A Coaching Power Tool Created by Anne Lise Saint Gerand
(Business Coach, GERMANY)
In today’s corporate world, constant change is the new normal. Yet very little is offered to truly accompany employees through change. HR may have shared resources. Training is organized that may result in short-term excitement with no long-term value neither for the employee nor for the company.
The roles of a manager/Leader are not described other than in hard skills: Deliver is the keyword. Delivery is key… from two different perspectives: the “what” and the “how”.
This power tool looks at the “how”: i.e. soft skills crucial to create a functioning team. While important in “normal times”, it becomes critical in times of uncertainty and change.
When looking at the literature on team engagement, creating a safe space is core to achieving team performance. The team members need to feel respected, included, valued as well as adequately challenged thanks to a good level of good stress coming from good friction…
Wait a minute… does it sound like a paradox? Safe and Friction for performance!
I have a passion for paradoxical statements and will expose how these two extremes could merge for synergy. A power tool playing on a fine line, a sword with two edges!
The first key factor to allow creativity is to build a safe space. The team members need to feel free to express their craziest ideas without the fear to be judged. The safe space encompasses the manager leader, the team, each team member, as well as their mutual relationships.
When this first “building block” is established, the team can move forward. The team dynamics can flow. These dynamics will at all times drive forwards based on the positive traction from cooperation/collaboration. Yet best performance needs creativity and creativity
to be fully expressed requires diversity: individuals that do not agree, that debate, and argue to finally come to a much better solution than what would have been individually achieved.
This dual need of moving forward, saving energy (cooperation), and creating sparks of creativity coming from diverse disagreeing minds seems in conflict. Let’s explore what a manager, leader, a coach can do to harness these energies and transform them into learning and action.
I joined my current employer at a time of integration, not only a period of change but of a complete reshuffle of the organization. This is always a critical moment in the life of a company, and troubled time for the staff is often overwhelmed by fear, work, and stress. Therefore, I was curious to understand how to build a performing team without exhaustion or, worse burnout.
I am drawn to the fine line between good stress, good friction. Does that mean that good conflict may exist?
Metaphorically, a team works like a machine. The machine requires oil to function effortlessly.
The oil in the machine: the safe space a.k.a psychological safety.
Psychological safety is an ingredient for creating a safe space.
According to Amy Edmondson, a leading Harvard Business School researcher, psychological safety “describes perceptions of the consequences of taking interpersonal risks in a particular context such as a workplace.”
Wikipedia develops this concept as follows:
Psychological safety is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. For the most part, this belief tends to be tacit-taken for granted and not given direct attention either by individuals or by the team as a whole. Although tacit beliefs about interpersonal norms are sometimes explicitly discussed in a team, they’re being made explicit does not alter the essence of team psychological safety. The construct has roots in the early research on organizational change, in which Schein and Bennis (1965) discussed the need to create psychological safety for individuals if they are to feel secure and capable of changing. Team psychological safety is not the same as group cohesiveness, as research has shown that cohesiveness can reduce willingness to disagree and challenge others’ views, such as in the phenomenon of groupthink (Janis, 1982), implying a lack of interpersonal risk-taking. The term is meant to suggest neither a careless sense of permissiveness, nor an unrelentingly positive effect but, rather, a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up. This confidence stems from mutual respect and trust among team members.
Psychological safety is being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status, or career (Kahn 1990, p. 708). It is “a condition in which you feel (1) included, (2) safe to learn, (3) safe to contribute, and (4) safe to challenge the status quo- all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished in some way.”(Timothy R Clark, 2019). It can also be defined as a shared belief that the team is safe
Psychological safety benefits organizations and teams in many different ways. The following are the most widely empirically supported consequences of a team being psychologically safe:
- Improves the likelihood that an attempted process innovation will be successful
- Increases amount members learn from mistakes
- Boosts employee engagement
- Improves team innovation
The spark (energy) in the system: Friction, but not Fire!
With the oil in the engine, the dynamic forward movement can start.
The Collins dictionary offers the following definition of Dynamics:
- The dynamics of a situation or group of people are the opposing forces within it that cause it to change.
- ...the dynamics of the social system.
- The interchange of ideas aids an understanding of family dynamics.
- Dynamics are forces, which produce power or movement.
- Scientists observe the same dynamics in fluids.
- Dynamics is the scientific study of motion, energy, and forces.
