Erik de Haan explains how teams can sustain higher performance through coaching
It has often been observed that our modern society is increasingly dependent on team work. Historically, human organising has become larger and more complex to the present day, as organisations give authority to permanent and temporary teams of many kinds, held together by virtual networks, dotted lines and direct reporting structures. There is hardly a product or service in our daily lives that we use that is not the result of delicate, hard and sophisticated team work.
This causes a lot of pressure on teams and on boardroom teams in particular, to produce and to perform in highly competitive contexts. I have always been curious about what goes on in teams and particularly what teams are really made of. What goes on under the surface that makes a team a team? All those barely noticeable relationships and the dynamics which we initially don’t see until we suddenly realise that some elephant is in the room and will not go away.
So what exactly goes on in teams? And how can team coaches help them to sustain their high performance?
1 Firstly, although we are evolutionarily prepared to be a social species living and working in small groups, we all feel very ambivalent about them. Submitting ourselves and our own freedom to a larger whole gives us a sense of purpose and cohesion while at the same time it inevitably curtails our personal freedom and expression.
2 Secondly, upon joining a team we become more ‘submerged’ in its culture than we realise. At some level we become as one with the team and the team begins to lead a life of its own within us, very much as if we were just a ‘pawn’ in the team’s larger existence. This is true in my experience for all members of the team, including its nominal leader. We are swayed by the general mood of the team, and very often find ourselves changing our mood when we ‘enter’ it: when we go into the room where the team works or even when our private thoughts go out to our team and our ‘teamwork’.
3 Thirdly, [pullquote]we all bring our own ‘signature presence’ to teams and live out a limited range of behaviours, a kind of ‘team-DNA’ that we have developed within ourselves[/pullquote]. We all have certain ‘valencies’ in teams where, for example, we start competing with leaders, or we make ourselves responsible for team harmony and making people feel good, or we remind our colleagues of deadlines (Bion introduced the term valencies in his 1961 book Experiences in Groups, for a person’s individual susceptibilities in groups and teams). Part of this is how we bring out our best talents and take responsibility for contributions we make to the team, such as looking after team members that struggle, generating new ideas, dotting the i’s/crossing the t’s, liaising with external stakeholders etc.
It is often the case that I see teams fighting shadows. In our book The Leadership Shadow1 my colleague Anthony Kasozi and I have tried to show that for every act of leadership there is a shadow. We argue there that stepping forward within a team to create a leadership initiative always creates a rift within oneself: a rift between one’s sunny, active, constructive or aggressive side that has the ambition to contribute, create and prove something; and one’s doubting, needy, vulnerable, careful and concerned side, which craves for connection. [pullquote]This shadow side is active not just within ourselves. It also causes opposition and possibly resistance within the team[/pullquote] – and is in our view part and parcel of all leadership. In teams, these shadow sides get amplified by the team members’ shadows, in other words they join with struggles, hopes, aspirations, freedoms and privileges that other team members have had to leave behind in order to become an active member of this team.
Personal shadow patterns manifest themselves as dark-side patterns that have been extensively described in the leadership literature, such as antisocial, narcissistic, or paranoid tendencies, neurotic anxiety, etc. Team shadow patterns manifest themselves as rather common patterns of, for example, submission, rebellion, jealousy, shaming and bullying, as again extensively described in the literature. We have described such vicious cycles in teams as emerging mostly in the form of fighting, fear or fatigue. Such shadow patterns from individuals and teams can slowly gain momentum and become like tropical cyclones that bring business to derailment or the brink of chaos.
We have also described rather more ‘virtuous’ patterns in teams. In fact, we describe a continuous back and forth of simultaneous virtuous and vicious patterns in teams. With the primary task or tasks of the team at its centre these could also be described as centripetal and centrifugal patterns, i.e. moving towards and away from the task. We give several examples in the book and notice that there is a fourth ‘f’ (besides fighting, fear and fatigue) that describes the ‘virtuous tendencies’ in teams: frustration. The extent of frustration that a team can sit with can be a good indicator of its health. Frustration tolerance which opens space for reflection can be transformational for teams that are stuck or at the mercy of their highly specific shadow patterns.
[pullquote]Team coaches can play an important role when a team is trying to strengthen virtuous dynamics, by which I mean constructive and task-oriented efforts[/pullquote]. Simply, by spending time with the team in a supportive and observant manner, one can help grow frustration tolerance in a team. I have seen experienced team coaches do this essentially in two, mutually supportive ways:
By offering ‘containment’ of frustration through attentive and supportive presence and also by holding the line if a team appears to be drifting away from coaching, possibly into ‘shadow side’ dynamics.
By offering observations of what appears to be going on, exploring what the frustration at the moment might be about and what makes it so hard to keep the frustration (together with possible insight or reflections or beginnings of change) in the room.
In my experience, these two are the crucial contributions that any outside facilitator, consultant or coach can make to a team in the grip of shadow-side dynamics. This is why it is so important for us as team coaches to maintain a coaching presence and not to get busy with other tasks such as facilitation, generating ideas, or leadership of the team. Frustration is awkward for any team, and frustration tolerance is often slim in the face of for example existential challenge and conflict, which is why we often contract to work with two team coaches not one. The second, less active team coach has a better chance to stay outside of shadow-side dynamics and outside of the efforts to overcome them, which are usually rather futile anyway. A calm reflective presence from the coach does more for the team than a thousand brilliant ‘interventions’ and ‘solutions’.
We need to develop these important qualities of coaches – that is containment and observation.
When a consultant is able to stay with team dynamics in an appreciative and curious, non-obstructive, non-interventionist way and create the space to ‘name’ things that may not have been named so explicitly before, a positive shift often occurs and seems to occur all by itself. A new outlet seems to have been found for what is so difficult to express. In the case of the consultancy’s management board I joined with as a team coach, there was a flurry of activity and self-expression after I had spoken. Team members confessed how difficult it was to speak out in the team and to develop new business for the firm, because they often had the feeling that they were somehow not good enough or only ‘second generation’ and therefore had too little ‘right’ to feel and to speak, as if they had to relegate initiative and liveliness to the founding few. It is perhaps too early to tell but my intuition is that this will help the team to overcome the problem and feel freer to make mistakes, have an opinion or venture out to the marketplace.
A fully referenced version is available on request.