Role Clarity: Understanding Your Team
Working as a team coach for many years, I recently noticed a pattern of experiences that brought into sharp relief a dilemma that as a team coach (and OD consultant) I frequently face. It’s also a question that my students on the Hult Ashridge Team Coaching program consistently raise: what is the boundary between team coaching and team facilitation? As a team coach, how much do I get involved in the process, design, and content of a session with a team?
In this article, with the help of a case study, I’ll reflect on this dilemma and highlight a number of internal and external criteria that as team coaches we should consider in order to find our own way of working and what we want or need to ‘lean into’ to be of service.
The case study
I was invited to work with a senior team in a global manufacturing organization that wanted to revisit its team vision and purpose to serve its clients and the organization better. The members also wanted to agree on some internal behaviors that would create a solid, trusting team. After a short inquiry with the latter, I worked closely with its leader to design a day that would meet their needs. During the actual day, I found myself increasingly invited into not only holding the process of getting the team to their vision and core purpose, but being seen as the owner of the process, and to some extent the outcome. What happened?
Lost in translation
The experience of this case made me pause and reflect yet again on the role of the team coach versus the team facilitator. There are some key aspects of the role of the team coach that set it aside from the facilitator role.
These could be summarised as:
- To help create the necessary conditions for the team’s growth
- To role model “real” conversation
- To enable learning from experience
- To notice and raise awareness of patterns
- To value and take seriously different perspectives
- To challenge assumptions
The ultimate goal is to help the team become a learning system, where it can gain new insights into itself from the interventions of the team coach and apply those themselves to future situations and challenges.
Gaining role clarity should be part of any contracting conversations the coach has with the commissioner of the work, the leader of the team, and the different team members (or the whole of the team together). But what to do when the facilitator and coach roles are both genuinely needed?
In the case outlined above, there was not enough clarity about my role. I hadn’t asked myself the question “What do I want to step into and what is needed here?” thoroughly enough.
Also, despite some contracting with the leader around my role in my work with the team, this hadn’t translated itself down to every team member.
During the initial inquiry process with all members, I could have been clearer in setting expectations and contracted with all members of the system about my role and the role of the leader on the day. A helpful addition would have been to discuss more explicitly how much of the facilitation of the day would be held by whom. As it transpired, I did most of it myself.
When contracting for work with a team, the coach needs to reflect on what level of understanding the team has about itself (e.g. sophisticated or very little insight into itself as a system) and what outcomes the commissioner, team leader, and team are looking for. These could be “hard” outcomes such as clarifications about the team’s task (vision, strategy, purpose). Or, they could be concrete individual and collective behavioral change, or on the other hand “softer” and “emergent” outcomes that are more exploratory (e.g why are we stuck as a team around a particular issue?). It could even be in the realm of creative development (e.g. we are operating well, but we want more of our creative selves—Sills, 2006).
The clarity in the contracting on what’s being sought would inform where the team coach places the emphasis in terms of interventions. Options would include conceptual inputs, where the team coach shares theoretical models and normative frameworks to aid the team’s understanding; coaching to help group members develop their skills and new behaviors, and lastly, process observations to raise awareness of the group’s behavioral patterns their consequences (Lee & Freedman, 1984).
All these could be used in both a team coaching and team facilitation frame. However, I’d propose that conceptual inputs might be used less in team coaching and the way they’re deployed might vary, e.g. conceptual inputs might be offered from a more tentative place: “Here is a framework that might help you make sense of what is happening…what do you think?”
To return to my case, the outcomes the team leader and team wanted, and that we’d contracted for, were certainly “hard” outcomes. These seemed to drive a need for more conceptual frameworks and, in addition, a request to design questions and processes that would lead the team nicely to define the team vision and core purpose.
In turn, this additional need diminished the space and opportunity to coach the team and make process observations as I, as the team coach, was drawn into holding a process while actually being part of it. Ownership for satisfactory outcomes was therefore slowly and subtly transferred to me as the work with the team progressed.
It led to a situation where dissatisfaction with the processes, and progress around outcomes became my responsibility as I was now fully facilitating the team’s process. With hindsight, I can pinpoint micro-moments that aided this transfer.
The big question: design—who owns what?
When I think of the word “design” in relation to team coaching and facilitation, I think about a process by which a coach or facilitator creates some form of structure, and thinks of a number of questions or activities to guide a team through a process of discovery, supporting them to get to where they would like to go. I think this area is very tricky and that design does play a role both in team coaching and facilitation as, after all, this is one way in which a coach or facilitator can lend expertise to a team.
