The Team Coaching Challenge 2

This is the second of my posts on the challenges of Team Coaching. In this post I will be exploring some of the issues relating to confidentiality and setting objectives. These issues are closely linked to the first post on this topic relating to defining the defining the client(s).


Confidentiality is a vitally important area to negotiate in a conventional one to one coaching relationship but it becomes much more complex in an environment in which there are multiple relationships, involving not only multiple coachees at different levels and different disciplines, but also potentially several coaches in a coaching team. The key challenge, as it is with regard to defining the client, is about achieving clarity around expectations and obligations.

As a coach in a team environment your coachees are going to talk about their relationships with the other individuals in the organisation that you are coaching. Where there are tensions in these relationships the picture that the coachee paints will, of course, be drawn from their, probably one-sided, perspective on the relationship. In effect the coachee will invite the coach to sympathise with their situation and agree that the difficulties they face are due to the attitudes and failings of their colleagues. If the coach falls into this trap and strays beyond empathy into sympathy he/she is likely to encounter real problems when they then meet the individual(s) concerned and find that their perspective is very different.

This is of course no different from a straightforward coaching relationship in which the coach has to remain impartial and objective but if the coach does accidentally stray over the line from empathy to sympathy it is possible to address the situation in later sessions. In a team setting in which the coach could be perceived to be ‘taking sides’ it is much more problematic to find a way out of the situation.

I have found understanding the victim – persecutor – rescuer triangle very helpful in dealing with these dilemmas. Understanding this model has helped me to be conscious of the dangers of the coach playing the rescuer to the coachee’s victim and thereby making another player in the drama the persecutor.

I have also found this a useful model to use explicitly with coachees, both in one to one and team settings, to help people to understand how they limit their scope to act by positioning themselves at different points of the triangle. I have also found it helpful in enabling coachees to appreciate how they engage in counter-productive behavioural loops by moving from one point to another.

I have found that encouraging people to engage in less blaming activity and instead focus more on the concept of collective responsibility, because all of the players create the play that is subsequently acted out, can help people to start to become conscious of their own impact on situations they wish to change.

I have also found in managing confidentiality issues that it is a good basic rule not to refer to the specific content of individual coaching sessions to anyone else in the organisation although it is generally necessary, and in many cases essential, that coachees are able to surface key themes arising from the coaching conversations. In the early stages of a team coaching engagement it is essential that the coach(es) are able to establish and build trust as this is the foundation on which the whole process is built. Later on it may be possible for the coach to refer to information which would have been off limits earlier, in order to move situations forward, eg information which the coach knows by that stage is common knowledge in the organisation, but this is a difficult judgement call.

One further practical aspect of confidentiality that should be mentioned is the protection of the organisation’s confidentiality with regard to intellectual property, takeover plans, new product launches etc. This is relevant in both individual and team coaching but is likely to be a more sensitive issue in a team coaching setting as the coach will have more opportunity to connect pieces of information that are disclosed to him/her by the individuals he/she is working with, to build a possibly unintended insight into corporate strategy. You may want to set up confidentiality guidelines up front to ensure the client and organisational privacy.

Setting Objectives

The complex issues surrounding defining the client and agreeing a contract of confidentiality feed into similar challenges when setting objectives for a team coaching programme. Some or all of the points below could impact on the situation: –

  • Multiple clients are likely to have a range of objectives which could well be contradictory
  • What is presented as the objective or driver of the programme could well mask a less obvious and possibly more subtle need related to culture or organisational change
  • The most powerful or influential people in the established hierarchy are likely to be the most persuasive in setting the agenda, but may not, in fact are unlikely, to fairly represent the views of everyone who could be affected

As an example on a recent team coaching programme the objective, as presented by the Executive Team at the beginning of the Programme, was to develop the capability of the management team who are responsible for operational control of the business and report in to the Executive Team. However as the project developed it became obvious that the real issue that needed to be addressed in the organisation was that a major rift between the two most influential members of the Executive Team was causing confusion, factional ‘guerrilla’  warfare and low morale amongst the management team. At what we judged to be an appropriate point my colleague and I fed this back to the Executive Team to persuade them to face up to the real issue (as we perceived it). Only at this point were we able to make progress with the management team as a team, although we had made significant progress with some individuals. So the end product of the programme was that by helping the Executive Team to address issues of conflict we got the management team to the point where they were ready to engage proactively in capability development. In effect getting them by the end of the Programme to what was supposed to be its starting point.

We were introduced to the organisation by the newest member of the Executive Team who defined the original brief, although in hindsight he may have intended my colleague and me to uncover the ‘real’ issue even if he felt he couldn’t be explicit about it at that stage. That may be us reading too much into the situation although I think ‘nothing is as simple as is it seems’ is a good guiding principle, especially at the beginning of a coaching relationship.

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