I’m flipping the sporting adage of ‘Go for the ball, not the man’ on its head for a reason:

When observing a team in action, it’s tempting to get caught up in the immediate issue—the ball in play. Whether it’s a disagreement, a problem, or a challenge, it demands attention. As an external coach, you might feel compelled to step in, either to help the team reach consensus or to address dysfunctional behaviours that are surfacing. You might even feel obliged to intervene if the team’s leader isn’t handling the situation well.

But here’s the thing: fixing today’s issue isn’t your primary role as a coach. Your initial focus should be on understanding the team dynamics—how its members behave and interact. The ‘ball’ they’re chasing is just the current manifestation of deeper issues, and it’s not yours to claim.

When coaching a dysfunctional leadership team as an external team coach, your approach needs to be strategic and nuanced, with a strong focus on the individuals involved. Here are some key tips to keep in mind:

1. Gain Insight Before Taking Action:
Before diving into coaching, take time to observe and understand the team dynamics, organisational culture, and specific challenges they face. Conduct interviews, surveys, or assessments to gather insights from team members and stakeholders.

2. Build Trust and Rapport:
Establish trust with the team members by demonstrating confidentiality, empathy, and a non-judgmental attitude. Build rapport by showing genuine interest in their concerns and aspirations.

3. Clarify Roles and Expectations:
Define the scope of your coaching engagement clearly, including your role, objectives, and expected outcomes.

4. Look for Systemic Issues:
Look beyond individual behaviours and address systemic issues that contribute to dysfunction within the team. Explore factors such as organisational structure, processes, communication channels, and leadership styles.

5. Create a Safe Space for Dialogue:
Create a safe and confidential space for team members to discuss sensitive issues openly. Encourage honest and respectful communication, and facilitate constructive dialogue to address underlying conflicts or tensions.

6. Promote Accountability and Ownership:
Encourage team members to take ownership of their actions and their impact on the team. Foster a culture of accountability where individuals hold themselves and each other accountable for meeting commitments and driving results.

7. Facilitate Collaboration and Alignment:
Help the team identify shared goals and values that unite them, and to facilitate discussions to align their efforts towards common objectives. Promote collaboration and synergy by leveraging individual strengths and fostering teamwork.

8. Coach Interpersonal and Leadership Skills:
Provide targeted coaching to develop interpersonal and leadership skills and competencies among team members. Focus on areas such as communication, conflict resolution, decision-making, delegation, and emotional intelligence. Such coaching can be done in a team setting and on an individual basis.

9. Offer Feedback and Support:
Provide regular feedback to the team and individual team members on their progress and areas for improvement.

10. Monitor Progress and Adjust:
Continuously monitor the team’s progress and adjust your coaching approach as needed. Be flexible and adaptive in response to emerging team interaction issues or changing circumstances, and celebrate milestones and achievements along the way.

Providing team coaching for a dysfunctional team is very challenging and requires a high level of coaching competencies and a cool head, when the team’s discussion may be very heated. But remember that your focus is “the man” i.e. the team, and not “the ball” that happens to be their current challenge.

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