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How HR Directors can use team coaching to create resilient organisations for the future

Twose S, Fontannaz S and Barbour P J - ICF Professional Coaches

As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the globe, organisations demonstrated a level of resilience, probably not witnessed since the second world war.  For a large part of the global workforce, working from home became the norm. New technologies were adopted at an unparalleled pace. To survive, once sacred business models changed at an unprecedented speed.

If organisational resilience is “the ability of an organization to anticipate, prepare for, respond and adapt to incremental change and sudden disruptions in order to survive and prosper” (Denver, 2017), it is clear the resilience witnessed in recent times, has been of the responsive and adaptive variety. However, organisational resilience is about much more. It is also about how we embrace, prepare, grow, and prosper in an unknown future.

As team coaches, we commend how leaders, leadership teams, and teams have responded and adapted so brilliantly.  Despite these successes, as we emerge from the spectre of the pandemic, something quite different is required. Teams will play a critical role in shaping the future of organisations, and team coaches are well-positioned to help them develop the mindsets and ways of working for success.

How is team coaching distinctive?
Teams have never been more critical. Despite their importance, all is not well in the world of teams. A study of 120 senior leadership teams revealed only 21 per cent could be described as outstanding (Wageman et al, 2008). Another study found only 13 per cent of teams operating at the highest level (Price and Toye, 2017). Some of the challenges we have experienced during COVID-19, include teams feeling fractured and disconnected, difficulty integrating new team members, personal isolation, amplification of silos between teams, to name just a few.  However, it has not been an entirely negative experience.  We have also witnessed teams becoming more aware of the importance of caring, connecting, being kinder and supporting one another.  As we look to the future of a more hybrid workplace, it is our view that team coaching has much to offer in helping teams retain the positive practices learned through the pandemic, while developing the mindsets and behaviours needed for whatever the future demands.

Widdowson and Barbour (2021) have suggested that  “team coaching helps teams work together, with others and within their wider environment, to create lasting change by developing safe and trusting relationships, better ways of working and new thinking, so that they maximise their collective potential, purpose and performance goals” (p. 8). Team coaching is about “partnering in a co-creative and reflective process” (ICF, 2020) compared to the often more time-limited and focus team building.  Team coaching is about empowering a team to manage their own dialogue compared to team facilitation, which takes a more active role in managing team dialogue while decision making (Clutterbuck, 2007).  Team coaching is about how a team engages its stakeholders, both human and non-human, a concept described by Hawkins (2017) as Eco-Systemic Team coaching.

While team coaching is closely related to other team development modalities, team coaching is a distinct discipline that requires experienced coaching professionals to carry out what, in our experience, is both demanding and rewarding work.   However, importantly for HR directors and leaders, the very principles underpinning team coaching have much to offer organisations.

How can team coaching help HR Directors create resilient organisations for the future?
Fundamentally team coaching helps create safe spaces for teams to explore what often remains unsaid. Many principles underpin how team coaching helps teams improve effectiveness, including team learning, team creativity and team wellbeing, to name just a few. However, this article will highlight three principles we consider particularly important for where teams find themselves today. These include: (1) the power of team purpose/meaning; (2) the life-affirming nature of team connectedness/belonging; and (3) the generation of team agency.

The power of team purpose/meaning
Research has discovered that when an individual’s work has purpose, meaning, and significance, we produce better work (Dutton et al, 2000; McGregor and Doshi, 2015).  The same is true for organisations (Collins and Porras, 2005) and teams (Katzenbach and Smith, 1993).  Recent events have proved beyond any doubt the power of purpose.  As COVID-19 took hold, hospitals with the purpose of ‘saving lives’ reorganised in record time.  Businesses with the purpose of ‘surviving’ transformed in record time.

This power of purpose is also true for teams.  Team coaches help and support teams as they answer the often ignored questions of why they exist, the reason their work matters and the difference they can make to their stakeholders. A compelling team purpose can help unite differing opinions, provide a basis for agreeing team performance goals, and ultimately help inspire and direct everyday team behaviours.

Team coaches enable teams to develop their team purpose by:

  • Helping the team gain clarity on the distinctiveness and importance of team purpose
  • Creating and holding a safe space for teams to openly discuss why they exist as a team
  • Supporting the team as they develop team performance goals that underpin the team purpose

Critical questions for HR Directors to consider:

  • To what extent do teams in your organisation have a clearly defined purpose aligned to that of the organisation?
  • What do you see as the consequences of a lack of purpose for team cohesion, performance and motivation?
  • What difference would a greater connection to purpose make, as we move to hybrid working?

The life-affirming nature of team connectedness/belonging
Social belonging is a fundamental human need, hardwired into our DNA. According to Rock (2008), a lack of relatedness can act as a social threat, leaving us feeling isolated and lonely. Indeed research has demonstrated that social exclusion uses some of the same neural pathways as physical pain (Eisenberger et al, 2003).  Put plainly, how connected we are to each other and how much we feel a sense of belonging matters.  Research has even demonstrated a link between high levels of peer social support and lower mortality rates (Shirom et al, 2011).  Pre pandemic, it was clear that much work is needed, to create more profound connection and belonging in the workplace, with one report finding that 40% of people say they feel isolated at work (Carr et al, 2019). Another study reported that 51% of employees described themselves as not engaged and ‘psychologically unattached’ (Gallup, 2017).

Team coaches can play a central role in helping teams connect and develop a sense of belonging.   A fundamental way of doing this is by creating a psychologically safe space, where team members can be their authentic selves, take risks and feel supported.  Edmondson and Lei (2014) have highlighted that when teams feel psychologically safe, they perform better, especially during uncertainty, learn more effectively through being able to take risks and feel safer saying what often remains unsaid.  All of these factors contribute to an environment where team members feel included, safe and supported.

Team coaches can enable teams to deepen connection & belonging by:

  • Creating a safe space for team members to share their authentic selves; who they are, what drives and motivates them
  • Sharing what they’ve missed, what they’re still holding and what they want to let go of as we emerge from the lockdown
  • Establishing new contracts for working in a hybrid setting that ensures inclusivity and minimises biases.

Critical questions for HR Directors to consider:

  • How well do leadership teams create the space for reflection and deeper connection?
  • What have leadership teams learnt during the pandemic, that can be integrated into hybrid working to optimise inclusivity?
  • What would be the risk of teams failing to adopt inclusive practices as we move to hybrid working?

The generation of team agency
Post lockdown leadership teams need to believe they can create change and drive organisational health and resilience. This requires the collective energy and optimism that they can create a positive future and the foresight to imagine that future. Internally teams need to be able to draw on the diversity of thinking that ignites creativity and have the skills to debate and manage constructive conflict.

Team coaching offers the space for teams to reconnect to their belief in their collective agency. By shifting from reacting to events to being proactive, teams can create a positive future, influence stakeholder agendas and drive change.

Team coaches enable teams to access their collective agency by:

  • Developing foresight and exploring ways to engage in test and learn approaches
  • Dealing with setbacks in a way that creates new ways forward
  • Growing awareness of how they learn together and how to apply that learning to future ways of working

Critical questions for HR Directors to consider:

  • How are your leadership teams becoming learning teams?
  • How engaged are your leadership teams in driving organisational change?
  • How are your leadership teams shifting their thinking from internal/present-focused to external/future-focused and taking a leadership role in shaping the future?

In conclusion, something different is essential if we are to face our future challenges more effectively. By partnering in a learning journey, team coaches can support teams to develop the mindsets and ways of working that will help them optimise performance, adapt and innovate and shape the future of their organisations.

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