How to learn from the overlap of being a coach and being a therapist.
There are quite a few similarities between being a coach and being a therapist. The surroundings may differ — an office building instead of a therapist’s office — but the actual day-to-day work often falls into the same category, namely, helping people overcome obstacles so they can move ahead, feeling fitter, performing better.
Psychological therapists face the daunting task of guiding their clients to better ways of dealing with issues and to a better way of life in general. They use different tools to accomplish permanent changes in the lives of their clients and some of these tools might also be of help to coaches who work to effectuate lasting change in organizations.
While it may be easy to assume a business coach usually helps with practical work-related issues at hand, and not — like the therapist — with personal obstacles that do not necessarily have something to do with the workplace, in practice, the opposite is often true. More often than not, the work-related issues have their roots in the thinking and behavior of the individual employees, thus relating to their personal inner psychological life.
From my personal experience I can honestly say that the more I have been coaching teams, departments, and organizations, the more I’ve realized that it mostly comes down to coaching individuals in those teams, departments, and organizations. This realization runs counter to much of what you read online on social media and in articles in magazines, where there is a constant focus on team coaching.
There are many theories out in the field about coaching teams, from the Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni (as discussed in this article about reference groups), to the heavily quoted American psychological researcher Bruce Tuckman, who brought us his Stages of Group Development.
In 1965, Tuckman named four phases of group development: Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing. And in 1977, he added a fifth phase, called Adjourning. When a team is put together, it starts in the Forming phase, in which team members are cautiously finding their place in the team. When the team has been together for a while and the first tentative positions are taken, various opinions and characters will start to butt heads, causing the Storming phase. When the dust settles, and the team members come to mutually agreed-upon rules and regulations, the team enters the Norming phase. After that, the team members know each other fully well, and they know what to expect from one another. Having the guard rails — the norms — in place, they will enter the Performing phase. Great teams will thus reach the Valhalla of team levels, they will become a High-Performance team (sometimes also called a High-Performing team). The fifth phase that Tuckman added is the dismantling of the team, when each team member goes their own way.
Lately, there has been some criticism of Tuckman’s phases. In real life, we seldom see teams going through (all) phases, and certainly not in this order — often going back and forth between phases, skipping phases, or seemingly in a phase that was not mentioned in Tuckman’s model.
From personal experience I can say that when I’m hired as a coach to (also) coach teams, many teams I encounter are bouncing around between Storming, Norming, and Performing all the time.
Whatever stands from Lencioni’s and Tuckman’s theories, you can tell from these ideas about group dynamics that bringing teams to a higher performance level involves a lot of psychological work, next to any technical elevation that might be needed. In my earlier days, when I was asked to raise a team to higher levels, I sought refuge in theories and best practices around teams — like Lencioni and Tuckman. And I also tried fitting different personalities together, based on, for instance, personality types derived from DISC or Myer-Briggs (see my earlier article for the debunking of these popular personality assessments), or the nine team roles from Belbin.
English researcher and management consultant Raymond Meredith Belbin based his model on the success of teams on eight — later nine — different team roles he deducted from his observations and experience as a management consultant. His advice was to always make sure every one of the roles could be carried out by a member of a (management) team. This needn’t be a different person per role, one team member can also carry out several “Belbin roles”. The roles he described were the following:
1. The Plant — a clever, creative, independent thinker, but not so good on the communication front; the term is somewhat misleading, by the way — Belbin said he called this role plant because one of his clients insisted they plant one of these in each group.
2. The Resource Investigator — a networker with a focus outside the team, great to have around at the start, but tends to forget to follow things through.
3. The Co-ordinator — a stable and mature delegator who is able to see the big picture, but can be perceived as manipulative and tends to delegate too much.
4. The Shaper — a task-focused extravert who likes challenging the team in order to improve and, ultimately, win; can become aggressive and bad-humored.
5. The Monitor Evaluator — a logical analyst who is able to observe with little bias and comes to proper decisions, but who can be too critical, and less passionate than others.
6. The Teamworker — a good listener and diplomat, good at solving conflicts; their (positive) influence might go unnoticed and their impartiality might cause indecisiveness.
7. The Implementer — an efficient and self-disciplined planner, who may be considered closed-minded and inflexible.
8. The Completer Finisher — a perfectionist with a knack for accuracy who will make sure everything is in order; might worry excessively about minor details and is not a good delegator.
9. The Specialist — this late addition to the Belbin roles is a highly skilled and knowledgeable person who loves to share that knowledge, but who is only interested in their narrow slice of expertise.
To determine what role — or which roles — would fit a person best, there are tests you can take — these days also online. The Belbin Team Inventory test — or the Belbin Self-Perception Inventory test, or the Belbin Team Role Inventory test — assesses an individual’s behavior, based on both self-assessment and 360-degree feedback from colleagues.
Belbin himself has always maintained that the roles are not like the DISC or Myers-Briggs personality types and that the test is not a psychometric instrument. He invented his model in the first place to inform management consulting practices. The most important conclusion was that the best teams are teams that are balanced in the sense that all roles are represented in the team. As mentioned, not every role has to be fulfilled by a different team member. As a matter of fact, Belbin claimed that the optimum team size is four, which would entail that each team member takes on multiple roles.
As much as these team coaching tools are at times helpful, they stop short of addressing individual coaching, which — in my opinion — is what real change usually comes down to. Just like real change in society starts with personal, individual change, so does real change in organizations only happen thoroughly when individuals change their thinking and behavior. In the end, the collective of all individuals together actually forms the organization. The same can be said for a team. The individual team members together shape the team itself.
I’ll elaborate on individual coaching in future articles.
If you are interested in stories like these and more, you can buy Essential Psychology for Modern Organizations from Amazon and other bookstores: https://www.amazon.com/Essential-Psychology-Modern-Organizations-scientifically/dp/B08NP12D77/