What does it mean to be a depth team coach?
The coaching at depth series
2. What does it mean to be a depth team coach?
Team coaching seems to be the hottest topic in the coaching professional community at present. All the professional bodies feature it on their webinar or podcast programmes, and alongside an extensive existing literature, Relational Team Coaching edited by Eric de Hann and Dorothee Stoffels has just been published, bringing some welcome nuance and depth to the topic. And we at psychosynthesis coaching have just announced our new course on Team Coaching and Group Dynamics (more on which later).
In this article I want to make meaning from this resurgence in interest in team coaching and start to answer the headline question of what it means to be a depth team coach.
Why team coaching and why now?
I am curious about why team coaching has become so foreground today. I will offer a simple but partial narrative in relation to this as an attempt at sense-making. This starts with some personal background – when I first trained in the mid to late 1990’s with the Human Potential Research Group at Surrey University, founded by John Heron, team facilitation (as we called it then) was emphasised at least as much, if not more than individual coaching. I look back at this time as perhaps the zenith of the human potential movement, with the flowering of humanistic psychology, expressed though different approaches, such as person-centred, Gestalt psychology, Transactional Analysis and NLP. These gradually became embedded in the helping professions and organisational development, combining with the establishment of reflective professional practice (e.g. Chris Argyris and Donald Schon) and awareness of human process in groups and organisational systems, which had grown out of a mix of group dynamics theory (e.g. Wilfred Bion, Kurt Lewin and Bruce Tuckman) as well as process consultation (e.g. Edgar Shien) and other ingredients (e.g. Encounter Groups, T-groups, etc).
The trend of the subsequent two decades seems to have been towards the exponential growth of one-to-one coaching with a focus on individual performance and leadership development. The forces driving this were many but include the maturation of the achievement paradigm (see my writing on organisational paradigms, Howard 2020) with its focus on goals and performance. Alongside this we have witnessed the growth of the pluralistic paradigm, with a greater emphasis on personal growth and empowerment.
Team building and development has never been out of the picture all this time, viz the ubiquity of the team off-site or away day, but I would argue that the first two decades of the twenty-first century may well come to be seen as the peak era of individuality and individualism, in all its healthy and creative expressions as well as less healthy or distorted manifestations. Of course this has been liberating in some ways, for example leading to greater expression of individual voices and human needs within organisational systems, but in other ways the limitations of an individualistic mindset have been increasingly exposed in our VUCA world of crisis, chaos and loss of control.
So then we see, in recent years, a renaissance of interest in team coaching, with the arc of attention shifting back towards teams and team leadership. Why is this happening now, what is going on?
[A cynical response might be that this resurgence is driven by either coaches or coaching organisations looking for new services to offer, or by purchasers of coaching hoping to save costs by offering coaching to teams rather than individuals. I have no concrete data to support or refute either of these possibilities!]
The last twenty-five years has been a time of enormous change and transition on many levels, with seismic shifts in collective consciousness as well as in the wider systemic environment within which we are all living and working, which we have come to refer to as the VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity) world. These dynamics of meta change are of course all interconnected and largely work through the unconscious. I observe a subtle shift in consciousness from individual to collective (at least in professional and organisational contexts), with a growing recognition that we are relational beings for whom being in relationship with the other and belonging to a group, tribe or community is core to our meaning making.
Alongside this the VUCA world is demanding responses from leaders that can only come through evoking collective intelligence which is greater than the sum of individual intelligences. A growing realisation that individual leadership grounded within old command and control models is no longer effective in complex environments is juxtaposed with the re-emergence of autocratic strong man/woman leadership as a crude response to unresolvable complexity and fear in society. This then leads us into the gap, in terms of societal or organisational leadership capacity to evoke or release the collective intelligence of teams and wider systems and leaders of teams either consciously or unconsciously realising they need help to do this and turning towards team coaching.
How has team coaching changed?
To complete this narrative arc, I want to reflect upon what is different today for a team coach compared to how it was when I started 28 years ago.
