Coaching for Team Performance

Improving Productivity by Improving Relationships

Building great teamwork.

© iStockphoto

Teams are the force that drives most organizations.

Whether it's a functional team, a team of managers, or a project team, people get most done when they work together effectively. So when members of a team don't work well together, performance and productivity can suffer. That's not good for anyone.

Have you seen hostility, conflicting goals, and unclear expectations within your teams? These are symptoms of an unhealthy team. To avoid these harmful effects, you need be proactive about improving team performance. And even when a team is meeting its objectives, there's often room for improvement.

So how can you help your team improve? With good team coaching (as distinct from individual coaching) you can take your team to the next level. It's a valuable activity, and it's an essential management and leadership tool.

Team Coaching

Team coaching helps people understand how to work better with others. It's an effective method for showing teams how to reduce conflict and improve their working relationships. The team can then focus on its real work, and achieve its objectives.

To coach your team, focus on interpersonal skills and interactions instead of on individual development (as you tend to do with individually-focused coaching). The way people act with their teammates, and the way they communicate with one another – these are important drivers of effective team performance. After all, you can put a lot of high-performing individuals on a team and still have performance problems.

People must learn to work together and understand how to relate to one another – otherwise the team's output will be less than it could be.


We're assuming here that your team has a well-defined direction as well as the resources and support needed to achieve its goals. If these needs are not met, then you should build a solid team foundation before you start coaching for improved performance.

Understand Team Dynamics

A great place to start team coaching is by understanding the dynamics of the team. This is the process of figuring out how team members relate to one another. We all have different styles of working and communicating, and when we encounter a person with a style that's different from our own, we can often get frustrated with that person, and fail to recognize his or her unique strengths.

Some people can be "pushier" than others. A pushy person may think everything is going great – however, her teammates might have a different perspective. If one person walks away from conflict, and another speaks his mind and doesn't back down from an argument, this can lead to poor decision-making and unproductive work.

Personality and behavior assessments are great tools for improving a team's understanding of its own dynamics, and they give team members a better understanding of why they react to their colleagues in certain ways. This new understanding helps them think about how they can relate to one another more effectively, at the same time that it breeds tolerance by helping people understand that different approaches may be valid in different situations.

Myers-Briggs   is an excellent tool for uncovering individual patterns in things such as communication and conflict resolution. You can also use 360-degree feedback   to help people better understand themselves.

As a coach, your role is to bring team members together to discuss their individual profiles and help them find ways to work together. For example, if Sally knows that George is shy, she'll have a better appreciation for why he prefers to do tasks independently. Rather than assume he's just not interested in working with her, Sally can focus instead on finding ways to relate to George on his terms. Likewise, when George realizes that social acceptance is important to Sally, he can make an effort to be more friendly and interested in what she's doing.

With a greater level of understanding, team members begin to see one another differently. This allows them to adjust their own behavior for better results, and they're able to interpret others' behavior with more insight and empathy.

Establish Behavior Expectations

Understanding other people's perspectives is a great way to improve relationships with them. However, teams still need to follow ground rules so they can accomplish their goals. For example, you may know that Harold prefers to avoid conflict, however, you can't really accept that from him if you also expect him to provide expert opinions that may not match the general consensus.

This is why developing a clear set of behavior and communication expectations is an important aspect of team coaching. The expectations help to build empathy and understanding, and ensure that individual preferences aren't given more importance than team objectives.

A great way to formalize these expectations is with a team charter  . In a charter or "contract," you outline a set of behavior rules that everyone is expected to follow and support. Treating everyone with respect, offering opinions when needed, and talking directly to a person when you feel wronged – these are all examples of ground rules that a team can use.

Taking this one step further, you can also define processes for team members to follow to meet the expectations. For example, a conflict resolution process would define the steps to take when one team member feels offended by another. Typically, the process would state that the offended person first speaks with the offender before going to a supervisor.

Likewise, if expressing opinions is an issue, then you might use the Stepladder Technique   to encourage individual participation. These types of rules and processes help build trust among colleagues and create a more unified team.

Evaluate Reward and Recognition Systems

Quite often, people have competing values, and these create a major obstacle to team unity and effectiveness. For example, it's not uncommon for an organization to promote teamwork, but still reward individual behavior. When this happens, you can naturally expect problems with team members who give personal reward a higher priority than team performance.

With cross-functional teams, departmental or business unit loyalties often get in the way of effective teamwork. When team members have personal goals that don't match team goals, this can lead to "secret," hidden behavior. As a team leader and coach, your role is to identify the sources of competing values – and find ways to fix them.

For details on structuring reward systems that align individual performance with strategic objectives, see Performance Management and KPIs   and Management by Objectives  .

Support Individual Development

Finally, be supportive of individual development. Team members may need help to learn new skills, so that they can meet team expectations and follow supporting processes. Each person has a different level of readiness to take the steps necessary to change. As a team coach, be sensitive to those differences, and find resources to support each person's development goals.

In addition to arranging individual coaching where possible, find ways in everyday work situations to coach people. Give feedback regularly, help set individual performance goals, follow up with training opportunities, and model great team behaviors yourself.

Key Points

Coaching to improve team performance can need different approaches for different teams and different people. What works for one team may not necessarily work for another.

Effective working relationships are built by understanding team members' needs, preferences, and styles of work. By helping people understand their own styles and appreciate the different styles of others, you can work with them to change their behaviors and use everyone's strengths.

The process of improving team performance takes time, and it may involve looking deeper than team processes. Organizational systems – such as reward and recognition, performance management, and training – may need to be addressed as well.

