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Article: Group Coaching – Extending Growth Opportunity Beyond Individual Coaching

MMS Founder
MMS Nafees Butt

Article originally posted on InfoQ. Visit InfoQ

Key Takeaways

  • The most common modality in coaching today is individual coaching. Group coaching, i.e. a coaching relationship between these individuals, is an approach that hasn’t become mainstream as of yet.
  • Group coaching uses relationship system intelligence, that builds on top of emotional intelligence and social intelligence, to help groups/teams realise their untapped potential.
  • Focusing on relationship instead of the individual, trusting the group’s ability to self-heal and a heightened psychological safety needs are some of the building blocks of group coaching.
  • Coaches need to acquire additional skills and experiences to be able to effectively tap into the benefits of group coaching.
  • Helping teams grow into productive and amazing teams via group coaching, by focusing on the relationship between the individuals, is the next frontier of coaching.

There are so many groups and teams out there that could be much more productive if they tapped into the relationship side of things and worked on becoming a better team before working on the problems they are solving. Group coaching is a skill growing in popularity over the last few years. It is getting a lot of traction for coaching senior executive leadership teams or for coaching situations that pay attention to relationships and interconnection among the members of a group.

In this article I provide an introduction to group coaching and explain how it is different from individual coaching. I shed light on the benefits of using group coaching, skills that coaches would need and the challenges they would face, based on my experience. I briefly touch on an example scenario using one of the group coaching techniques and describe the context in which such a technique can be used.

With this article on group coaching, I aim to pique your interest and attract more coaches; aspiring to join the coaching ranks or already well versed in individual coaching, to venture into the world of group coaching. It is my hope that as a collective, we can extend the growth opportunity from individuals to groups/teams and help them grow into productive and amazing teams, making this world a better place.

Group vs Individual Coaching

Let’s start by looking at group coaching in comparison to individual coaching. The most important difference between individual and group coaching is what they focus on. Coaching individuals is powerful in its own right and has its place, though in complex relationships and systems there is a lot that is not specific to one individual, but how the individuals interact with each other and the intangible relationships between the individuals. Group coaching focuses on that intangible relationship between the individuals.

Take the example of a deterministics mechanical system where a group of components are combined together to perform a function bigger than what each component can perform. When something is not right with the mechanical system, the problem can be tracked down to how each individual component is working or at the exact interface between two components. The components don’t have emotions; they don’t behave differently based on their cultural upbringing, or what side of the bed they woke up that morning. There is no ego, no hidden agendas, no career ambitions, no hierarchy of roles, gender/religious/other stereotypes.

Humans and the systems/relationships humans form in organisations or in personal life have all of these and more. Humans are not deterministic, i.e., given the same input they don’t produce the same outputs. The interaction between them is affected by all of the factors mentioned above. Practically speaking this creates another entity between the individuals that is unique to that group. An entity that is intangible but it is embodiment of the relationship between the individuals of that group. The group coaching focuses on that intangible entity between the individuals.

Building Blocks

The basis of group coaching, to be able to comprehend and to practise it, lies on a few building blocks. First, as a coach since our focus is on the relationship and interactions between the individuals, we don’t coach individuals in separate sessions. Instead, we bring them together as the group/team that they are part of and coach the entire group. Anything said by one member of the team is heard by everyone right there and then.

The second building block is holding the mirror to the intangible entity mentioned above. To be accurate, holding the mirror is not a new skill for proponents of individual coaching, but it takes a significantly different approach in group coaching and has a more pronounced impact here. Holding the mirror here means picking up the intangibles and making the implicit explicit, for example, sensing the mood in the room, or reading the body language, drop/increase in energy, head nods, smiles, drop in shoulders, emotions etc. and playing back to the room your observation (sans judgement obviously). Making the intangibles explicit is an important step in group coaching – name it to tame it, if you will.

The third building block is the believing and trusting in the group system that it is intelligent and self-healing. It builds on the second building block mentioned above that once the intangibles are made explicit, we trust in the ability of the group system to use that information to heal itself and move/grow from that position to another. As coaches, we don’t steer that in a direction of our liking, but trust that whatever direction that it takes is the right next natural progression for the third entity.