None of the dimensions, dynamics or choices describing teams have essentially changed (see below), but at the same time everything feels different, magnified, more intense, complex and volatile. This of course could be in part because of my own shifting perspective, but is also observable if we examine each of the elements of a VUCA world and how these are impacting our lives and work, societies, organisations and groups. We could turn towards data (and I won’t here), in terms of societal experience of mental health and wellbeing, stress and anxiety, crisis and breakdown – and how these are related to psychological needs evoked by the conditions of volatility (sense of self), uncertainty (tolerance of anxiety), complexity (systemic intelligence) and ambiguity (holding paradox). The magnifying, distorting and alienating impact of new technology and social media is also part of story of how the picture has changed.
Most of all, it seems that wider systems impacts and influences are much more present in the team or group space now than they were then. In the mid-90’s we spoke of organisational and national cultures as the seas within which we swam, but this lens has now become part of a much wider systemic orientation and awareness in relation to unconscious human dynamics in play at multiple levels and dimensionalities. Issues of power, authority and control, as well as identity, diversity and inclusion in organisations and society are far more acknowledged and exposed within the teams and groups we are part of, but this also adds to the complexity and challenge of working in the team space as coaches.
Something that I haven’t seen acknowledged fully enough (e.g. in the team coaching forums I have participated in) is how team coaching can be a far more challenging undertaking than individual coaching, involving complexities of a different order of magnitude. Correspondingly, the demands placed upon the coach in terms of their need for self-awareness of their own process, e.g. how their personality might be caught or activated by systemic forces either directly in the team system or by the influence of wider systems, are considerably greater.
Any group space magnifies or accentuates personal, pre-personal and inter-personal psychological dynamics that might be in play or where individuals have a particular valency. We probably all know the feelings of nervousness, anxiety, stress or excitement, as we start engaging within a group. Through the group space the coach can also access and release more energy, aliveness and awareness than is normally available in individual coaching and how we hold and manage this is important. The outcomes, impacts and consequences of team coaching can also be greater and faster than individual coaching, and we need to stay attuned to these. And just to add, that some coaches may feel naturally more at home in the group environment and others more at home in individual coaching and it is important to acknowledge and work with all of what we sense and feel as we step into the team coaching role.
Unpacking an orienting framework for team coaching
How do we navigate our way through the team coaching territory? What key distinctions is it useful to make? How have such distinctions for team coaching changed since my early training in the mid-90’s? In many ways, most of the basics remain the same, although our perspective on these have been enhanced by new developments in a whole range of inter-connected fields and disciplines (e.g., neuroscience and neurobiology, family systems and constellations, embodiment and mindfulness, developmental and evolutionary psychology, etc.). More significantly the systemic context and environment within which we are working has changed and consequently the impact of the VUCA world most teams and systems now exist within.
By the basics, I mean the core principles of group dynamics and team development, as developed by early pioneers such as Wilfred Bion, Kurt Lewin, William Schutz, Bruce Tuckman and John Heron and enhanced by team-oriented models developed by Meredith Belbin, Patrick Lencioni, Christina Baldwin and others.
Key distinctions that remain the same, concern types of team, focus of the work, style of facilitation and structure of the intervention. For example:
- Type of team: e.g. leader focused teams or self-organising teams (see CLC spectrum of leadership team options, Howard 2016), functional or project teams, permanent or temporary team, etc.
- Task versus process focus: in relationship to working with a team (more on this distinction and the relationship between task and process to follow in a subsequent post)
- Style of coaching or facilitation: directive versus facilitative, or options along a more nuanced spectrum
- Structure of the intervention: e.g. solo coach versus a pair or team of coaches; working alongside the team leader, versus working with the leader as part of the team; cycling between individual member and team coaching, versus only working with the whole team or other configurations.
Once we start thinking through the situational factors and assumptions we might be making in this way, this framework begins to expand. To help team coaches comprehensively think though key choices as they engage in a team coaching assignment, I evolved this framework:
Context: What type of team is this and what is its nature and culture? What is its story, how has it come about? How has your engagement come about?
