Moving from “I” to “We”
26th May 2020 | Sharath Burla
How a relationship-based group coaching model can improve performance.
As a salesperson and subsequent sales leader with more than two decades of experience, on-the-job learning has provided me with valuable insights and business management skills. However, given the rapidly evolving business environment, I realised the need to embark upon a continuous learning path. On learning about the SAP Master’s programme, I was fascinated by the uniqueness of the program – identify the work challenge, put into practice the tools and framework learnt in the module, critically reflect and write up your learning and takeaways from the field research – and knew that this was my last opportunity to develop a growth mindset and further improve my practice.
The motivation was also in direct consequence with the atmosphere at DXC, where I passionately wanted to implement a group coaching program. Reflecting upon my previous coaching experiences, I realised that we coached people only when they did something wrong or when the situation demanded to work with difficult employees. As (Grant, 2017) states: these coaching approaches are more of “command and control” prevalent in the 1990s during the first generation of workplace coaching. While the former is true, I strongly believe that coaching moments do exist when things go well. In fact, the more coaching you do when things go well, the more “right” things will happen. Success invariably begets success.
I was therefore concerned by this lack of coaching mindset within my organisation. And I was convinced that, rather than telling my team on “how to achieve their targets”, an understanding of “what is preventing them from achieving their targets” would affect the positive behaviour change that each coach foresees.
The merger of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Services (HPES) with Computer Science Corporation (CSC) to form DXC Technology (DXC) has been complex, chaotic and culturally challenging. These issues and team dysfunctions within my business units were creating a lot of dissonance and irritation among our customers. These ranged from multiple channels of communication, disrupted KPIs across teams, misalignment in customer engagement models, not setting clear expectations, to disjointed selling processes. The post-merger environment at DXC has also given rise to a lot of anxiety among employees who feel disconnected from the larger organisation. They are scared that they might lose their positions despite good performance, worry about themselves and are incredibly cautious at every step.
I discovered that empowering the coachees to challenge the cultural barriers proved to be far more effective than conformism.
In an attempt to find a solution, I provided evidence of successes by implementing process changes that brought the common goal forward. The teams performed well under this approach, and we also made our numbers. However, such process changes proved insufficient under the post-merger pressure. Process changes made employees follow the new structure in a robotic manner which demanded the need for directive leadership and was therefore not sustainable.
While brainstorming potential solutions, I realized that individuals were still lacking a sense of clarity and self-awareness. I realised that if we could realign our objectives and problems as a common problem, understand that “my problem” is “our problem”, then we’d be able to achieve this sense of clarity, be self-aware and ensure sustainability. We would be able to win what we want to win and do well not only for ourselves but also for the larger organisation. In response, I wished to devise a non-directive coaching methodology to harness the collective intelligence of groups and create a mindset of deep democracy within them: a mindset where individuals move from “you and I” to “our and we”.
My literature review critically looked at all dimensions of group coaching, ranging from the approach, goal-setting, intervention methodology, cultural considerations to the social purpose of coaching. I concluded that the ideal approach that would help me do justice to my objectives was a blend of the systemic approach, the behavioural approach and the socio-constructivist model. I would define the goal of my coaching process as a means of relationship building, personality development and self-awareness. Or in other words, a state of psychological well-being. I was delighted to have found excellent resources on coaching in intercultural environments and would love to adopt the COF™ framework to understand the cultural orientations of all individuals in the group and later subject it to critical reflection.
I intentionally selected coachees from a mix of nationality/cultural backgrounds, seniority, previous organisation ties and location. As a part of my larger aim, this diversity was a key criterion since I have, in my own experience, found these parameters to influence the broader behaviour of an individual. For example, I have seen that family value systems play a crucial role in an employee’s motivation and work ethic; employees over and above a certain age have a strong resistance towards change because of familial responsibilities. Ethnicity and nationality can also play a crucial role in how an employee conducts him/herself and employees coming from different organisations can perceive my motive and actions differently. Such findings, therefore, mandated me to explore these implications in-depth and brainstorm ethnographic themes to understand my coachee in the best possible manner. Research also suggested that while recording and analysing ethnographic data it is imperative that the ethnographer identifies categories, themes and key issues that emerge from the data (Angrosino, 2011a). For the list of coachees selected for the research, see Figure 1.
