Coaching The Team as a System

By Phillip Sandahl

Team as a System

A team is a living system—more than a collection of individual parts. A team as a system has rules for belonging and behavior. Those rules are not written down in the employee handbook.

New team members learn the rules by observing and by touching the hot wire or being rewarded with a pat on the back.

A team has an identity and a personality. A team holds certain beliefs and expresses certain values.

A team is a living, dynamic organism with a past, a current state, and an anticipated future. Teams have a collective vision, perspectives, blind spots, expectations, and moods.

The spirit of a team influences the individuals and plays a significant role in how well the team works together and it’s outcomes.

The team is not aware of its own “team-ness”. Team members are more aware of the differences in the individuals on the team and not very aware of “who we are as a team.”

What is most visible are the parts and the relationships. What is less visible is the system that is the team.

And yet it is at this subsurface level where there is the most opportunity for change & learning.

The better we understand this nature of teams the more prepared we will be to coach the team.

Be a Team Anthropologist

Team as a System

A masterful team coach is like a cultural team anthropologist with curiosity and no judgment. Sifting through the artifacts of team life, looking to understand the culture of the team.

What is valued here? What are the taboos? What happens with this team when it is under attack by real or imagined forces?

Team coaches learn how the team interacts, who the “leader” is, and what they do to create a community within the team as a system.

Becoming competent at seeing the team as a system at work takes experience. It’s easy to lock on to the individual players that have the most energy and forward momentum.

We don’t ignore that invitation but we look another layer lower for more insight. Here’s a way to practice that view.

As you watch the team interact in conversation, pay attention to how the team is speaking to one another, rather than what they are saying.

Listen for the voice of the team and ask yourself, “What is that voice trying to tell me? What does the team want me to know?”

It may be telling you, “Finally. A comfortable conversation; one we’ve had many times.” Or, “Oh my. That’s a topic we don’t dare talk about.” Or, “This is getting awkward; usually someone will make a joke and break the tension. Then we change topics.”

The team is not aware of its own team dynamics. That’s the water they swim in every day, so no wonder they don’t notice. That’s not where individual team members have their attention.

They have their attention on their own point of view on the topic at hand. They have their attention on presenting and persuading others to that position. They are not tuned into what is happening between the lines of the conversation.

Much of the job of the team coach involves pointing the team’s attention to these undercurrents. Over time the team becomes more aware of how they interact with one another.

By making the invisible, visible, the coach helps the team see itself in new, brighter light. With that awareness, teams are able to make better choices.

Human communities are adaptive systems that change by receiving and then incorporating feedback.

They do so reluctantly because, in the system’s eyes, change is risky, even dangerous to the life of the system.

Homeostasis is a powerful adhesive holding the team together. Everyone knows the rules of survival. Even if those rules result in painful, or dysfunctional patterns, they are the rules of survival on this team.

As team coaches, we are change agents. It’s our job to support the team through change so the team will perform more effectively. Sometimes we are not very popular.

Team Beliefs Matter

Part of the system experience comes through what teams believe is possible and what is not possible. Those beliefs, deeply held, impact choices the team is accustomed to making.

That’s true whether the belief empowers and supports the team, or whether it is a belief that undermines and limits the team.

For example, what a team believes about what is possible, actually affects the results achieved. On high performing teams there is a sense that “even on the darkest days, we can do it!” And so they do, more often than not.

The opposite is also true. Some teams are hobbled by limiting beliefs. No one on the team is saying so out loud, but there is a sense within the team that there are barriers that must be accepted.

It’s like a voice whispering in the background, “Yeah but this will never work.” Those underlying beliefs provide a constant justification for the way the team operates.

Team beliefs of this powerless kind have a structure that sounds something like this: “We don’t have …[fill in the blank]” “Ever since [name the event or experience] it’s been impossible to [fill in the blank].”

In the same way that individuals continue to create more of what they believe is true, teams look for evidence to confirm their team view and they disregard evidence that doesn’t fit that model.

Every individual, every team has a personal cosmology that explains how the world works. Identifying those beliefs gives teams the light of day to evaluate how the team chooses to plan and act.

Having discovered the belief or patterned response, the next coaching question is a simple one. “How is that working for you? Are you getting the results you want?”

