COACHING TEAMS II
Coaching Team Interface Patterns and Strategies

To Consult another article on COACHING TEAMS on this website

This text presents a few concepts concerning standard interface patterns within teams and how a team coach can work with these to accompany a team's development and help it become more performing. A quick perception of how repetitious patterns occur in teams and simple strategies to provoke change are among key team coach competencies.  These team coaching skills rest on a systemic perception of teams as coherent systems and can also quite naturally be used when coaching organizations.

Relating or interfacing?

Understanding team processes in general and learning to rapidly perceive specific team internal interfacing patterns is extremely useful in team coaching for a number of reasons. The first reason is obviously that a team’s internal communication and interfacing patterns are at the origin of that team’s success or shortcomings.

The obvious sport, or basketball metaphor for interfacing competency concerns all the team members' capacity to effectively pass each other the ball in order to successfully score.  Beyond each individual team member's personal competencies as a basketball player, this interfacing capacity between team members will very directly influence team results and effectiveness.

  • Note: Passing the ball effectively in a basket team is interfacing.  This is not to be confused with relating. Interfacing properly between members of a team indicates that the team is professional and focused on achieving its goal. Having good relationships within a team are a totally different issue.

It is important to note that having good relationships between team members is not a pre-requisite for effective interfacing.  Very often, as a matter of fact, good relationships are a consequence of good results, and these are a consequence of excellent interfacing.  When a team is a winning system, relationships are always good. When, however, a team is suffering a loosing streak, relationships start to become a negative issue. Negative relationships in a team need to be considered a consequence of non-success rather than a cause for poor performance.

This frame of reference is very important to stress in order to understand the fundamental difference between a coaching approach and that of more usual relationship-focused team-building events. Team building is habitually first focused on developing good spirits, motivation and excellent relationships to then achieve performance results. Team coaching is first focused on getting excellent professional results, knowing that this is the best way to ultimately develop respect between team members. This respect will in turn permit the development of excellent relationships.

Team interfacing with the coach

Most habitually, a given team will reproduce the same communication modes and patterns with its coach that it uses to interact with its leader. This natural propensity to reproduce interface patterns with a team coach gives the team coach numerous opportunities to have a first-hand experience of how the team and its leader interface. The coach is temporarily “transferred” by the team into a leader-like position and the team reproduces with the coach its habitual internal communication patterns.  This will include all types of interactions such as resistance behavior, negotiation, seduction, rebellion, personal and collective manipulative strategies, recognition expectations, etc.

Examples: 

  • When a team coach becomes the object of seductive strategies, one can assume the leader is habitually subject to the same type of interactions.
  • If the team tends to keep the coach at a distance, assume the team leader is subject to the same type of cold shoulder.
  • If a team is open and welcoming with the coach, bet that this the way it usually interfaces with newcomers and with its environment.
  • If coach comments or suggestions are taken as non-negotiable directives, assume the leader is positioned in the same way by the team.
  • If the team quickly responds and learns from coach inputs, this learning reactivity can be considered one of its interactive skills.
  • If a given team interprets all their coach's perceptions as criticism, one can conclude that all that team leader's comments are interpreted as such.
  • Etc.

A team coach is also expected by any specific team to respond in the same fashion as that team’s leader.

Examples:

  • If a given team expects their coach to come out and socialize or party after work, assume that the leader is expected to display the same type of friendly extra-curricular behavior. 
  • If another team expects their coach to spell out all the details of a job at hand before it can begin working on a project, assume that the team leader must also generally deliver a lot of energy to get the team started on any team project.
  • When team members individually attempt to negotiate special favors or exceptions with the team coach, the latter can assume that the same behind the scenes strategies are implemented with the team leader.

Individual and collective transference patterns are therefore excellent diagnostic tools that reveal habitual interactions between the team and its leader. The specific way a coach is invited to interface can be considered as an indicator of the team’s usual or prefered interface mode with its boss.

Transference patterns also provide opportunities for a coach to react with team members in an unexpected way, unlike the leader, and thereby open the door to new behavior patterns. This permits the introduction and modeling of a host of evolution strategies.

Examples:

  • If a team reacts in a joking mode to divert an embarrassing situation expecting the coach to accept the strategy and let go of the matter, the latter can keep a straight face and play stupid, then return to the subject at hand.
  • When inappropriately asked for an obvious “permission” in a very controlled environment, (such as: “Can I give my opinion?) the coach can jokingly refuse it to reveal that one can act without soliciting unnecessary or superfluous protection.
  • If coach inputs and questions are collectively and openly discussed, that reactivity is an obious indicator of team energy circularity.
  • If the coach is regularly asked superfluous explanations, he or she can ask someone else for to respond, and then validate what follows as a possible answer.