The key question here is about ownership of the design and process. Facilitation would suggest shared ownership, while in team coaching, in its purest form, the coach would take no ownership for content-based outcomes, but may still design a process that enables the six key aspects of team coaching mentioned above. Of course, often the request can be ambiguous, as in my described case, which puts the coach in a difficult position.
Working with what you’ve got
Feeling stuck in a corner in my work with the team, I reflected on the importance of accepting what is and working with it. I noticed the team getting caught up in questioning the process that would allow them to arrive at a vision, rather than attending to the task of becoming aware of their own dynamics and differences of view.
As the whole team resisted an invitation to stop and reflect on what was happening, I called a break and spent time with the team leader, making sense of what we were experiencing, both in terms of our internal feelings and intuitions and in our more factual external observations.
But what does working with “what is” look and feel like? Often, as team coaches, we can find ourselves being frustrated with how an individual in a team, or indeed the whole team, is. We want them to be different: more sophisticated, insightful, reflective, curious, less adversarial, and attacking of each other or of us. We want them to be more like us, to make the work enjoyable and worthwhile.
The challenge with this is that we may be too different for them and therefore alienating. Maybe we have to be more like them in the moments when things don’t go how we expect them to go and we find ourselves pulled into a role we don’t wish to take up.
In my case, the team probably did need a facilitator, someone who designed and held a process for them. This is what they were familiar with. And there was also something about me holding onto my team coach-self and being different enough within the boundaries of what they could psychologically tolerate. What becomes important at that moment was for me to hold my ground and not be seduced and sidetracked into designing a new process “on the hoof” and allow the team some sense-making of their resistance to the process and work.
This was enabled by my work with the leader during the break. Our conversation gave him the courage to offer his feelings to the team, which encouraged others to voice what emotions had been evoked in them during the work and what they’d noticed. This allowed us to move past the impasse and continue with the work.
What’s the work you want to lean into?
When working with the dilemma of whether to work with a team as a team coach or as a facilitator, one needs to look inside oneself: what is your level of comfort with working in either space? Do you have a preference? What feels safer or easier to contract around? Where do your strengths lie?
I’d argue we all have valences that get activated when we enter into work with a team. These are often unconscious and might get particularly heightened when the pressure dial is turned up. Bion (1961) argues that valences are our propensity to occupy a similar role repeatedly in groups, depending on our early experiences and therefore social identities. The group level means that depending on our valency we might be (unconsciously) chosen by the group to take on certain roles on behalf of the group such as to hold the anger or anxiety that exists in the group. My experience is that often teams who are less conscious of their feelings and dynamics tend to recruit facilitators (or team coaches they wish to take on the facilitator role) to deal with the team’s hidden issues and emotions. They’re often not conscious of these issues and emotions, but on some level know that work needs to be done.
Choosing a “hard” outcome to focus on, feels safe and appropriate for them, however the desire for some bigger, often relational change is not addressed unless an experienced team coach or facilitator can spot the need.
We as team coaches may also have personal attributes that might attract us to prefer working in one way more than another. For example, I’m pragmatic and organized with a desire to “keep things moving”, so it wasn’t surprising that I got pulled into a facilitator role as described in my case. On the other hand, my training as a systemic psychotherapist draws me to work where relational issues are at stake.
I enjoy supporting teams through conflict, enabling them to build trust and better their working relationships. It fulfills me as a team coach and as a person as it speaks to my core purpose in life. This means that sometimes the desire to enable teams to go deeper is my agenda, rather than theirs.
Making decisions on and noticing which role we are being drawn into—team coach or facilitator—is crucial in the field of team coaching. I’m proposing that there are both internal and external factors that can aid the process of noticing what’s happening and help us make decisions about what we want to step into.
First, any team coach should pay attention to creating role clarity as they are embarking on a piece of work and contracting thoroughly around the role with all members of the system. After all, they become part of the system as they enter the workplace. Albeit temporarily. Second, a team coach should ask herself what is needed here and what am I prepared to step into in order to work with what is.
Last, I think the question of what we want to lean into is key. What kind of work do we want to attract? This would include thinking about saying “no” to work that we don’t want to do. Regular independent supervision is key in attending to these internal and external factors, while co-working with a team coaching colleague can also be very helpful.