Systems coaching: how can it enhance your team’s performance?

Climbers working together as a team
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Working as a team requires effective communication but this could be a challenge if there are personalities that clash. Thankfully, there is a solution that can help bond teams - systems coaching.

Usually it’s only those teams that underperform - or who are wholly dysfunctional - that become a target for team development. But the truth is that any team, at every level, can improve.

Working in teams is fraught with difficulty because humans are complex, emotional beings. We’re all influenced by the other people in our team and in turn affect the relationships we have with them.

Problems such as personality clashes can lead to negative perceptions and judgements being formed. Counterproductive behaviour can also arise such as blame, defensiveness, stone-walling, complaining, hidden agendas, resistance to change or individuals becoming marginalised within the team.

Poorly performing teams can become effective; good teams can become great.

A lack of communication can create insecurities, misunderstandings or conflict. Yet despite having some, or all of these issues, a team may in fact manage to perform competently and achieve its goals.

The point is that if these negative aspects - which are there to some extent in almost every team - are actually addressed, a team’s productivity will significantly improve. Poorly performing teams can become effective; good teams can become great.

Sometimes the issues run deeper than the individuals who form the team. For example, downsizing may have changed the team dynamic; the market may have shifted or the team may be struggling to respond to the unrealistic demands of other internal functions or stakeholders.

Certain behaviours can also become embedded in a team. When these things occur, a team’s problems can prevail even if one member leaves; when someone new joins, the same challenges will still be there.

In other words, certain problems can be ‘systemic’ within a team. If this isn’t addressed, the team members are doomed to repeat the same mistakes.

Developing a team

Fortunately, there is now a new way to tackle these challenges and improve the performance of any team. ‘Systems coaching’ is an intervention that involves coaching intact teams, rather than individuals.

It uses psychological tools and techniques to focus on the ‘links’ between the team members, as opposed to focusing on the individuals themselves.

As well as being a valuable development intervention for any team, systems coaching can resolve specific challenges such as creating a shared vision, managing change or breaking down ‘silos’ in cross-functional teams.

Systems coaching is an intervention that involves coaching intact teams, rather than individuals.

In a pressured work environment, it’s easy for us to focus more on the task we’re trying to achieve than on the emotional needs of the other members of our team.

Systems coaching addresses this by utilising ‘relationship intelligence’. This is a step beyond emotional intelligence (awareness of yourself) and social intelligence (awareness of others).

In relationship intelligence, the focus shifts to the relationships within the group. However this needs to be skilfully facilitated, as individuals have to feel that they can share their thoughts and experiences without any fear of judgement or repercussions.

Facilitators of systems coaching tend to be qualified in Organisation and Relationship Systems Coaching (ORSC), which is accredited by the International Coaching Federation.

How does it work in practice?

Let’s look at an example using a senior team. A systems coaching practitioner may begin by discussing the team’s challenges with the team leader or project sponsor.

This would be followed by one-to-one meetings with each team member to establish trust and to gather their views on the challenges and issues facing the team.

When the team then meets altogether, there is often a consensus about the ‘core problems’ that have been raised.

Individuals are sometimes surprised to find that others agree with their assessment of the team’s problems. When this happens, it creates a willingness to work on the challenges that have been identified.

The systems coaching practitioner should set the tone for these group sessions, ensuring that they are respectful and without judgement. The team members can then discuss their strengths and goals as a team, and they’ll agree how they want to work together in the future.

Each member will discuss the collaborations, interactions and challenges that are involved in their role. This helps the whole team to better understand the pressures that everyone else is working under.

A new way of working

One of the aims of these sessions is to encourage the individuals to listen to each other and to open up about how they’re behaving in the team and what drives their behaviour. They can then discuss and understand the impact of each other’s actions.

Imagine the positive change that would be unleashed in your organisation if every team could maximise its potential and better achieve its goals

They’ll also discuss what constitutes a great team, how their behaviour will be different going forward and how they’ll act or respond when difficulties arise. This helps each team member to see the bigger picture and to become more aware of their impact on others.

The fact that everyone works together to co-design a solution to the team’s core problems helps create commitment to and ownership of the process.

In an ideal world, systems coaching would be undertaken when any team is first formed. If that happened, that team would be flying from the outset and it would be characterised by better understanding, better communication, better alignment, better decisions and high performance.

The sad reality in many organisations is that systems coaching will only be offered to underperforming or conflict-stricken teams, to help them improve. This does, of course, provide a substantial benefit.

But you can’t help feeling that HR teams are missing a trick here. Imagine the positive change that would be unleashed in your organisation if every team could maximise its potential and better achieve its goals.

About Lindsey Byrne

Lindsey Byrne

Lindsey Byrne is a Senior Consultant at learning specialist Hemsley Fraser and an ORSC-trained systems coach. She delivers the learning programmes, 'Systems Coaching', which helps a team to tackle its core challenges, and 'Leading in a constantly changeable environment' in which leaders practise thinking differently in response to volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) situations. She also has a specific interest in developing team relationships helping them to align around meaningful goals, uncovering and understanding the unspoken needs, views, emotions and expectations that sometimes block effective teamwork.

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