Systemic Team Coaching starts with a simple premise: Today’s worthy social and business goals cannot be accomplished by any one person alone. Collaboration is how we accomplish the great things we cannot achieve on our own. The time we spent collaborating with others has more than doubled in the past two decades. In fact, 91% of leaders surveyed about the state of teams by the Center for Creative Leadership consider teams “central to organizational success”.
Teams that are healthy have a collaborative advantage because they have so much more energy to spend on the actual work. — Patrick Lencioni
We know coaching works for individuals – but if the team is the crucial unit where organizations create their true value-add why just coach them? Why not coach the entire team system? And what could this look like?
The team is a system – living in an organizational context that’s also a system. Systems Thinking has demonstrated the power of not just looking at elements of a system but also at the relationships and interactions between them.
Teams which want to “become more than the sum of their parts” – to quote a true and overused phrase – need to do just that – look at themselves, their interactions with one another, and their interactions with their organizational context – often through the advocacy and leadership of their team leader.
When we engage in systemic team coaching, we coach all members of the team–individually as well as in group settings. In individual coaching, we work at the intersection of what the person wants to learn along with what would make him/her a more effective and collaborative team member. In team settings, we observe live group dynamics and reflect them back to the group for greater awareness of interpersonal patterns working well or hindering the team. Whether we are working with individuals or the team, our coaching is informed by the multiple relationships at play. We work to encourage team members to “try on” the multiple perspectives of their colleagues so as to arrive at greater empathy, social attunement, and compatibility overall – key drivers of collaboration and relationship-building.
In Learning the Same as Growth? we explore why professional growth isn’t just about learning but takes learning and transformation. Sustainable growth cannot happen unless the person grows as well.
The same is true for team growth. High-performance team building needs the usual things we would expect — a shared sense of purpose, a vision, and prioritized objectives to move toward it, team guidelines, clear roles, etc. These conversations can be challenging in and of themselves but that’s just the “mechanical” side of team development.
Those mechanics are necessary, but they are not sufficient to turn a team into a high-performance team. The human element of collaboration isn’t yet addressed. Conversations about human dynamics and our behavioral rigidities require different skills as well as the courage to show up with authenticity, to speak one’s truth, and to try different behaviors that support team compatibility. For a team to grow, it needs growth of the individual team members.
Systemic team coaching looks at the task-side and the human side of collaboration. Besides facilitating important team conversations, growth-oriented coaching is offered to team members. Why? Because teams won’t just grow from clarifying their roles, deliverables, and decision rights. Yes, team productivity will increase. High-performance teams, however, need more than that: team members have to grow as well. For teams to reach and sustain peak performance levels, people need to grow around their interpersonal behaviors, their ability to overcome the rigidity of their own preferences and to work flexibly with different preferences in relating, reasoning, and problem-solving. Individuals need to mature in order to stand both on their own and in integrity with their team.
Systemic team coaching has a tremendous advantage because insights from individual coaching processes can be included in supporting relationships and team effectiveness. Conversely, insights from team sessions provide powerful and relevant real-life examples that can be used in individual coaching sessions. This kind of “double-feedback loop” is one of the true advantages systemic team coaching has over more fragmented team building approaches.
The right mix of task-oriented and relationship-oriented conversations – boosted by individual growth coaching – considerably enhances the collaborative capacity of a team. Systemic team coaching, however, also recognizes that a team’s success doesn’t depend only on the team’s productivity and positivity. The team lives in a bigger organizational landscape that cannot be ignored.
Have you seen a team work well together and then watched their performance suffer under a new leader? Or seen a team clickunder new leadership and a team excel from poor or good to great?