Specific transference patterns can occasionally be explained to a team by the coach to develop internal awareness of communication patterns.

  • Example: “I am noticing that there is a slacking in the time management of your meetings. What surprises me is that you seem to expect me to do something about it or comment it. That would mean that in general, you consider that your deadline commitments are respected only if you get sufficient and regular pressure from your leader. Could that be a valid observation?”

The coach will then avoid looking at whoever answers, but will direct attention to other people in the team, and withdraw from the probable discussion, thereby provoking circularity in the team dialogue.

Transversal processes between team members or team sub-groups will also be displayed, sometimes with the expectation of a specific reaction from the coach or the team leader. In this case, the team may be revealing a usual internal triangular strategy.

  • Example: On a regular basis, no matter the subject at hand, the team coach observes a display of intense disagreement between two team “factions”, each of which seems to be led by a more vocal team member. This regular process slows down the group’s effectiveness and collective focus on the work at hand. It may display an almost structural scission in the team probably played out by two old timers each competing for team control or to be best positioned as the leader’s successor.

This situation could indicate that a repetitious team process attempts to oblige the leader to choose sides in a sterile showdown between the factions. The coach can surprise the team by explaining to the faction leaders that they seem to always agree to disagree just to make their leader’s life more difficult, and giving then futile examples of the process. The coach can propose that any team member could display a particular (amusing) signal whenever they observe the repetitious disruptive process takes place.

These examples are presented to gradually reveal the complexity of unconscious team processes that are unknowingly reinforced by the team leader. These “systemic” processes are repetitious and often account for team ineffectiveness. A good knowledge of standard triangular team strategies is obviously necessary for the coach to implement appropriate coaching questioning or feedback to the team.

The Family Metaphor

A simple comprehensive way for a coach to understand some unconscious team interfacing patterns kin to the above transference processes is to enlarge his or her vision and think in terms of family-situation metaphors.  Indeed, team interfacing patterns often resemble family situations and politics.  For example, the above situation between rival factions testing the limits of their leader’s patience may remind one of sibling rivalry competing for parental attention. 

  • Example: An executive team strongly and emotionally rejected a newly appointed boss, openly regretting the departure of the founder and president that had led the company for its first twenty years.  It so happened the new president was competent, charismatic and had a history of success.  There seemed to be no objective reasons for his rejection. 

Imagine now an obvious family metaphor: a household is facing the departure of the family father and is proposed a stepfather as replacement.  The newcomer is never welcome.  No matter the incompetence of the departing founder, he or she will be glorified and regretted.  No matter the competence of the newcomer, she or he will be criticized, and rejected.  This could be perceived as quite a normal reaction if one considers the family metaphor.

It may consequently sometimes be useful to take into account standard functional and disfunctional patterns in family situations and transitions when coaching teams.  The metaphorical image will give the coach (and the team if the image is shared) a better understanding of the emotional weight of some apparently superficial decisions and changes in the corporate world.  Growth pains, separation issues, dealing with success, moving to a new location and closing down are almost everyday occurrences in the working world.  Just as for families, these often unconsciously create individual and team emotional stress, and coresponding team member reactions.  Likewise, teams develop healthy and effective problem-solving and action-oriented intefacing patterns which could be considered just as unconscious.  These patterns can be rendered more conscious by a few coach questions and observations, and thereby become even more effective for the team.

A number of family game models are also useful to keep in mind when coaching teams. Variations of family politics, games, themes, scripts and dramas often seem to be enacted in professional settings.  In more obvious situations, coaches are dealing with family-run businesses that have transplanted the founding family private politics into the professional playground.  In more “neutral” multinational organizations, however, very similar archaic collective processes are often enacted.  The teams caught up in these processes could well use some solution-oriented team coaching to get their sights back onto business goals.  When working with such frames of references, it is useful for a team coach to remember that all apparently negative games or scripts always have their corresponding positive and useful side which could well be a very useful team skill.

It is often useful to keep in mind other metaphors to understand and sometimes to  share perceptions of team structure and processes : A country, a biological cell or a larger biological organism can often provide relevant images to understand what is going on in a team and may often provide avenues to optional solutions.