The fourth and last building block is the heightened psychological safety needs. While having psychological safety is an important ingredient in individual coaching, its significance shoots through the roof in group coaching. Since there are multiple people in the group being coached and each individual brings their sensitivity to roles, hierarchies and stereotypes etc, it naturally may not lead to a psychologically safe environment. Group coaching, therefore, requires extra care to not only establish a working agreement at the start to create a safe environment for all participants, but also to maintain it throughout the coaching engagement as well. This building block is foundational in nature, as other building blocks rely on this to be present for them to function.

Challenges

Learning how to coach groups isn’t a trivial matter. The first challenge that coaches would face, from my experience, is defining the boundaries of what constitutes a system (and who the members in that system are). Take an example of a 50-person strong marketing department. Since decisions are made by the three senior leadership team members of the department, are those three people the system itself? Or should a dozen-odd handpicked people from the department be considered the system? How about coaching all 50 people together as a system? Unfortunately, there is no one correct answer here. It depends on the coaching problem at hand and the context. Even though coaching 50 people (or more) as a group together seems scary and unrealistic, there are techniques and skills of group coaching that make it possible, and in fact very worthwhile.

Another important thing to keep in mind is that as a coach, group coaching demands increased self-awareness and the ability to work with ambiguity, letting go and trusting the system’s ability of self-healing more than ever before. An individual human is complex in itself; bringing a group of individuals together increases the complexity exponentially. The possible permutations of what can happen in such interactions is hardly predictable. Creating and keeping the space psychologically safe makes things even more interesting. As a coach, getting comfortable with the complexity and ambiguity to the point that these thoughts are not distracting you from focusing on the coachees, comes with experience and practice. I recommend practising with coaching dojos and setting up a community of practice around it with fellow practitioners. If you are already working with a team, try one of the techniques from group coaching (e.g. LandsWork) with that team with their consent and build your coaching muscle and confidence along the way.

Skills Needed

Though these challenges are real and the learning curve is steep, it’s not an insurmountable journey. Before diving deep into relationship or group coaching, my recommendation is to ensure proficiency in coaching competencies (for example from ICF Core Competencies) as a first port of call. Oftentimes I have seen people use “coaching” to describe mentoring and/or teaching. The Agile Coach Competency Framework from Lyssa Adkins and Michael Spayd is also worth looking at if you are in the world of agile coaching. With prerequisites covered, the additional skill required by coaches to work with teams and relationships is Relationship System Intelligence (RSI), which is different from emotional and social intelligence.

Emotional Intelligence (EQ) teaches us self-awareness and an understanding of our emotional state/response etc. Social Intelligence (SI), on the other hand, teaches us the ability to understand and act on the feelings, thoughts, and behaviours of other people. The RSI, the final frontier if you will, builds on top of EQ and SI and adds the ability to understand the emotional experience of the intangible entity that I have mentioned earlier. Having the RSI means that as a coach, you have the ability to see past the individuals and see the intangible entity, the system itself. You pay attention to all voices in the system, even the unpopular ones. You are able to read the emotional climate of the system/team and are able to play it back without judgement. There is a lot more that can be added here, but the above is a very decent start and would get you going with coaching groups, teams and relationships.

Benefits

As briefly alluded to earlier, individual coaching has its benefits and its place, but group coaching offers benefits above and beyond individual coaching. There are two main drivers here.

Firstly, humans behave differently in different systems/teams. A person labelled as laid-back (read lazy) at work can be the driving force in another context. An extremely obsessed person at work can be the most easy going person among their mates. Therefore, it is important that apart from the individuals, enough attention is paid to the interactions between the individuals as well. This is the intangible entity between the individuals that I mentioned earlier.

Secondly, many of us have experienced being in an amazing team and we know that none of those teams were that amazing the day they were formed. Rather, these teams have worked hard to become amazing.

Let’s combine these two drivers together and we are looking at teams/groups full of unrealised potential. These teams can get a lot better in terms of how they are working together as a system and how productive they are. In a world of increasing complexity and high innovation demands, there is little additional reason we need to suggest that working on teams as a whole has its benefits. Please note that the team here can be the senior executive leadership team of an organisation, a team of developers working on a product, siblings in a family business or any other group of people forming a system. The more complex the relationship, the more likely it is dependent on the interactions between the individuals then the individuals themselves.

