Here at the-Coaching Blog-run by Gerard O’Donovan, our aim is to constantly bring value to those seeking to improve their lives. Therefore we have a policy of publishing articles and materials by guest authors whom we value and appreciate. Today’s guest author is Noomi Melchior Natan (UK).
What is the one thing you should always have a front of mind when you are coaching a team? For me, it’s remembering that even though everyone might show up in their suits, clean-shaven with their professional facial expressions that don’t give much away in terms of true feelings, everyone is first and foremost a human being. And that means that, even in a work scenario, even if it is the top team meeting in a conference room, everyone in the team has basic human needs that will play out.
In this article, I will share with you how what I learned from training in Family and Organisational Constellations made me a much more efficient team coach and consultant. In fact, this knowledge, although it might seem basic, has helped me untie knots in relationship dynamics that normal talking therapy or conversations about “ground rules” could never have solved.
Let me start with a personal story. A few years ago, I found myself in an embarrassing situation. I was sitting in a grey metal conference chair when it dawned on me. I was one of those “difficult” participants I hated as a coach. I was reprimanding my fellow teammates for not doing things the “right way”, I had no patience for their questions and I kept trying to show everyone how much I knew. Although I really wanted the learning, it was like I had cotton wool in my ears. I could not hear a word of what the leader said.
I did not get it. Here I was on a course that I really wanted to be on. I had stretched financially beyond what was comfortable and I had been jumping for joy about being part of this community. So why was I acting out?
To understand this we have to remember that as human beings, we are wired to want to belong. Belonging to a group or a tribe is one of our primary human needs because it guarantees our survival. And if you think back to old tribal societies you will know how important it is, not just to belong, but also to be in the “right place”. Traditionally, the strong will defend the tribe, the weaker will be protected. Being in the place that fits your strengths is essential, not just for you, but for the well being of the whole tribe.
So let’s return to me sitting angry and embarrassed in that conference chair. What prevented me from engaging in a productive way? See I was by far the most experienced in the subject matter of the group. So on the continuum of expert knowledge – I was the ranking in the hierarchy (not including the teacher). Most of the others were complete novices. At the same time, I was by far the youngest in the group. So on the continuum of age – I was the lowest ranking. That meant I was simultaneously the “weakest” and the “strongest” in the hierarchy and that made it hard for me to find my place in the group.
Thankfully the leader of my course was experienced in Family Constellations and saw how I struggled with finding the right place. She did something that sounds simple but really shifted my behavior and feelings. At an appropriate moment, she publicly acknowledged my experience and professional study in this field in front of the whole group. Once she did that I could relax and focus. I no longer had to fight to get others to see how much I knew. My age can be told by looking at my face. But my knowledge and experience can’t. If this had been back in the old tribal days what I was doing was fighting for my survival and the respect that befitted my experience. This is still our driving force as humans, although mostly completely unconsciously.
When everyone feels like they have found their right place in a group, team or organization it is like order is restored and, rather than fighting to be seen, people can focus on participating in a useful way.
So as a coach it is essential you understand the multi-dimensions of hierarchy. Our job as coaches is first and foremost to help everyone find the right place in the team. Unless you do this first, ground rules written on flipchart paper will be worthless as soon as the team day is over, the conversations about how to communicate better will mean nothing because unconscious power games will still be playing out as people are fighting for their place.
When I get called in to work with a high-level team, the first thing I do is to make the multi-dimensional hierarchy visible. First, I get the team to line up in a circle – 12 noon is the position of the leader or the ranking member of the hierarchy. Then the rest organize themselves clock-wise in a circle so that the “lowest ranking” stands at 11 o’clock. I ask the team to stand in the order of the length of time served on the team or in the organization. Very often the person who has been with the team the longest might be the lowest ranking in terms of the official organizational hierarchy.
Then I get them to line up in a circle in terms of age. Age is a taboo in our society, but it is just a fact that those that are older have lived more days. Then a line-up in terms of experience in a relevant subject matter (e.g. years of sales experience) or time spent in their industry (e.g. years in FMCG).
For each circle line up, I check to see how every person feels in their place. Ask them what they notice about their own place and about others. How do they feel standing in ranking places and “lower” in the circle? Does it change how they see others? And lastly, I get them to line up in the circle according to the official organizational hierarchy.
This circle exercise brings up lots of feelings for people. Most people will have many places in the circle. E.g. the official leader, might be the newest person in the team, and so lowest ranking in terms of time with the team. Once you complete it people see each other differently and feel different. It’s subtle but powerful. It settles the energy in the team and allows the real team coaching to begin.
When you notice someone in a team that seems to be “fighting to be seen”, seeking attention as they are trying to say: See me, see me, do what my program leader did. Our natural inclination will be to ignore the person. But just like a child that gets ignored gets louder and more annoying, so do adults.
So instead, see if you can figure out what they need to be acknowledged for. It might be their experience or extensive knowledge on a topic or it might be the personal sacrifice they are making to be present. Then when you find a suitable moment, publicly say – if you don’t already know, you might really find it useful to listen to what Susan has to say because although she is new in our team she has been working in PR with top companies for 17 years so we can learn a lot from her.
Then – just like me in on that course – the loud person can concentrate on being a productive team member.
About Noomi Melchior Natan
Noomi Melchior Natan is an internationally experienced Executive Coach and Constellation. For the past decade, she has coached leaders in more than 15 different countries on how to stop fire fighting and reduce overwhelm, so they can make better decisions that are good for both people and profits. She has facilitated large leadership development programs and worked with leaders across most sectors including organizations housing some of the world’s most loved brands. She is also the creator of the virtual training course Constellations for Organisational Change and Leadership
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