- His idea was to apply geometry to dynamics.
“Team dynamic is incredibly important to the success of a project but often overlooked and assumed that simply having talented team members is good enough. Forming teams is extremely difficult but it should be a conscious effort. Just putting skillsets together is not good enough because of personalities and people matter (Ryan Tom Linson)”.
Indeed the “how” does matter to transform a group of people into a functional team.
Yet without friction in the machine, there is no creative energy in the system.
“Friction between individuals and groups is typically thought of as something harmful…Creative abrasion recognizes the positive dimensions of friction, the requisite role it plays in making things go. Without it, engines would not work, a crucial source of heat and electricity would be eliminated…Recognizing, marking, and transforming pregnant moments”
Dorothy Leonard and Walter Swap define creative abrasion as the process by which “intellectually diverse people generate, vigorously debate, and ultimately implement ideas.” A creative abrasion is a form of constructive confrontation that is built into the organization by design. The friction created when competing ideas collide can produce “wonderful creative sparks” (Hirshberg).
Creative abrasion is a phrase coined by Jerry Hirshberg, founder, and president of Nissan Design International, and describes a culture where ideas are productively challenged. A concept that is all too often seen as dangerous by managers and naturally so. They see a clash of ideas as “conflict” and conflict results in an uneven keel that most managers feel they have to suppress. The opposite is true. Creating an environment of diversity where opposing approaches grate up against each other is greatly successful in fostering innovation. It forces people to truly evaluate their approach and decision-making.
“Perhaps one of the most popular advocates of creative abrasion was Steve Jobs. When creating the Apple Macintosh he handpicked a team of engineers and completely separated them from the rest of the business. The people he chose were intentionally diverse in their personalities. He hired poets, historians, musicians who also just happened to be great engineers. In doing so, he formed a team with conflicting cognitive biases, decision making, and problem-solving processes, and left/right brain thinking” (Ryan Tom Linson).
The cornerstone of a powerful manager/leader i.e. creating a safe space, exactly like in coaching, is the firm belief that the team is equipped to find the most suitable solution. The manager/leader must be convinced and accept that the collective intelligence of the team put in the right environment knows better than the leader does on his/ her own.
These concepts of dynamic movement and friction, apparently paradoxical, give a perspective on necessary steps to create a team atmosphere conducive to engagement and creativity, using psychological safety and diversity as the two main ingredients for the dynamics and forward movement.
Manufacturing the oil: create a safe spacea.k.a psychological safety
Imagine working in a machine/team with no oil, no lubrication, and the engine will overheat and explode.
Oil is psychological safety, a space to refill energy the way adapted to each of the team members (workout, meditation, time out, time for social interaction…).
Igniting the sparka.k.a friction (and not a devastating fire)
Yet creativity comes from the small friction that happens when meeting the difference of opinions in passionate people.
The art is to maintain the friction and not overheat into the full-blown fire: fire happens when the conflict becomes personal.
Friction is “euconflict” and leads to productivity, creativity when the surrounding space is safe
The analogy with stress and the difference between eustress (the good stress that motivates you) and bad stress is obvious. There is a similarly fine line between “euconflict” vs full-blown destructive conflict.
According to P.Skilton: Building on research that suggests a negative relationship between repeat collaboration and team creativity, we propose those team mental models developed in earlier projects are likely to interfere with the processes that constitute creative abrasion idea generation, disclosure/advocacy, and convergence. Suppression of these processes leads to less creative outcomes. We conclude by proposing that these negative effects can be mitigated by process and project charter interventions and by outsider entry into the project team.
In other words, a team to be creative needs to be at the edge of comfort, the stretch zone, and not in the comfort zone!
Questions that a manager can use to shape this zone of creativity:
- What are the team’s strengths?
- What is diversity applied to the team I am leading?
- How can I use diversity in the team to create an incubator for ideas?
- How can I celebrate the diversity of opinion?
- What do I need to resolve to avoid personal conflicts?
- What does it take to create and maintain a safe space in the team?
- What does it take to disagree respectfully?
- How can I create friction and stay away from stressful conflicts?
- How can I respond positively to challenge and not react to it personally?
Application in coaching
As coaches, we believe that the client is equipped with all he/she needs to find a solution suited for his/her environment. It is a partnership between the coach and the client.