Group Coaching Scenario: Lack of Alignment

Let’s look at a group coaching scenario -a  lack of alignment. As odd as it sounds, it is a common symptom in many groups/teams. Alignment is one of the fundamental aspects of a team and a lack of alignment will affect all facets of a team’s working; from individual mindsets to team culture, and from individual actions to team policies and structures. In such teams, even trivial things can become a multi–way tug of war, where each team member is rooting for their own goals and has their own reasons.

The problem is only aggravated if we zoom out of the individual teams and look at teams at the organisation level, e.g. team of teams, business units as teams, executive leadership teams, etc. A quick look at the state of agile report would tell us that even though “lack of alignment” isn’t quoted as a one of the challenges directly, it is a factor in more than a few of the challenges mentioned. Clashing cultures, inconsistent processes and resistance to change are the top three challenges in the report, and all three unfortunately stem from lack of alignment. The untapped potential and low rate of successes, either at the team level or the organisation level, is what makes pursuing alignment so important and coaching groups for alignment the tool that you need as a coach in this day and age.

Group Coaching Technique: Landswork

LandsWork is a group coaching technique that helps teams (product team, executive leadership team, etc.) create alignment when there are different opinions and perspectives on any topic. It comes from the organisation and relationship system coaching (ORSC) body of knowledge. The idea of the LandsWork is to use physical space, travelling metaphor and principles of relationship system intelligence to raise the awareness of the participants on the topic that the team isn’t aligned on. The system that emerges, from the raised level of awareness of all the participants, builds the alignment needed. It is a facilitated workshop that can be run with a team/system of any kind either in person or remotely. Examples are, a product delivery team of 7 people discussing a pair-programming approach, a 30-member strong middle management of an organisation discussing best investment amidst recent budget cuts, or the 12-person executive leadership team discussing life after the merger of the two organisations.

I ran a simulation workshop based on LandsWork at Lean Agile Scotland 2022 to demonstrate the technique in practice. In this workshop, the participants role played one of the three roles: change agents, sponsors, and members of the organisation. I started with creating a social agreement to ensure a psychologically safe environment and as an enabler to hear all opinions, no matter how unusual.

First, I divided the floor space into three sections, one for each role and asked participants to go to their section and imagine this is the land that they belong to. I extended the land metaphor by asking people to think about the climate, terrain and traditions of the land and then share that with everyone. Next, I asked each group to visit the other land as a visitor and experience the climate, terrain and traditions of the land they are visiting. I asked them to travel without any baggage from their own land so that they could truly experience the land that they were visiting without preconceived notions holding them back. Once everyone visited everyone else’s land, I asked all participants to move to a new area in the room and create a new, shared, land for all of them. I asked them to use the experiences of visiting all the individual lands to enrich the new shared land with empathy and understanding of others’ point of view. Lastly, from that shared land, participants were able to create action items to bridge the gap in alignment.

The participants saw the use of social agreement, physical space, the use of metaphors and facilitation as helping them see the perspective of other people in the system. Since they participated in the role play, they experienced the effectiveness first hand and left the room eager to explore more about group coaching.

Further Information

For those of us more geared towards reading books, the work of Amy Mindell and Arnold Mindell is worth looking at if you want to explore the topic further. The resource section of the CRR website is full of useful content as well and should be bookmarked. Additionally, look for a meetup group (for example the ORSC Australia Community meetup group) that runs simulations, dojos or discusses/practices topics around group coaching. Lastly, if you are interested in dipping your toes into it all guns blazing, in-person training options are also available from CRR in your region.

In today’s complex world, coaching has become a mainstream approach for individuals to seek growth. The group coaching has expanded the vistas of possibilities and has provided us, the coaches, with the ability to realise the unfulfilled potential in groups. Despite the additional challenges, complexity and the need to acquire knowledge & experience to excel at group coaching, the benefits far outweigh the effort and is a journey worth taking. I find group coaching fascinating and being a journeyman myself, I would recommend all the coaches out there to explore it. If you do, please reach out, share your experiences and let’s learn from each other and do our part in helping this world create awesome and productive teams/groups.

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