I decided to use surveys, questionnaires, F2F interviews, group interventions and feedback systems as my primary instruments. This encompasses “observation” and “interviews”. For archival research, on the other hand, I decided to discuss coachee history and general conduct with the HR department and also tried to collect as much information as possible from fellow employees and clients whom the coachee had previously worked with. In my view, these instruments would provide me with a reliable tool to create ethnographic snapshots of my coachee and triangulate my findings with for veracity (see Figure 2). I also decided to simultaneously record a variety of field notes during, as well as at the end of, each intervention/interview. In these notes, I note with as much detail as possible the contents of the coaching session and add my reflection points.
My main research questions were:
- What are the toxins that are blocking individuals and teams from sharing information?
- How to break silos within the organisation and transform the mindset of each individual from “I” to “We”?
- How to help my salespeople be aware of bottlenecks across the sales value chain and then work cohesively?
- How do I develop a sense of deep democracy1 among my salespeople?
I held the first coaching intervention immediately after an annual sales kick-off meeting which was attended by most of the coachees. Governed by the GROUP sequence of interventions, my main agenda for the meeting was to initiate the understanding phase. I wanted everyone to match expectations, know why they were a part of the sessions, and provide narratives about their contributions, expectations and where they wanted others to contribute.
I started the session by investing a few minutes in the coaching agreement as well as the rules and goals of the coaching session. Next, I planned a circular seating arrangement and opened the floor for everyone to provide their narratives one at a time. However, this wasn’t an easy task. I soon realised that there was silence in the room and despite the confidentiality agreements, the coachees didn’t open up. This put me off.
At this point, I decided to lead by example and prompted them with leading questions. I witnessed the comfort levels rise as some of them started to open up while the others from CSC and more reserved cultural backgrounds – Japan, Thailand2 – remained quiet. However, the momentum rose steadily and took the shape of candid narratives from each.
Political tensions and strong personalities were quick to surface. Soon we realised that everybody misunderstood each other. Coachees were not fully aware of others’ contributions, responsibilities and bottlenecks. The blame game had begun: for example, coachees from the sales team blaming those from delivery for not achieving targets, while the delivery team was blaming the sales team for giving unreasonable timelines.
I continued to probe the narratives and lastly shifted to exploring options/next steps on how we could lift ourselves together as a group. With the negatives expressed, I was glad that my probing on the next steps made them change perspectives and empathise rather than blame. They realised that they must better themselves and support each other as a unified entity. While some coachees from CSC remained suspicious, a sense of team spirit, direction, purpose and objective began to take shape. The entire session lasted for about three to three-and-a-half hours.
I observed a very strong delineation between the extroverts and introverts within the group. I realised that culture and language play a big barrier when people express themselves, as those not comfortable with English found it difficult to speak up in the face of the imposing, extroverted personalities. I felt that such vocal personalities became unspoken leaders in the group and felt that they are contributing to the team’s growth/division’s growth while the silent doers or achievers felt left out. I sensed the need to enhance the overall cohesion in the group and providing a balance by welcoming the marriage of extroverts “selling their vision of the future” and the introverts tempering the discussion with thoughtful analysis. This could help members of the team understand each other, increase their tolerance, dissipate any incorrect assumptions and offer better insights towards the behaviour of others that they wouldn’t otherwise make an effort to do. In the end, this could help me advance the whole group as one entity: Together we win, individually we lose.
1 Deep democracy is an attitude that focuses on the awareness of voices that are both central and marginal. This type of awareness can be focused on groups, organizations and one’s own inner experiences. By allowing oneself to take seriously seemingly unimportant events and feelings we can often bring unexpected solutions within both groups as well as our inner conflicts. Deep Democracy Explained [Online]. Deep Democracy Institute. Available: https://www.deepdemocracyinstitute.org/deep-democracy-explained.html [Accessed].
2 Japanese and Thai people are known to be reserved and introvert when it comes to communication with superiors/outsiders. They relate direct answers being rude to people and respect hierarchies.
Margin Improvements meeting
I held my next coaching intervention as a part of a series of sales margin improvement meetings. The agenda of the meeting was to address the drop in net margins over recent sales deals made by the company. Given the merger and restructuring, a herd mentality to look good on paper and safeguard jobs had set in. Both HPE and CSC executives had been selling deals at very slim margins. I viewed this low margin deal closing mentality as the perfect agenda for my coaching intervention and had all coachees dial in, discuss the issue and find a sense of direction.