Contract: What is the explicit or implicit focus of the work, in terms of task or process? What else is expected or has been contracted? What are the desired outcomes of the assignment?
Container: How are you going to create a safe space for the team in your work with them? How are you going to support or reflect upon your own process? How is this work contained or boundaried from within the organisation?
Client: Who is the primary client? Who are you working with or alongside? Who is the sponsor and who are the other stakeholders?
Structure: How are you structuring the intervention or assignment? How will you arrive at decisions in relationship with the client? How might this evolve as you work with the team?
Style: What style of coaching or facilitation will you bring? What ways of being might you draw upon? What are the expectations of the client?
System: What is happening in the wider system that is impacting this team? How does this team impact or bring about change in the wider system? What is unconsciously held in this system from history and culture?
Purpose: What is their shared or collective purpose? How aligned is the team in relation to this purpose? What might be emergent for this team?
Power: What are the power, authority and control dynamics here? What cannot be spoken or acknowledged? How will you and your interventions come into relationship with these power dynamics within this system?
Preparation: What preparation is needed before engaging with the team as a whole? How are your preparing the members of the team? How do you need to prepare yourself or the coaching team?
What is team coaching at depth?
This brings me to where we are today and with our new course, seeking to support individual coaches become team coaches, or existing team coaches work at greater depth in their practice. How do we answer the question of what is team coaching at depth, or what does the depth coach do that is different?
I want to introduce one more part of our orienting framework to help with this. The depth coach needs to hold and move between three frames, both in the way they work and in their on-going personal and professional development to support their capacity for this work:
- Working on ourselves and our own process
- Working with the team or group working on their process
- The interventions, approaches and perspectives we can bring to the work.
As we develop our practice of holding our own process, both within and outside of the coaching space, we learn to listen inwardly to what is happening for us and attune to what this is telling us about the team or system dynamics. In a way, the interventions, methods or tools we use are always secondary, even though they are often what we lead with because they help calm ours and the clients’ anxieties and the cognitive or concrete minds’ need for structure and a sense of control, as Simon Cavicchia writes about in Chapter 1 of De Hann & Stoffels (2023). The key to working at depth concerns our capacity to listen inwardly as well as thinking outwardly towards the group or the system.
The depth team coach is going to be working with and between each of the three frames, both in the here and now, moment-to-moment team coaching relational space, as well as in their preparation and reflective practice. By implication therefore, the depth team coach is going to be more concerned with team process than with task, even if the context of the assignment and desired outcome is primarily or entirely to do with the team task. I have found in even the most task-oriented situations, it is possible to contract with the team to periodically take time out to reflect upon the team process, in whatever terms the team is ready to engage with – e.g. attending to building trust, acknowledging relational dynamics, team roles or valences, awareness of patterns of working, surfacing systems forces, etc.
Synthesis and synthetic working in team coaching
There’s one more important piece to introduce for the depth team coach, which is the principle of synthesis and the practice of synthetic working. I have written elsewhere (Howard, 2022a) about Roberto Assagioli’s work on the principle of synthesis and polarity and why this psychospiritual perspective is so relevant to issues of polarisation, splitting, diversity and inclusion that will come into the process work we do with teams. We need to develop the capacity to hold polarity tensions within ourselves (e.g. between mind and heart, masculine and feminine, content and context, individual and collective, parts and wholes) as well as to facilitate the awareness, holding and ultimately transcendence of such polarity principles within the team or group. Many other thinkers have contributed to this topic in different ways and I have found Roger Martin’s Opposable Mind (2007) the most useful of these. Some other approaches stay too cognitive or mental, as if polarity can be transcended like a rational puzzle or complex negotiation. This brings me to Iain McGilchrist’s majestic works on the brain hemispheres and different ways of being and perceiving, which helps us see and experience the relationship between the cognitive, concrete or analytical mind (left brain hemisphere) and the holistic, intuitive and meaning making mind (right brain hemisphere). I have written more about McGilchrist’s work elsewhere too (Howard, 2022b).
