Cultivating Coachable Teams

Gain strength even from your weakest link.
 

By Paula Goudsmit and Kristine D. Steinberg 
 
 
If you’ve been in the workforce for more than five minutes, you know that every team is full of complex and powerful dynamics. Good coaches and leaders have the courage and ability to navigate through these dynamics, while staying above them to help the team reach its highest potential.
 

Yet sometimes, the team dynamics can interrupt the flow and halt progress and productivity. In these instances, external coaches are often tapped to work through the issues and establish more cohesive teams. While some may view coaches as simple troubleshooters, the role is much larger than that.
 
 
If you are a coach, or are considering hiring an external coach, be mindful that the role is not to swoop in and fix issues. Rather, the coach’s role is to help the team better understand its own dynamics so they can set a path toward success. This includes setting individual paths, defining team goals, and creating greater awareness so that teams and the members on them are more positively contributing to the organization’s goals.
 
 
One of the most effective ways to approach coaching a team is to view it as a relationship system comprising individuals, each with a common purpose for interacting. This common purpose creates interdependency where the choices, actions, and behaviors of each individual impact the entire team. It’s true what they say about the team only being as strong as its weakest link.
 
 
We all know this on many levels, yet all too often we can fall into the trap of focusing on individual actions. Oftentimes, these individual actions constitute an extreme—whether stellar or embarrassing. Meanwhile, solid performers who keep pace can get lost in the shuffle or worse, becoming a problem because of the lack of coaching around them and for them.
 
 
A knee-jerk reaction to individual behaviors prevents teams from getting to the core issues and keeps them in a holding pattern, unable to advance. In these situations, instead of treating the symptoms, leaders ought to step back and view the entire body to determine what’s causing the illness. And as we all know, these types of illnesses can be quite contagious.
 
 
To squarely address this issue requires that the team follow a three-step process:
• Committing to learn how to objectively view situations;
• Identifying its own strengths and, more importantly, its weaknesses on an individual and collective level; and
• Commiting to a process of continual reinvention.
 

With the right coach, a team can learn these skills to gain greater objectivity and insight. This results in the team being able to more easily make adjustments. It also helps to create and sustain more fluid and adaptable team relationships, which are necessary for those faced with the inevitable changes that happen in every team environment.
Sounds like a relatively simple and straightforward plan. This ideal scenario is the foundation of the relationship system and is rooted in the belief that every team is capable of achieving results.
 
 
Yet stumbling blocks such as ego, fear, distrust, personal triggers, and individual agendas can derail even the best performing teams. After all, any one of us can point to an unhealthy team dynamic, which directly correlates and contributes to larger organizational issues.
 
 
So how do you know if the coaching effort is going to pay off in the end?
While nobody wants to admit defeat, the reality is that even the best coaches and best teams fail. In many cases, these missteps result from a failure to establish the requirements for success at the onset of the coaching process.
 
 
Identifying the Uncoachable
In 2011, a high-level executive team at a large software company was tasked with providing a new, hip, innovative face to their suffering brand image. It was a high-stakes assignment, and they wanted insight into factors contributing to a lack of cohesion and a coaching plan to overcome them.
 
 
Since we believe that teams are naturally resourceful and whole, our approach was to seek the answers directly from the system rather than tell them what was wrong with them theoretically. Before the first team session, we invested a great deal of time gathering data from each individual via a team questionnaire, online analytics assessment, and individual coaching sessions. The data we collected pointed to two clear team issues: low trust and lack of a common goal. These team issues were producing behaviors such as personal protectionism, internal competition, and detrimental political posturing. These behaviors directly impacted their ability to create business process and infrastructure that was critical to competing against their leading competitor in the same space.
 
