Coaching teams through change

No-one likes to be changed, but change is all around us. We, each in our own unique way, change constantly as we evolve and adapt to changing circumstances. Sometimes we cope with this change almost without noticing it (like a new piece of furniture), and other times the change is harder (like redundancy or the death of a relative), it takes longer for us to adapt to new circumstances and sometimes we actively resist the change (like a change of role at work).

Each of us deals with changes in different ways and at different paces. Some early adopters relish new things, while others need a more considered approach. Think of a team adopting Agile, and the impact on different team members. Now imagine the impact of such a major change on a whole team, with every team member processing that change differently!

Think of this process as going up a mountain and crossing the edge at the top before arriving on the other side. On the up-slope is your Primary identity, belief system, processes, awareness… it is who and what you are. On the other side is the Secondary identity (what we are not), belief system, process, etc.

For change to be successful, we each need to cross an edge

As a coach or manager, you can recognise the signs that people are reaching their edges when they start fidgeting, stay quiet when they would normally speak up, leave sentences unfinished, change the subject or disengage. These are all signs that people are finding change hard. Only when you see the signs, can you do something to help people — individually and collectively — to cross their edge.

It takes an empathetic approach to understand people’s beliefs, anxieties and fears, and to help them over the edge. This is where coaching can be very helpful in raising the team’s awareness of this phenomenon and to help them cross the edge safely together. The team needs to raise its collective intelligence; not its IQ, but its EQ — emotional intelligence.

Have you ever noticed that there are people in any organisation who often start arguments, even unintentionally? How about people who avoid confrontation? People who are overly critical of others? People who judge others without understanding them? Those who don’t speak up when they really should? Those who do all the talking in meetings, who talk over others, ensuring that they are being listened to without listening to others? Or those who are always silent in meetings?

All of these are signs that a team lacks Relationship Systems Intelligence (RSI)— think of it as collective EQ. Each team is a relationship system, as is each team-of teams. Teams that improve their RSI will improve their team identity and mutual trust. This creates a safe environment in which participation, cooperation and collaboration flourishes, and this leads to better decisions, more creative solutions and higher productivity.

In any endeavour that requires people to work together, increasing people’s RSI leads to better outcomes for the organisation.

Each relationship system is unique and has its own identity. It is naturally intelligent, generative and creative. Every member of that relationship system is a voice of that system. Every voice of the system is valid and valuable, and as such should be actively encouraged.

I see a lot of group discussions in which people are trying to just be right, or at least have their views accepted as right. This can lead to unnecessary conflict, and a reduction in team performance. What is required is a recognition that, whatever we personally think or believe, we do not have all the knowledge; that we are not the only voice of the system. The views, thoughts and perspectives of others are equally valid.

There is a phrase that sums this up nicely, and when you think about it, it leads to a totally different type of dialogue:

Everybody is right… but only partially

Not all conflict is unhealthy, though. Let’s distinguish between the healthy exchange of ideas and perspectives on the one hand, and on the other the argumentative conflict that leaves relationships in a worse state than before.

What we want is to encourage as much healthy disagreement and dialogue as possible, while discouraging the unhealthy conflict… or the avoidance of conflict that stifles discussion. But how do we do that?

Psychological Safety and a clear conflict protocol.

Much has been written elsewhere about psychological safety, but it’s important to recognise that it does not arise organically; it is the result of a collaborative style of leadership. For safety to exist, there must be trust borne of familiarity and vulnerability. It takes time and focussed effort to build. Here, again, team coaching can be the catalyst to making it happen.

A conflict protocol is an explicit agreement about how team members will handle conflict, describing the behaviours they do not want to see, as well as those they do want. Examples of positive behaviours might include using the COIN structure to respond to unwanted behaviours, understanding the desire behind a complaint, using feed-forward instead of feedback, etc.

Of course, no agreement is worth anything if team members do not hold each other accountable for abiding by it. Some teams find it very valuable having a coach to highlight for them when the protocol is being broken or not adhered to, or simply to encourage someone to speak up.

Change is often hard on teams. The larger the team and the more disruptive the change, the harder it is to be successful. Coaching your teams through change requires that they deliberately develop their RSI, build clear protocols and behavioural agreements, create a high-performance culture and leverage the teams inherent diversity and creativity.

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Chris Davies

Team Coach | Leadership Coach | Agile Coach | ORSC Practitioner. I write about teams, leadership, organisations and agile.