To support and understand teamwork, a coach can study different applications of systems theory, for instance in family therapy, holistic medicine, nuclear biology, quantum mechanics theory, macroeconomics or ecology.  All these fields where systems theory is commonly used can give good insights to understand the interactive and dynamic complexity of teams and larger organizations.

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To read an article on games which illustrate some negative interface patters

Co-Responsibility Positioning

A team coach should always remember that team member responsibility is equally shared between all team members for all occurrences within the team system.  This equilibrium of responsibility between all team members, leader included, is of the utmost importance to avoid unknowingly take an active supporting role within team manipulation games

  • Example: It is important to remember that all systems, teams and families may develop potential scapegoat processes when the pressure is up and stress increases.  A team will try to pull a coach into validating such a scapegoat process by designating one of their members as clearly responsible for the team's shortcomings or failures. 

A team, some of its members, the leader, and even the coach may be tempted to consider that one member is more responsible than the others for team shortcomings, and may want to convince their environment of that point of view.  Consequently, a team coach’s fundamental role is to almost systematically reveal shared responsibilities in all team processes and results.

  • Example: A team having difficulties managing an important transition was convincingly demonstrating that their leader was too controlling.  The latter seemed indeed to be involved in all the operational details, implementing a totally hands-on management style.  The leader’s behavior was, according to the team members, the obvious reason for their poor ownership. 

The coach was aware however, that a during a few coaching situations that she had initiated directly with the team members, the delegated work had not been so successful.  The coach said she then had the feeling that if she really wanted something done by the team, she either had to put a lot of energy, or give up her ambition.  She shared her perception, and asked the team leader if he ever felt the same way about his team.

The coach then revealed the self-fulfilling circular logic enacted in the team.  The team was passive until the leader put pressure.  And the leader was directive because the team was passive.  She explained that each side seemed to use the other as an excuse to reinforce their unsuccessful frame of reference.  She asked the team and leader if they wanted to get out of it, and then what they could do to achieve that end.

The above example concerns a bi-polar team interaction between two team entities: the leader on the one hand and the rest of the team members considered as a whole., on the other.  Reality in teams is often much more complex.  It is more probable that team members have very different individual perceptions of the internal dynamics of the team and that each has very different expectations from the leader.  A layout of a more complex interactive situation may reveal that there are some more vocal team members that express a generalized point of view that doesn’t precisely fit any one team member’s real perception or needs.

This brings us to a more complex perception of team interactions that may be much closer to reality.  This type of work demonstrates that effective team coaching focuses more on the complex patterns of team interfaces rather than on the content presented by the team members and leaders.  Focusing on interface patterns leads to coaching what happens between team members.  Helping teams change their interfacing patterns for more performing ones focused on achieving team goals will help them develop effectiveness. Coaching work on interaction patterns also automatically involves all the team members and raises the question of each team member’s individual responsibility in the system or team ensemble.

Taken to an extreme, one can consider that team interface patters are really what make up the specific characteristics of a team.  They correspond to what could be called the team fingerprint or dynamic DNA.  A team may structurally look like another, for instance if you compare two restaurants in a cookie-cutter type of restaurant chain, but the interface patterns in each team will always be very different from team to team or totally specific to each team.

Likewise, if there are no interfaces, there is no team.  This can be compared to a play presented on Broadway.  Should one of the actors leave or be replaced, the public can rest assured that the show will go on, with the same intended interpretation.  In some teams, it seems the same interfacing processes have been enacted for a very long time, through numerous restructuring, remodeling and re-engineering programs.  It’s just the people that have left or changed positions, but the same show keeps going go on with a very specific interpretation or pattern of team interaction. 

No matter the subject of meetings, team internal interface patterns are often endlessly repeated shows with the same roles delivering the same games to achieve the same results.  Team coaching consists in helping to change the show rather than in trying to replace actors or attempting to modify individual interpretations of roles, while keeping the same script.

When a coach chooses to focus on any specific interfacing in a team, it will often become obvious that the interaction fits into a pattern that involves all the team members.  This pattern is not of the sole responsibility of one particular team member but it concerns the whole team, and is closely linked to the team’s culture and history. 

Team coaching is focused on understanding team interface patterns and helping teams modify them where necessary, to better achieve their goals.  This, of course is definitely a shift of coaching focus, quite different from individual coaching, focused on helping individuals evaluate themselves and on facilitating their personal and professional development.