Recently we worked with a team of global leaders after an acquisition. While a few team members were new, most were legacy leaders of their two respective organizations. Those companies had very different cultures. The team leader who was a good fit in his old company culture — direct and directive bordering brash and controlling, driving fast from a position of siloed, centralized, functional power – had now to succeed in a new organizational culture that worked with longer time-horizons, more consensus-driven decision-making, and an elaborate matrix environment. Even though the leader offered a compelling commercial vision and a readiness to challenge the status quo in important ways — it didn’t end well. Besides having a polarizing effect on the team – the leader annoyed too many stakeholders and wasn’t an effective advocate for the team anymore.
This example illustrates the two main aspects related to team/leader fit that systemic team coaching focuses on:
Systemic team coaching “folds” such considerations into the individual leadership coaching of the team leader(s). Working with other team members and the team at large provides an immensely valuable treasure trove or real life, relevant data – and timely feedback loops – that boost the leader’s and everyone’s growth – and thus the team’s performance.
At this point, let’s assume the team has a healthy degree of collaborative capacity and the team leader fit works – out of sheer luck and compatibility or due to intentional effort. But the team also “sits” within a greater organizational context that cannot be underestimated. Systematically helping a team perform at high levels must involve supporting the team navigating its stakeholder landscape.
Put another way, one important aspect of systemic team coaching could be named “stakeholder-centered team coaching”. Marshall Goldsmith, the renowned executive coach, established with colleagues an approach to executive coaching that systematically takes a coachee’s stakeholder landscape into consideration. They were motivated by two key reasons. First, a leader’s reputation among stakeholders is a key success factor. Perception is reality. That needs to be worked with. And second, leadership growth goals have to take stakeholder expectations into account.
The same is true of team coaching. While most team building efforts will review or define a team purpose statement, for instance, too often no systematic effort is made to explore the team’s organizational context, the team’s key stakeholders, and team members’ assumptions about the importance and needs of their stakeholders, ways to influence them, or opportunities to communicate with one team voice, to name a few.
What we’ve discussed thus far – developing a team’s “collaborative capacity”, supporting the team/leader fit, and improving organizational stakeholder alignment – do not develop in a step-by-step fashion; rather, it’s an interwoven process of discussions, commitments, and decisions that build on each other.
But for any of these conversations to occur effectively, they all need something in common: trust and “psychological safety” – a climate of open exchange where people speak honestly, build on each others’ ideas, and challenge themselves, each other, and the status quo. That’s a lot easier said than done. And, in our experience, just one or two individuals can break an environment of psychological safety when they act in immature or unhealthy ways. The corrosive effects of unresolved interpersonal conflict or individual self-centeredness limit a team’s performance level. Just having team norms document written up likely won’t make much of a difference; what will make a difference is systemic team coaching’s holistic approach that invites individual, interpersonal, and task-related aspects of team collaboration into the conversation.
Every individual has a developmental edge – our personal frontier where our professionalism, maturity, and presence unfolds. The same is true for teams. The most common conversations we address with teams related to:
What is required to move a poorly working team to an average team is functional, but not necessarily personal. However, to develop a given average performing team into a high-performance team requires individual growth. That, we would argue, is also the beauty of it: By becoming a better team collaborator we become a socially and emotionally more rounded person.
To transform a learning environment to a growth environment is to make learning personal.
This kind of personal growth challenge – on top of discussing the functional challenge of team work and stakeholder management – is exactly what systemic team coaching has to offer. It’s the most powerful way to support a team – and thus to support the entire organization.
Leadership coaching is now an accepted and valued approach to supporting individual leadership effectiveness. Too often, this approach focuses on making star performers even better or mitigating the effects of underperformers or troublemakers. But if the team is the crucial unit where organizations create their true value-add – why just coach individuals? Why not coach the entire team system to build a high-performance team?
See all blog posts related to systemic team coaching.
Organizations grow when people grow – and people grow most through the challenges of real-life experiences supported by intentional learning.
Our approach involves a unique combination of insights and techniques from behavioral science, organizational effectiveness, and humanistic psychology.
More about our approach to coaching teams and emerging and executive leaders