Manufacturing the oil: creating a safe space
In the coaching relationship creating trust and intimacy, a safe space is also the core of the successful coaching relationship, the oil in the mechanism!
Updated ICF Core competency Model October 2019 reads under Foundation, Co-creating the Relationship
Cultivates Trust and Safety
Definition: partners with the client to create a safe, supportive environment that allows the client to share freely. Maintains a relationship of mutual respect and trust.
- Seeks to understand the client within their context which may include their identity, environment, experiences, values, and beliefs
- Demonstrates respect for the client’s identity, perceptions, style, and language and adapts one’s coaching to the client
- Acknowledges and respects the client’s unique talents, insights, and work in the coaching process
- Shows support, empathy, and concern for the client
- Acknowledges and supports the client’s expression of feelings, perceptions, concerns, beliefs, and suggestions
- Demonstrates openness and transparency as a way to display vulnerability and build trust with the client
Igniting the spark a.k.a the friction (and not a devastating fire)
Yet the safe environment alone will not move the client forward. To create a forward movement, the coach needs to leave his comfort zone and challenge the client outside of his/her comfort zone. A friendly relationship is not a coaching relationship
In the ICF competency, under “evokes Awareness”
Definition: Facilitates client insight and learning by using tools and techniques such as powerful questioning, silence, metaphor o,r analogy.
- Considers client experience when deciding what might be most useful
- Challenges the client as a way to evoke awareness or insights
- Asks questions about the client, such as their way of thinking, values, needs, wants, and beliefs.
- Asks questions that help the client explore beyond current thinking
- Invites the client to share more about their experience at the moment
- Notices what is working to enhance client progress
- Adjusts the coaching approach in response to the client’s needs
- Helps the client identify factors that influence current and future patterns of behavior, thinking, or emotion
- Invites the client to generate ideas about how they can move forward and what they are willing or able to do
- Supports the client in reframing perspectives
- Shares observations, insights, and feelings with attachment, that have the potential to create new learnings for the client
Similarly, the foundation is establishing a safe relationship and then challenge to meet client needs and create awareness learning and action.
The challenge enables us to go deeper where it is not always comfortable. The coach is not here to be liked! From that delicate friction, a spark is born.
The spark creates learning and action/commitments
The famous coaching flow consists of the right combination of oil and friction enabling the engine to reach its goal.
A friendship relationship is indeed not a coaching relationship, neither is a managerial relationship!
When I think of the subtle line between creating sparks and create a destructive fire on both leadership and coaching, I wonder about the small miracle to have space where we do not feel judged but respected. Creativity can then express itself, as differences will not be on the personal level, only targeted at the topic.
Why not celebrate the difference? This is diversity in action. It will transform friction into sparks.
ICA module: module diversity
With diversity come differences. With differences comes the opportunity for conflict and misunderstanding. However, while it is important to be aware of the difference and be flexible in our dealings with others, it’s important not to be overwhelmed by our differences. Celebrating difference means that we can maintain respect for diversity while still making connections around our shared human experience and minimizing the opportunities for conflict or misunderstanding.
Celebrate difference here means not only to accept it or to acknowledge it but also to look for it proactively when building teams or searching for the ideal client/ideal coach.
ICA module: reacting vs responding
And putting that little piece of sand.
The relationship must be professional and help the client move forward… create that little abrasion that help steam formation , helps creativity and transformation. This is the art of asking Powerful questions”.
Questions a coach can ask himself to ignite sparks and not a destructive fire.
- What makes me challenge the client?
- When is the right time to challenge the client?
- What makes me think that the client is ready for a challenging question?
- What is the energy level of my client?
- How did my client react/respond to the challenge?
- How do I maintain my self-awareness during the coaching session?
References and Further Reading
Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams: Amy Edmondson Harvard University
Wikipedia: Definition of Psychological Safety
Collins dictionary: definition of Dynamics
Creative abrasion: Why conflict is key to team cohesion
One Lesson from Steve Jobs We Missed – Embrace Conflict – Green Connections Radio
Skilton, Paul F., and Kevin J. Dooley. “The Effects of Repeat Collaboration on Creative Abrasion.” The Academy of Management Review, vol. 35, no. 1, 2010, pp. 118–134. JSTOR,www.jstor.org/stable/27760043.
Psychological Safety: A Prerequisite For High Performing Team
Updated ICF Core competency Model October 2019
What is coaching?
Reacting vs responding