Putting the value into teamwork: the role of Team Coaching

One of the first things I often ask when getting to know a team is: “What’s the point of this team?” followed by “So, how does it add value and who to?”

Almost without exception, this conversation leads the team to question its priorities and how they work together. It’s a shift from thinking about what we do and how we do it, to why we do it. If a team is “a collaborative endeavour designed to create value in pursuit of a shared purpose”, then value creation should be at the core of how they think about themselves and their collective identity.

Purpose can have many layers. At the lower layers, for the finance department of a business it might be about making sure a business gets paid. Or in a hospital accident and emergency department, about treating patients as swiftly and effectively as possible. If we ask the question, in service of what? The answer for the finance department might be, “To keep the business solvent” and for the A&E department, “To save and improve lives”. Further layers might be “To provide job security for our employees” and ‘To enable a healthier population”. And so on. The connection between what we do and the wider sense of purpose is one of the factors that gives people meaning in their work and encourages them to collaborate more closely.

Value is about how stakeholders perceive what the team does, when fulfilling its purpose, in terms of delivering benefits to them. So, while the A&E department might focus on efficiency, patients may also expect to be treated with compassion and dignity.

Team coaching encourages a team to consider purpose and value creation from multiple perspectives. Firstly, we define who the stakeholders are, as widely as we can. Sometimes this may require us to define the stakeholders of the stakeholders – for example, family members of A&E patients. What does each of these think the purpose of the team is? How do they want it to add value? Where do their perspectives an expectations align with each other or conflict with each other? Where do they align or conflict with those of the team?

What we have now is a window into a complex, adaptive system – one where linear, straight-line thinking typically won’t work. The better we understand the system, the more ways we can see to influence it to deliver greater value. So, the finance department found it could create greater value by sending out invoices with a short thank you note from the salesperson responsible for the account. The added value was created by deepening relationships between customer and sales, while reducing late payments.

The team members are also stakeholders. A high functioning, psychologically safe team adds value in several ways. Firstly, it meets people’s needs for identity. We all have competing internal drives to be accepted and to belong, while at the same time to be seen as an individual, with unique gifts and talents. Great teams allow us to feel positive about ourselves from both perspectives. Linking what we do with a higher purpose enriches our self-esteem and sense of personal efficacy. Being valued enhances our sense of individuality.

The psychological contract between employees and the organisation has three dimensions. First is value as a social exchange, built around worth. The team provides a safe place to earn and to learn. By growing within the team, we acquire skills and experience that increase our market value, should we seek a job elsewhere. Second is value as respect. We appreciate being recognised for the contribution we make. Third is value as shared beliefs – being with people, who have similar views about the importance of what we do and who have similar core values about, for example, how we should treat others. It’s about how well the values we believe most strongly in align with and are held by the team overall. In other words, it validates who we are.

It’s rare for teams to allocate time to discuss purpose and values in any depth. These three meanings of value provide a useful framework to start such conversations. Here are a few practical approaches a team coach can use to support a team in doing so.

Connecting values. Start by looking from outside in. Ask everyone to suggest values that they think stakeholders would expect or want the team to hold. Select three that seem important and write one on each side of a triangle. Now draw another triangle, upside down inside the first. Explore together the connecting values between the first three and write these on the sides of the smaller triangle. Keep doing this until you see recurring themes. These are the deeper values that will connect the team and its stakeholders.

What value will this create? This deceptively simple question can be asked whenever there is a major decision to be made. Each team member can take the perspective of a different stakeholder to review and contextualise the arguments.

Aligning individual and collective values. Start by asking everyone to identify five key values they hold. Sharing these with team colleagues, they then identify values, which they hold in common and are relevant at a team level.

Then the team select the top five shared values and consider the following questions:

  • When in the work of this team do we exhibit this value in practice? And when do we not?
  • How do we react when others (inside or outside the team) behave in a way contrary to this value?
  • What could we start doing to reinforce this value?
  • What could we stop dong to reinforce this value?
  • How can we make stakeholders aware of this value and how important it is to us?

The value-added of team coaching

At its simplest, team coaching creates value for teams by helping them create value for their stakeholders. It does so primarily by helping the team understand its internal and external systems – which allows them to make better decisions and achieve higher levels of purposeful collaboration. Hence, it enables the team to deliver performance (becoming better at doing what it does now and removing obstacles to collective endeavour), create capability (improving processes and relationships that permit enhanced future performance) and capacity (adapting the system to produce higher value with fewer resources).

Very often, a team coaching assignment will be encased in specific performance outcomes that can be measured with relative ease – for example, faster throughput of work or fewer customer complaints. These are generally performance issues. Yet the most durable value-added usually comes from capability and capacity outcomes. These might include, for example: improved strategic planning, better communications or clearer accountabilities. They may also include improvements in how fast the team learns and adapts to its environment (what’s happening within and around it systems). And gains collective self-confidence, psychological safety and the sense of shared self-efficacy.

Team coaching also adds value by role modelling teaming behaviours (especially when, as in recommended good practice, there are two team coaches working together), so that the team gradually learns to coach itself. The coaching task is complete when the team doesn’t need input from the coach to behave in this way!

©️David Clutterbuck 2024


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