Team coaching is hands off

Coaching is essentially to help someone develop. A coaching relationship is temporary and the coachee should become more independent. These two key words, ‘development’ and ‘independent’, equally apply to team coaching. Like with ‘coaching’, there are many substitutes for team coaching. It’s hard to define exactly what it is. Some discussion about this may be useful, so I’d like to offer my input.

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The essence of team coaching

A team coach helps the team develop their skills, to improve performance, further independence and create a healthy working environment. These three characteristics are essential and are interrelated.

Anyone can make a coaching contribution to the team, including the team members. If we are talking specifically about the role of team coach, I think of someone who:

  • Has no personal interest in what the team decides or does (yet is interested)
  • Keeps a certain distance (without being indifferent)
  • Works mainly non-directive (does not make decisions)

With this attitude he won’t take over from the team, insists on practically nothing and is prone to avoid interference. The more the team is supported to acquire their own insights, make choices and set their own targets, the more likely that development will take root and insights deepen. An external team coach probably has the best credentials for this. Currently, in the health care industry, a lot of experience is gained with this independent, outsider role of the team coach (the coach still being a member of the organization). In addition, there are numerous external consultants who coach teams, though they probably would only call themselves ‘team coach’ since a couple of years.

Can a team leader be team coach?

Any team leader can work as a team coach. But given due responsibilities, chances are she easily compromises her objectiveness, is deeply involved and directive. Is that bad? The interests of a leader and a coach can still be aligned? Certainly, but at that point the coaching will invariantly be also about the coach, not just about the coachee. By definition her attention will be selective and her advice biased. Strong directions will generally not create team independence. It is no coincidence that many team leaders complain about their teams “never doing anything without being told so.”

A leader who is able to be hands off may very well be adding coaching value to the team. It requires self-awareness and self-control though. Offering the right answer is tempting: it leads to results faster and is more self-rewarding than helping the team finding its own solutions.

All this applies to a greater or lesser extent to project managers, change managers, trainers, team builders, facilitators, leaders, conductors, mentors and advisors in general. Someone recently asked if a soccer coach is actually a team coach. According to my definition, he is not. He’s actually a team leader, who undoubtedly uses all kinds of coaching techniques and gives loads of moral support. But he makes decisions, has a personal interest and is involved. A great team leader! Not actively participating in the game makes no difference, because many team leaders do exactly that.

A team coach is not a softy

Now we understand that a soccer coach is not a team coach, and interference not team coaching, the impression may arise that a good team coach is a somewhat aloof, non-directive bystander who only poses open questions and occasionally throws in an encouraging compliment. One may wonder whether a team coach can:

  • Confront? Certainly. Excite, seduce, challenge, it’s all possible when it fosters learning. Administered frugally, and well-timed.
  • Instruct? If the team asks for it. It’s fun and educational to demonstrate something, but only if the end goal is independence.
  • Advice? Yes, but preferably not ‘unsolicited’, because that is the mother of interference.
  • Judge? Avoid judging as long as you can. However, stay tuned to your own moral compass. If the team is trespassing or disrespectful, you can indicate that.
  • Assess? Yes. Again, if the team or the individual is requesting it. Even then, better would be to help the team making their own judgments. To judge other people is typically the domain of a supervisor, not a coach.
  • Decide? For yourself yes, never for the team.
  • Intervene? I won’t say you should turn a blind eye to the team headed for disaster. But be aware that any ‘intervention’ could make the team uncertain. Better be the safety net when disaster (almost) occurs.

Want to know more about team coaching? In this article we describe six levels on the intervention ladder of the team coach. Would you dare to really provoke a team?

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