After a few minutes of deliberating and giving them the larger business picture, the coachees came up with a total of 30 – 40 scenarios that could erode the current low margin deals in the pipeline. I felt that they started putting their skin in the game and joined hands with each other. Relationships were building, and “one voice” was coming up. For example – coachees from sales offered to help the delivery team by pushing for change requests on their behalf, while coachees from the pre-sales team agreed to help architect such change scenarios.
Following the anticipation cycle, I subjected them to the strategising and actions cycle by asking them to discuss the best way forward. I encouraged them to reflect introspectively and to think of solutions from a systemic perspective. They understood the challenges involved and started to arrive at collective solutions. The win-win was established. The session ended on an excellent note with each participant feeling engaged and a part of the larger organisational goal.
On completing this session, I noticed that I needed to approach my coaching sessions with an open mind and not be stuck with my ideas. I needed to release my agenda and understand my colleagues’ agenda. Making my coachees feel included in a conversation and matching expectations could help stimulate responses from them. Moreover, I needed to remind myself that the purpose of coaching is not about delivering expert advice but making the coachees feel that they are being coached rather than being told what to do (Ives, 2008). As such, I decided that I would be conscious of providing space for change, hope and optimism for all subsequent coaching sessions. I was also delighted to find the introvert group coming up with solid ideas and not just silently listening. This reinforced my learning from (Kline, 2009) who states: “When people have stopped speaking [it] does not mean they have stopped thinking.”
I planned my third intervention at the Tokyo office with my Japanese coachees physically present while others had dialled in. My experience in this session was particularly significant since my top performer and coachee in Japan was slowly losing his commitment and slipping his numbers. He expressed insecurity and had started to undermine himself in front of other coachees on the call. This left me completely surprised since he had been one of my top performers over the years. I tried in my best efforts to raise his confidence, but the attempt was in vain.
At the end of the call, I was left astonished by his behaviour and pressed for a face-to-face session with him. I adopted an interview approach for this meeting where our conversation grew “logically out of observation” (Angrosino, 2007). I enquired what was happening and reminded him of his best days. He quickly expressed that he was getting very anxious since his boss was sacked and he was assigned under a new boss who was from CSC rather than HPE. He said that he was in fear of losing his job as well and could no longer work with the same commitment as before.
I for one always knew that Japanese are known to be introverts, but the fact that my leading performer did not share this with me earlier, left me stunned. Although rooted in their culture to not bother the manager, I felt that the aspect of not sharing/seeking help defeated my idea of relationship building. Nonetheless, with immense empathy, I continued to probe him with questions and tried to explore ways to bring back his confidence and provide support if required.
I observed that none of the other coachees on the call grasped the lack of confidence expressed by the Japanese leader. They did not realise how an individual’s lack of confidence brought down the confidence of the entire team in Japan which made them slip numbers. This got me thinking, and I certainly wanted to explore relationship building in the virtual world as another research topic.
For now, I realised how important it is for me as a coach to have informal conversations with my coachees where they drop their guard and provide me with their complete reality. Further, my objective as a coach should strongly focus on the need to understand what goes on in the lives and minds of my coachees and help them maintain a balance between the personal and professional fronts.
The final coaching intervention was at Shanghai where we gathered for a multi-day workshop. Since several coachees under my research were also present I found it to be an opportune time to conduct the intervention. This intervention was interesting for many reasons since it was only two to three weeks before I was leaving DXC.
Towards the end of the session, I briefed them regarding my intention to leave DXC, which highjacked the session and left them stunned. Learning about this development, they felt emotionally betrayed. After four such interventions, they had accepted me as a pillar of psychological support and thought that they had the right to know about my intention much before this day. They now became anxious yet again regarding the next steps of the coaching sessions and their future at DXC. The intervention, hence, took an informal turn where my coachees wanted to spend as much time possible discussing personal issues and knowing about my next steps.
Probably the biggest learning that came from this intervention was for me to retain an optimistic frame of mind. I realised that thinking negatively about the body language of my coachees made me emotionally stressed; a positive mindset helped me visualise the bigger picture and think of alternatives as to why they were behaving in a certain way. I discovered that in such situations, controlling my emotion is key. Moreover, it is also my duty as a coach to make my coachees feel psychologically safe and allow them to describe their version of the story. It is only by walking in their shoes that we can come to a shared goal.
I arrived at four key overarching themes which governed my group coaching programme.
