. in the moment…as they happen.
Conversely, the biggest risks in team coaching can be that the coach may become over-involved in the system, inadvertently collusive or find that dynamics within the team (e.g. hostility) are projected onto the coach so that the coach becomes a proverbial ‘lightning rod’. This means that awareness of and ability to work with group dynamics, social constructs and systems thinking can be invaluable tools in the coach’s toolkit, as can be use-of-self where the coach draws on his or her own experience in and of the group to create insight.
Some team coaches prefer to work with a colleague so that one will facilitate the team conversation while their peer will focus on team dynamics. Other coaches work alone and draw on an external supervisor to review, reflect and plan their strategies and interventions.
In providing team coaching in a variety of different organisations, sectors and cultures, I have noticed recurring themes and patterns that have an impact on team inspiration and effectiveness. I have formulated them into a flexible team coaching framework. As coach, I may introduce this framework and invite team members to consider and discuss how clear and agreed they are in each area. If they are not clear or not in agreement, I will invite them to discuss and agree how to resolve any gaps or tensions that arise.
Before stepping into the framework, however, I will focus on contracting with the team (having contracted with the team leader or sponsor beforehand) around e.g. ‘Why this, why now?’, what we are here to do, what success will look and feel like, what we will focus our attention on together, how we will do this piece of work, what our respective roles will be, what we will need from ourselves and each other to do this well. This models the principles of the framework that follow. I draw it on a flipchart as a loose structure for conversation.
The team exists in a place and time, not in a vacuum. A key question, then: ‘How clear and agreed are we about the wider organisation’s vision, strategy, values and (desired) culture?’ The areas that follow below are in relation to answers to these fundamental dimensions.
2. Purpose (Why?)
A central question: ‘What are we (as a team) here to do?’ Other questions could include, e.g. ‘What is our role/calling?’, ‘What do we want to achieve?’, ‘What are our greatest hopes?’, ‘If we are successful, what will success look and feel like?’ and ‘For whom?’
3. Content (What?)
A key question: ‘What should we focus our attention on?’ Other questions could include, e.g. ‘What are our priorities?’, ‘What would be the best use of our time together?’, ‘What questions should we address?’ and ‘What assumptions are we making?’
4. Method (How?)
A key question: ‘How shall we do this?’ Other questions could include, e.g. ‘What ways would be most effective?’, ‘What methods would most inspire and engage us (and others)?’, ‘What needs to happen first?’ and ‘Is this the best place and time to do this?’
5. People (Who?)
A key question: ‘What do we need to bring our best?’ Other questions could include, e.g. ‘What do we know and understand about each other?’, ‘What passions and expertise do we have?’, ‘How can we best draw on them?’ and ‘What is the quality of trust between us?
I also introduce simple flags or warning signs for the team to look out for as it works on tasks together. I have created a simple 4D list that corresponds with areas 2-5 above. For example:
- Dulled: If the team feels like it has lost its zest and inspiration, revisit ‘Purpose’.
- Distracted: If the team feels like its meetings lack useful focus, revisit ‘Content’.
- Disengaged: If team members feel bored or frustrated together, revisit ‘Method’.
- Dismissed: If team members ignore each other’s input and ideas, revisit ‘People’.
An important implication of this approach is that team members must be willing and able to develop and exercise significant personal leadership. This includes, for instance, being willing to: listen and speak up; pay attention to their own feelings and to their own part in what happens (or doesn’t happen) in the team; be proactive in addressing issues and dynamics that arise. It is the direct opposite of a passive mindset and team culture. It can feel risky and it demands courage, humility and a willingness to negotiate with colleagues.
In my experience, learning to exercise greater personal leadership in the context of a team is often the most transformative aspect of team development. If a team member says, ‘I’m bored in this meeting’, I may respond as team coach in a spirit of curiosity with questions such as, ‘What’s your contribution to what you are experiencing?’ and ‘What do you need to bring your best to this?’ Over time, the team member may respond with something like, ‘I’m being too passive’ and (to the team) ‘Could we try doing this X way instead?’
As the team grows in awareness and maturity, team members learn to pose such questions to themselves and to each other and to rely less on the team coach for prompts. I find it critical to work with the team leader before, during and after such team coaching sessions to ensure they are in the right place psychologically and emotionally to handle and reinforce shifts in team culture and relationships. This is especially the case where a more hierarchical leadership ethos and approach is or has been the personal or cultural norm.
For further resources on the team coaching topic, have a look at:
*Peter Hawkins, Leadership Team Coaching (2014)
*David Clutterbuck, Coaching the Team at Work (2007)
*Christine Thornton, Group and Team Coaching (2016)