Article

The Case for Team Coaching (And How Much Is Enough?)

By Melissa Karz
Partner, Next Step Partners

Next Step Partners Team Coaching

The Case for Team Coaching (And How Much Is Enough?)

Workplace coaching has been a profession since the 1990s, and represents a significant annual investment for many HR departments. Most of the focus has been on one-on-one coaching—particularly on executive coaching. In recent years, team coaching has attained a higher profile. A growing body of evidence points to the health of teams—and to the underlying conditions that foster high performing teams, like psychological safety—as the secret sauce for organizational excellence.

Yet team coaching remains far less researched than individual coaching. Most of what has been published draws on lessons from the world of athletics. The research that has been done shows it is both a science and an art. So what is team coaching? When and why does an organization need team coaching? What are the goals of team coaching? And how long should it last?

 

The What, When & Why of Team Coaching

Like any living thing, a team has a natural life cycle. At the beginning, when a team is first launching, the emphasis is on putting the right conditions in place for the team to thrive. These include an environment of psychological safety. But also clarity as to who the team is, what its purpose is, its structure, culture, and the support it can expect from the rest of the organization. At this stage, the focus is on good design.

Later on, at the midpoint, a team has likely encountered obstacles. They may feel stuck. Here what a team needs is discovery: an outside eye to observe and identify unhealthy patterns; to intervene and interrupt those patterns; and to replace them with healthier conversational habits. As a coach, I am looking for what is blocking the team. I am also looking for where the friction is, and facilitating a process whereby that friction can become useful and lead to new insights.

Endings can also be a rich coaching opportunity. Research finds that, even as a team is wrapping up its work, they may not, if left to their own devices, be able to capture and internalize the lessons from their experience.

Team coaching can provide value to a team at any point in its journey. Which is why I resist any general rules of thumb as to how long a coaching engagement should last. We may successfully help a team put the right conditions in place during their launch phase when they are forming and norming. But that doesn’t mean they won’t need additional support down the road. A team may need more foundational coaching at one stage, and maintenance coaching at another.

The one “rule” my colleagues and I do tend to ascribe to is to avoid one-off, stand-alone engagements. We don’t want a team to be dependent on us. But good coaching takes time. For our work to produce results that are meaningful and have staying power, the coaching relationship needs time to breath: time to establish rapport and trust; to identify and explore missing conversations.

 

How Long Should it Last? And How Can You Lock in Your Team’s Learning?

These questions have come up a lot lately in my own coaching practice. I will work with a team anywhere from six months to a year, helping them establish sound practices to unlock the team’s full collaborative potential and reach its desired goals.

At a certain point, I feel they are ready to (as I like to put it) “fly on their own.” They agree. However, when I check back a few months later, I find that some teams are able to sustain the gains made, while other teams fall back into old and unproductive habits—the very habits we worked on breaking.

What differentiates those teams that are able to lock in their learning from those that have a harder time doing so? After working with hundreds of teams over the past 20 years, I believe there are certain success factors that must be in a place for a team to have a successful transfer of ownership from the coach to the team:

  1. Psychological Safety: True psychological safety as defined by Amy Edmondson is “the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.” Through team coaching, we spend a lot of time with teams and team leaders to create and reward these conditions over time. If team members do not feel safe speaking up, sharing their voice, and giving one another feedback, they will falter.

 

  1. A Shared Mindset of Ownership: There must be a collective mindset around ownership for team health. Which means that everyone takes responsibility for helping the team to thrive, not just leaders. Overdependence on the team leader is a common pitfall and results in lack of initiative and ownership among the team.  Over time, the team’s growth and development can stagnate as members rely solely on the leader for direction and solutions. Team members may feel resentful if they perceive the leader as micromanaging or controlling, leading to strained relationships and decreased morale. Lastly, there is always the chance that the team leader becomes unavailable or leaves the organization, the team may struggle to function effectively, risking project delays and failure.

 

  1. Radical Commitment: Ensure the team is aligned and radically committed to team operating principles, including a recovery plan for when the team goes off track. Principles typically address issues around communication, conflict resolution, and overcoming setbacks. Teams can create agreements such as: “Demonstrate commitment to difficult conversations. If a conflict or disagreement arises and cannot be addressed in real-time, within 48 hours arrange a conversation to take place within one week.” Translating agreements on paper into actual practice is hard work. Before a team transitions from their coach, they should have spent significant time experimenting, succeeding and failing over and over again until new and healthy patterns are in place.

 

  1. Team Audit Mechanism: The team must set up an internal process for regularly reviewing how well they are honoring their agreements. One client uses their bi-weekly leadership team meetings to set aside a few minutes at the beginning to refresh on team agreements, and at the end of meetings to assess/debrief on how the team did and what they could have done better.

 

  1. Maintenance Plan: Just like your car needs a regular tune-up, so too does the team.  Set a date for a follow-up session with the coach. While the ultimate goal is for the team to internalize their new habits and practices and serve as its own coach, every team benefits from a regular refresh and recommitment to its practices. One client calendars maintenance team coaching on a quarterly basis.

 

While team coaching is getting more play, it is something that tends to fall through the cracks. A Harvard survey of team leaders and members revealed that coaching the team as a whole was the least prioritized element of leadership. An independent eye may be just what your team needs.

 

Share

Previous:

Supporting Racial Equity and Inclusion: The Role of Coaches

Next:

The Courage to Have Good Meetings

Subscribe for
Leadership Updates