How does the principle of synthesis inform the team coaching course we are offering? The course implicitly and explicitly works between content and context, the cognitive mind and the intuitive mind, working with the parts and the whole, cognitively and somatically. We can for example, learn about the psychology of group dynamics and practise the skills and methods of the team coach, alongside attuning the embodied self and working on our relational selves. The way I work with Anne Welsh, both in designing and facilitating this course, also involves seeking synthesis between our different perspectives, holding the tension between some of these polarities.
Finally, I should emphasise that working at depth as a coach always involves a deeply personal commitment to working on ourselves. The team coach needs to be able to see and work with the relationship and interplay between the personal, the group and the system. In order to be able to do that, they first need to be aware of and responsible for their own ‘stuff’ and how this gets activated in relationship with other, group and system. This work therefore starts with ourselves and how our own unconscious projections and transferences come into play, the valences we have within groups or systems and how our personality edges trip us up.
This work needs to broaden to include recognising the intersection of personality and collective consciousness in a VUCA world, how we get caught by ideological or tribal identifications, group think or distorted motivations of split off parts of ourselves. This is difficult but increasingly necessary work if we are not going to get caught by these energies in the team or group space.
Our capacity to recognise unconscious forces in play at all of these levels is enhanced by developing our embodied selves – the use of our sensory awareness and intuitions, embracing our wholeness in the here and now.
To summarise, the depth team coach draws upon and develops within themselves four key perspectives or ways of working: relational, embodied, systemic and synthesis.
I will end this article by presenting the context we have set for our new course on Team Coaching and Group Dynamics and inviting you to take a closer look with the link below. I hope you will join us on this exciting journey as we learn and work together to deepen our practice as team coaches.
This new course gives you what is needed to practise as a team coach in terms of models, frameworks, methods and tools, as well as developing your systemic and psychological understanding of group dynamics.
And we go beyond this cognitive realm towards ways of being and seeing, using self as a team coach, drawing upon the intuitive mind to help the coach develop relational awareness and embodied attunement within any group. At the core of our approach is the personal work of recognising how we become caught in relationship and learning how to take ownership of our unconscious projections, transferences and valences in relation to groups and systems.
There is congruence between the way we work and other psychological, relational, embodied and systemic approaches. We show how the depth coach draws upon these perspectives to allow what is unconscious, unspoken or unacknowledged within a team to emerge. We seek to go further by engaging principles of synthesis to open the way for the emergence of a teams’ full potential and collective intelligence.
To find out more about the Team Coaching and Group Dynamics course go to:
References (including some additions from the team coaching course)
Benson, Jarlath (2018), Working More Creatively with Groups, London: Abingdon: Routledge
de Hann, Eric and Stoffels, Dorothee, Editors (2023) Relational Team Coaching, Abingdon: Routledge
Evans, Joan (2014) Systems, Synthesis and Group Dynamics, in Simpson, Steve; Evans, Joan and Evans, Roger (2014): Essays on the Theory and Practice of a Psychospiritual Psychology, Volume 2 (Published by The Institute of Psychosynthesis)
Heron, John (1999), The Complete Facilitators Handbook, London: Kogan Page
Howard, Aubyn (2016), The Influence of Leadership Paradigms and Styles on Innovation, Chapter 19 in Value Creation in the Pharmaceutical Industry, Edited by Alexander Schuhmacher, et al, Reutlingen: Wiley
Howard, Aubyn (2020), Psychosynthesis Leadership Coaching, Abingdon: Routledge
Howard, Aubyn (2022a), Working towards synthesis: context, guidance and techniques for engaging with polarisation. Chapter 21 in Nocelli, Petra Guggisberg (2022) Know, Love, Transform Yourself. Theory, techniques and new developments in Psychosynthesis, Vol. II, Psychosynthesis Books
Howard, Aubyn (2022b), The Evolution of Coaching, LinkedIn article
McGilchist, Iain (2009) The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, Yale University Press
McGilchist, Iain (2021) The Matter with Things, Perspectiva Press, London. Kindle version.