However, the end result of this work is usually well worth it; improved collaboration and communication will benefit the organization as whole.

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Comments (13)
  • yann wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Don,
    I recently used Belbin roles as a warm-up for such a team development day. The advantage of Belbin is it is simple, allows plenty of dialogue and the roles are easy to remember and relate to for future reference.

    Whichever psychometric test you choose, the key is to get the team to do something with it and regularly refer to it. In itself the test has only limited value. As Yolande suggested, doing some team building exercise that builds on the test results is a good way to start. Then moving on to business objectives and how the different types of players you have in the team can contribute to those business objectives.

    Good luck.

  • dp7622 wrote Over a month ago
    I like the idea of doing some psychometric testing and determining if any of these people has a latent preference or interest in leadership. The two people that left were the natural leader type so there was absolutely no need or room, for anyone else to adopt a leadership role. Great suggestions and thanks for getting me thinking in this direction. I was thinking all was lost and they had to find a leader for the team but developing one is a much better way to go. Funny how one can get so tunnel visioned by first impressions.

    MBTI and DiSC are probably top of the list. Any opinions on which one would flesh out leadership aptitude better?

  • colinscowen wrote Over a month ago
    Have a couple of questions.
    Although they may have been hired for their expertise, I am guessing that they were not all hired recently. So, have you asked any of them if they are interested in developing leadership skills?

    Also, do you have any MBTI data about them? I remember that there was one type, I think it was INTJ but I'm not sure, who would step up to lead if there was no one doing it and they thought it needed doing. Might be they are just waiting to see what happens.

  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Don,
    Sounds like a bit of a tough place to be in, taking on a leadership role yet as an outside consultant.

    If I were in your shoes, I'd be tempted to get the team together and see about mutually agreeing targets and task. And then do this on a weekly basis. Perhaps each one of the team could be given the responsibility to lead the meeting and then ensure follow up minutes are done.

    Although that doesn't solve the problem of having a leader amongst the group, perhaps as a team effort they can pull together and work together more efficiently.

    Good luck!
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Don

    This sure is an interesting situation and not at all an uncommon one. I have often seen very talented people with a total lack of people skills; to add to that, it isn't the easiest thing in the world to learn people skills because usually the "bad habits" come over years and is ingrained in the fabric of a person's personality. But by that I don't mean that people can't change - they will simply have to put in a lot of effort to get it done. I don't know if you are in a situation where you can either a DISC test or brain profiles on the individuals concerned. If I was in a position to use either of those two indicators in such a situation, I would make sure that I use the person/people who has the highest preference for working with people to bring the team members together (and usually those types of people are also quite creative in how they bring people together.) This may sound very simplistic, but how about a low-budget but high-return type of team building afternoon? Or even a Saturday morning? This could actually be shaped around their DISC results or brain profiles if you were able to make use of such instruments.

    Kind regards
  • dp7622 wrote Over a month ago
    Hi everyone - team dynamics is an issue plaguing one of my clients. They have a group of wonderfully talented individuals who do great work but the trouble is they were all hired based mostly on expertise not people skills or the ability to fit into the established team. Recently a few of the people who were able to keep peace and coordinate everyone left - one went to another company and another one retired. So what's happening now is a lot of friction and a sense of feeling lost. Fro economic reasons the company is choosing not to replace the two people who left but rather have other people add a few more things to their list of responsibilities. That might be contributing to the problem a bit but business has really slowed so no one is feeling overworked at this point.

    I'm struggling with how to help this team move forward. Do you think you can coach people take on a leadership role in the team even if they don't have a natural ability to bring people together? At this point I'm basically taking on a team leader role as an outside consultant. These people clearly need someone to lead them but no one is up for the task. It's the oddest thing to work with such a talented bunch and yet see no leader in sight. Any insights or suggestions are greatly appreciated.
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Your raise a good point about dumping previous baggage on a new manager. It is a tough call - do you tell all or let them find out for themselves?

    I think there is a balance where they can be informed that there is some history there, yet still leaving them room to be open and deal with the employees as they see fit. Hopefully, they can file away the information about the past in the back of their minds, and start with a clean slate (perhaps with their antenna a bit sharper) and keep a keen eye on things.

    This can be applied not just to a new manager taking reponsibility for a team, but also between individuals. My rule of thumb is ... how is this person being with me? Rather than make a judgement on their past history with someone else.

  • dp7622 wrote Over a month ago
    Your comment about making sure not to "throw them under the bus" is really right on. I've had people want to dump all the previous baggage onto new managers and what it does is create toxicity right from the start. And preconceived notions have a way of turning into reality because you end up treating people based on your expectations of them rather than the reality of the situation. Good for you for recognizing that and still having a candid conversation.

    Hope this new arrangement can turn things around for you.

  • pw6string wrote Over a month ago
    Oh yes, I had a very candid discussion with the new manager as soon as he was announced. Made sure not to throw them under the bus, but explain the tension that has been there in the past from both sides.

    I don't know what the motivation is for their conflict, at this point I am just trying to use it as a motivator to excel in our customer service so there is no way there can be a legitimate complaint. Te rest will work itself out.
  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    ... that's disappointing that they would react with more conflict when you try to get them involved. What do you think their motivators are? That might be an interesting area to explore???

    Hopefully a new manager on the scene will temper things a bit. Have you had a chance to open the lines of communication with this new manager and let him/her know what's up in terms of your work and impact? I'm thinking that is an important conversation to have sooner rather than later, especially with the history of negative emails and other potential sabotage efforts that seem to be going on.

    Keep us posted.

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