 
Our plan for the first team session was to present the assessment data and provide tools to build trust and identify a common goal. When we arrived, we immediately sensed that the team was flooded with toxic behavior that renders a team uncoachable. Yet based on their perceived level of IQ and EQ, we felt confident they could get beyond it. When we unveiled the data that pointed to several areas of dysfunction, their team system completely shut down. Most of the team stonewalled and the rest became contemptuous, saying the data was faulty. It was like trying to treat a wet alcoholic. They were denying their issues—they couldn’t put the bottle down. To make matters worse, the high profile leader of this team, who wanted a “win” no matter what, approached us during a break, gave us a sarcastic and aggressive high-five and said, “you will fix this right?”
 
 
Although we were able to end the session on a positive note, we realized that we had made little progress penetrating their core issues. After some deep analysis, we have concluded that this team is a good example of a team that is not coachable. One year later, they are still trailing their competitor. We believe their team dynamics contribute to this outcome.
 
 
Identifying Coachability
The lessons learned from the software company assignment were many and reinforce the importance of working with teams that are ready and willing to be coached. What we derived from our experience are five requirements for engaging with a team successfully for sustainable impact
 
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• Determine the right timing, clarify expectations, and engage leaders.
Don’t wait for a crisis, conflict, organizational change, or block in productivity before you start coaching. At these highly vulnerable points, it becomes clear that coaching is necessary because those “symptoms” are front and center. If this is a familiar scenario, recognize that at this point that the team leader might quite possibly be at a loss for how to move the team forward. When the dust settles from the behavior or situation that triggered the need for coaching, step back and set goals and expectations that reflect the bigger picture, not just the situation at hand. Once expectations are clear, it’s important to engage organizational leaders in the coaching process and encourage them to build team trust by modeling vulnerability.
 
 
• Align the team by establishing a common purpose.
Alignment doesn’t necessarily mean agreement, and coaches must share that view with the team. However, it must also be understood that achieving alignment requires that individual team members put aside their individual views and positions for the greater good. For example, they must be willing to try doing things differently to achieve the common goal of delivering the highest quality product. When alignment is positioned this way, individuals are able to gain perspective, see a much bigger picture, and begin to prioritize team goals over individual gains.
 

• Eliminate the blame game.
The team must be willing to resolve issues without blame or resorting to toxic behaviors such as defensiveness, chronic criticism, contempt, and stonewalling. The path to stopping this behavior is to educate teams about these toxins and their impact on individual team members as well as the team as whole. From there, the coach needs to provide suggestions for the team to diffuse and eliminate blame game tactics.
 
 
• Establish confidentiality boundaries.
Individual intake assessments are among the first steps in kicking off a coaching engagement. During this process, employees often disclose confidential information in the one-on-one sessions with the coach. This is an important step that helps the coach establish trust, identify potential roadblocks, and enable the team to establish goals.
 
 
However, after the intake assessments are complete, the coach should only engage the team as whole and not become a counselor to individuals. To avoid confusion later, confidentiality boundaries and reporting protocols must be discussed and agreed upon by all participants. It’s wise to get these agreed-upon terms in writing before the assessments and coaching process gets underway.
 
 
• Commit to the process and results.
The only way coaching is going to succeed is if the team is willing to be coached. Along with demonstrating that coaching is a perk, not a punishment, the entire organization needs to commit to the process.
Statistics show that sustainable results for team coaching require a six- to nine-month engagement. While this may at first sound like a significant investment, the end results actually save the company money because coaching helps retain top talent, improves productivity, and creates more effective teams and individual employees.
 
 
The question often arises as to whether coaching should be handled internally or externally, and the answer is actually both. A good external coach can provide objectivity and guidance while also imparting knowledge that will sharpen and complement the skills of internal leaders. As teams become increasingly more geographically dispersed, it’s important to establish a foundation that will create cohesion and continued success. Coaching is one of the most direct and effective paths to achieving those goals.
 
 
Paula Goudsmit is president of High Impact Coaching + Consulting, LLC and Kristine D. Steinberg is CEO of Kismet Consulting, LLC.

Posted May 10, 2012 in Talent Acquisition

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