Notice What The Team Values

What does the team as a system value?

Teams unite around values just as they do around beliefs. The actions team members take are influenced by team values.

When teams value punctuality and accountability. Those teams are on time and they follow through. If there are team members who don’t abide by the unspoken team values, there will be consequences.

Team values are an expression of the team’s identity. “Who we are” as a team shows up in the values, and so does “Who we are not”.

If you watch how a team chooses, you will hear something like, “That’s how we do things around here…” or “This is how we treat each other…”

Looking underneath you will begin to see, “Oh, this is value for this team.” Some values are not especially helpful.

A team value of “Smooth Sailing” or “Don’t Rock the Boat” could keep the peace but not allow the open conversation the team needs.

There are many ways to help teams clarify those unique team values. One way is to invite the team to recall a particularly successful accomplishment.

It might be a project completed or a decision made under challenging circumstances.

Then have the team look for the values that showed up that supported the team. The uncompromising stand the team took to achieve that result. Woven into the experience will be examples of team values.

Another option is to look at the opposite: a team situation that the team would really rather forget. The way the team responded will likely give examples of where their values went missing.

The outcome from that experience won’t change. But being true to their own values will reinforce the team when the next challenge comes along.

Making the distinction between beliefs and values. Team values are integral to the system’s way of operating. A team belief is conditional; it’s part of a mindset or mental model.

They both influence behavior and it’s in team behavior where they become visible. A belief would focus more externally on the circumstance and how the team chooses to respond; a value would be an internal system code of behavior.

The System Lives In A Time Continuum

team as a system has a history

As a living system, the team has a past—or at least a formation point in time—also a present, and an expected future. Because it is a human system, those time dimensions have influence.

Teams have a history; they have a journey they have been on. Over the course of that lifetime, they had experiences that shaped team attitudes and beliefs.

A grand victory as a team in the past can boost the confidence in the team today. That grand victory becomes part of the team’s identity, and an important part of the team’s narrative.

It’s a story they tell new team members. New team members learn about those victories and take on the mantle passed down by those who came before.

The past can also harbor team ghosts that affect the team. The scandal surrounding a former manager or team member can haunt the current team without even knowing that impact. It’s like a shadow falling on the team.

It can be the other way around too. A particular team member or leader can haunt the team years after leaving. The team laments, “If only Georgina or Karl were still here.”

Historical events within the organization can also impact the team negatively. Turn the clock back to 2009; remember the mood within the organization.

You didn’t have to be a team in financial services to feel the gloom and helplessness. This was a system experience on a global scale, influencing every team in every organization.

Teams have a present “state” that the system, the team, wants to protect and preserve. The underlying beliefs are the truth: this is the way the world works around here.

The unspoken message is, adjust or adapt because “this is reality”. Teams don’t often question those beliefs because to do so would be to question the natural order.

These beliefs about the team and the team’s circumstances help shape the team’s perspective. Whether that perspective is optimistic, or pessimistic.

Whether the team feels empowered, or powerless. “Who we are,” reflects the identity of the team, and has a tremendous influence on the morale of the team.

This cultural mindset influences how the team deals with success and failure, and how the team responds to change and uncertainty.

Teams also have a sense of the future ahead of them. Teams have expectations and operate with those expectations.

You can feel it in the attitude of the team; it’s in the air, in the posture, in the tone of the informal conversation.

For Coaches: A New Mindset

For some team coaches, seeing the team as a system may be a new way of looking at the group. Metaphorically it’s like the wind; we can’t see the wind but we can see the effect of the wind in the movement of the leaves in the trees.

Seeing the team as a system may require shifting from attention on people or individual relationships to attention on the whole—recognizing that the essence of the team is in the spaces between the people.

It is an entity without a form that is more than the parts. There is a “voice of the team” speaking, separate from the individuals.

For the team coach, this might be a practice of seeing with new eyes and listening with new ears. Seeing the system is a first step in really understanding our role as team coaches.

When we can see the team as a system we create a new relationship which is more than an aggregate of many individual relationships.

As team coaches, this system, the team, is our coachee. We are there to support this team through a growth and development process.

To be a coach for a team starts with an understanding and appreciation for this systemic entity and our relationship to it.

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