Trust and integrity
Trust and integrity came out as a significant theme throughout the sessions. Coachees expressed a great need to develop lasting relationships with peers and regain the confidence of our clients. Open narratives helped each coachee understand each other’s challenges and responsibilities. One of my coachees from Japan expressed it like this: “I know I’m not the only one that struggles with this, but hearing others talk in the session through their challenges, reminds me I am not alone.” This very sense of trust and integrity as reflected in his response collectively motivated everyone to support and solve issues as a team.
Taking action to improve
Reviewing and revisiting the answers generated as a part of the management action cycle, I feel that many participants were able to critically anticipate challenges, strategies and take collective action towards amendment. Their motivation to improve themselves was visible. For example, they readily realised what was wrong with lower-margin deals and immediately put their experience to test by generating an array of solutions to alleviate adverse effects on business performance.
A coachee from China said, “Just knowing that others in the group are working on their action steps and moving forward with their goals inspired me to keep taking action.”
The response is evidence of how highly effective teams have clarity of their collective purpose and cohesion that in turn drives high performance. Hence, peer pressure, in certain situations, is indeed good. Further evidence on taking action was provided by my coachee from India, reflecting upon the positive effects of peer pressure and how it enabled him to reach his goal.
“I have been working to achieve higher productivity for more than five years, and after joining this group coaching session, I was able to reach the goal in the first six months.”
The creation of a strong sense of self-awareness was the primary objective of my group coaching sessions., I was delighted to see the words “learned” and “clarity” that supported this theme as summed up in the following feedback from my coachee from Singapore: “I gained a lot of useful ideas and learned many useful tools to apply back at the workplace. I am now able to think with clarity to take on my day to day activities at work.”
Coachees also expressed that they had now started to view their challenges critically subjecting them to the management action cycle while arriving at an appropriate solution. The “anticipation” cycle proved to be a big asset for them. It allowed them to map their challenges from the best to worst outcomes. This awareness brought significant improvement in team collaboration as they now also realised the need to subject deals to a stringent qualification process. They were now aware and understood each other’s responsibilities, roadblocks and in this very process were able to address the factors which prevented them from collaborating seamlessly – eg, disjointed communication channels, lack of expectation mapping.
Feedback from my coachee from Thailand read: “Sharath’s coaching sessions created a safe learning environment with respect for all cultures. I am now able to better connect and communicate with my larger teams that have quickly resulted in superior performance. My confidence today is at an all-time high, and I wish to keep this going and will look forward to more such interventions in the future.”
Seeing this aspect of intercultural awareness come out as a theme in my dataset provided great satisfaction as I faced a lot of highs and lows over this aspect during my coaching interventions. Contrary to my belief that my coachees would have overcome cultural/hierarchical issues given their long working relationship, I was surprised to find out that this wasn’t true. By the end of the sessions, however, I was pleased to have addressed this issue and witness willingness in my coachees to respect all cultures, overcome hierarchical bounds, share their challenges and build trust.
I discovered that the answers to my research questions revolved around four key themes which promote collective success: trust and integrity, taking action to improve, self-awareness and cultural awareness. By asking my coachees to share their experiences in safe environment3, we identified the power and cultural barriers that inadvertently created silos and blocked individuals from sharing information. Coachees quickly realised that they were not the only ones feeling anxious at work; almost everyone felt the same. A strong sense of empathy took shape, and they were able to identify the misalignments in KPIs and individual/team bottlenecks.
Deep diving into the research by carrying out interventions over relevant business topics at DXC, I discovered that initiating the Management Action Cycle (MAC) bolstered team cohesiveness by providing them with a simple way to interact successfully. By probing them to anticipate, strategise and execute together as a team, the MAC proved to be a catalyst for initial learning and enabled them to think differently. A strong sense of democracy developed within them and they were now growing out of all barriers that prevented seamless collaboration.
The biggest recommendation from my research is on the approach and management of a group coaching programme.
I realised that having an outcome-based mindset is more important than the intentions, format or plan of the intervention. As group coaches, we must understand that it is vital for the coach to set direction, lead the team towards the end objectives and create a safe zone where they can interact freely. Coaching frameworks like the GROUP model are no doubt conducive for the coach to navigate these challenges, but we must realise that these are not binding. It is only through scanning their participants, their cultures and values that the coach should analyse the applicability of these models that enable the desired outcomes.
Further, I discovered that in a group setting the coach should be aware that every individual is in their own “la la land” – as I put it – which makes it imperative for the coach to have a strong understanding of the group-dynamics or group-based dialogue process. (Brown and Grant, 2010) put forth this idea stating that “in the same way that dyadic coaching required the coach to be able to develop a good individual rapport with the coachee, group coaching required good rapport at the group level, and an understanding of group dynamics is essential for this to occur.”
I discovered the immense power in informal interventions, as people dropped their guards and narrated candid accounts of the problems they are facing. Reminding myself of the words from (Kline, 2009) – “place is a key component to create a thinking environment” – I would advise all group coachees to frame their interventions in a manner that sets the right mood, energy, and mental space to think well and feel better. Allow them to vent out all their concerns, and then you will see the magic happen.
Collaborating in a virtual world
Conducting my interventions over phone/video calls, I realised that there is an urgent need for research to find ways achieve successful collaboration when dealing with geographically separated teams. [Editor’s note: This has become even more urgent under the COVID-19 crisis.)
The questions in my mind are straightforward:
- What is the common glue to success in this scenario?
- What is the most critical factor – the weakest link to failure and the strongest link to success?
- What does it take for offices to be outcome-based/thrive in a virtual world?
Directing the reader to my reflections from the Tokyo session, I found the virtual setting to be a significant impediment to results. I’m not saying that we do not achieve it, but that the process is tedious, lacks speed of delivery and often leads to misunderstood expectations.
However, as we progress towards a digital economy, this virtual reality needs to be accepted and enhanced. For example, providing a solid background to individuals overseas, maintaining an agenda documentation, and encouraging powerless communication4 are the few things, which I feel can offer successful collaboration in this setting.
3 Safe environment – The confidentiality agreement gave all individuals the strength to share personal and sometimes discomforting information with each other.
4 Powerless communication – a communication style governed by asking questions, signalling vulnerability and seeking advice. Grant advises that this style reduces ego tensions, helps you gather more information and make effective sales/negotiations. GRANT, A. 2014. Give and take: a revolutionary approach to success, London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
My next recommendation for a group coach is to avoid the “hero mentality” – ie, don’t try and do everything by yourself. Judging by my responsibilities at DXC combined with the coaching sessions, I realise that I should have hired a third-party consultant to help me during the interventions. As an insider, emotions played a big role in certain situations as I got carried away by my own assumptions and failed to bring in a mature judgement. Seeking external advice and finding the balance between your day job and coaching commitments can, therefore, be worthwhile for a coach while they attempt to scale up their sessions.
I also bring forward the idea of creating a balance between the coachees. To recap, my coaching sessions gave me a first-hand experience of how introverts and extroverts can affect collaboration. Being mindful of such behaviour-based domination must, therefore, be a critical component for the group coach. I realised that the extroverts fall into a false sense of dominance – a feeling that they are contributing, but actually are not – while the introverts fail to provide their story – which in most cases is very thoughtful and engaging. For example, the vocal coaches never delivered on promises while the less vocal coachees always did. Given this, I would like to advise all group coaches to understand what goes on in the coachee’s mind, not overlook the personal side of any challenges, be mindful of the contributors, dissipate all incorrect assumptions among the team and encourage overall group benefits.
Self-awareness: the Management Action Cycle
An ancillary to creating the balance is to use appropriate tools to cultivate self-awareness. The idea here is to empower the coachees to seek their answers. They should not feel like they are being directed. During my interventions, the management action cycle was one such tool. I advise coaches to implement it in their future sessions.
My last recommendation relates to multicultural coaching. Intentionally selecting my coachees from a mix of different cultures allowed me to understand the effect of cultural orientations on individual behaviour: for example, when I discovered that some coachees viewed hierarchical differences as barriers to communication while others did not.
I firmly believe that for a leader to thrive in a multicultural environment, the coach cannot depend upon/assume the coachee’s cultural awareness. He/she must make it their responsibility to create this awareness and foster the flexibility which makes the coachees realise these differences. Moreover, he/she must also outline the cultural and hierarchical background of each while setting the stage for collective growth.
By adopting a stance of integration and criticality from (Shoukry and Cox, 2018), I discovered that empowering the coachees to challenge the cultural barriers proved to be far more effective than conformism. Doing so helped them establish their own set of working cultures and feel responsible for the group’s success. They were now not only accepting of the differences but also rectifying the detrimental cultural orientations that prevent team cohesiveness.